Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturdays with Suzanne: The Training Scale

The training scale

Back in the early 1970s, my Ukrainian trainer, who had been an officer in the German cavalry, taught the training scale. His father had actually been a direct student of the great James Fillis, who, at one point, taught the horse guard of Czar Nicholas in Russia.

The training scale originated in the early 1900s in the German cavalry, although the great masters before that undoubtedly practiced these principles without actually stating them in a scale or pyramid form.

My husband, Wolfgang May, a German Bereiter, also taught the training scale in exactly the same way. The German words, however, are much more descriptive. Unfortunately, when we try to translate each of them into one English word, a great deal of meaning is lost.

There are six main levels of the scale or pyramid; however, they are all inter-connected, include other aspects of training, and should be thought of as a checklist more than as ends in themselves.

Number one is rhythm, which includes an element of relaxation, although relaxation is not quite the correct word for what is desired. It is, however, the closest word we have in English. The horse must move forward with regularity. This steady rhythm allows the rider to begin shaping and molding the horse into the desired frame.

Number two is suppleness. We want the horse to bend around the inside leg evenly to both sides. Most often the horse bends more easily to one side than the other. This suppling not only requires the shortening and bending of the stiff side, but also the stretching of the soft side on which the horse tends to "collapse."

Number three is contact. Some contact is necessary for both numbers one and two of the training scale, but this is the stage during which the horse really comes "on the aids" due to the effects of performing numbers one and two correctly. The horse becomes not only soft in the hand in its lower jaw, but also gives evenly in the poll. Half-halts can then travel from the horse's mouth to its hind fetlock, thereby affecting balance and submission.

Numbers four and five are where there as been some debate. What we read these days is that number four is impulsion and number five is straightness. What I learned 40+ years ago and what was pointed out to me in actual German texts by both of my German-trained instructors, was that number four should be straightness and number five should be impulsion. This has been brought up and debated at USDF conventions.

To me it is just pure logic. Gone are the days when instructors could or should get by with explaining training methods or teaching as some kind of "dressage mystique". Everything about dressage is perfectly logical. It appeals to the math student in me, and the ability to "prove" a problem by working backwards from answer to question. Is it not logical that a crooked horse cannot move with true impulsion? If a horse is not even on both sides, can the stride be even on both sides? I have never heard a good (logical) explanation of how impulsion could come before straightness.

It is logical, however, that a horse cannot have impulsion without being straight, cannot be straight without being "on the aids", cannot be "on the aids" without being supple, and cannot be supple without steady, even, regular rhythm.

(Some of this confusion may be explained by a simplistic translation of Gustav Steinbrecht's (1808-1885) words in Das Gymnasium des Pferdes (posthumously published in 1886) in which he advocated riding a horse both "forward and straight". It was explained to me that he meant that a rider should continually straighten his horse while riding forward.)

Number six is collection. As before, it is logical that a horse cannot have a shorter, more elevated, frame and stride without impulsion. Collection is not slower. It is more animated and demonstrates the culmination of each and every step of the training scale or pyramid.

As stated earlier, all six steps work together, and while a rider may need to work on each individually at times, they should be thought of as a checklist, too, for each gait and each movement a horse and rider add on their wonderful dressage journey.

-- by Suzanne May

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