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On a grand scale

This article has appeared previously with Equestrian Life. To see what's in the current issue, please click here.

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at WEG in 2014 © Michelle Terlato

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro at WEG in 2014.

© Michelle Terlato


By Kerry Mack

Regular readers will recall that the Training Scale provides a guide as to the qualities we want to keep in mind in our training: Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, Collection. These qualities are likely to be important in whatever you are training your horse for, whether it's an Olympic discipline or something else. 

There are a number of controversies in regards to the Training Scale. Firstly, “balance” is not explicitly mentioned except in the definition of collection. Some people think this is a weakness in the scale. However, the balance of the horse will improve if you train according to the scale. Personally, I think it is helpful to keep balance explicitly in your mind: improved balance is the end point of correct training for any discipline.

Secondly, there is some debate as to the order of the qualities. Star American showjumping coach, George Morris, puts impulsion first, as without impulsion you can't really have rhythm. However, the traditional order suggests that impulsion develops more as the level of training advances. This emphasis helps prevent riders getting horses to run on the forehand. You develop his capacity for impulsion by doing the transitions within the pace and insisting on correct rhythm.

Australian academic and trainer, Andrew McLean, has developed an alternative training scale which integrates some principles of learning theory, in particular the need to shape behaviour. His scale is:

  • BASIC ATTEMPT: You kick and he generally goes forward.
  • OBEDIENCE: You kick and he reliably goes forward.
  • RHYTHM: You kick and he goes forward with rhythm.
  • STRAIGHTNESS: You kick and he goes forward with rhythm and stays straight.
  • CONTACT: You kick and he goes forward with a light and even contact, rhythm and straightness.
  • PROOF: You kick and he does all the above, even if there are frightening distractions.

This scale has a lot of merit, as it helps riders keep the process of training in mind as well as the qualities we are training. However, for the rest of this article I will be referring to the traditional Training Scale.

So, how can you use the Training Scale when you ride? You apply it to anything you do in training to evaluate the quality of the work, and you work on improving these qualities as the training progresses. Let's take some examples. The transition from walk to trot is one of the simplest things we train. A good walk-to-trot transition will have the qualities of the Training Scale at a level appropriate to the age and training of the horse.

To check if our training has merit and is improving the horse, keep in mind the RHYTHM. Does the horse move from a true four-beat walk rhythm with a stable tempo directly into a correct two-beat trot? Or does he speed up the walk tempo before trotting, or worse, lose the regular four-beat walk rhythm before he actually trots? In this case he responds to the leg aid to go faster first, and may fall into the trot in an unbalanced way rather than keep his balance as he pushes with the hindleg into the trot.


Rhythm should also be maintained through the half pass © Roger Fitzhardinge

Rhythm should also be maintained through the half pass.

© Roger Fitzhardinge

Does he stay SUPPLE, stretch over the back and reach into the CONTACT correctly? Or does he throw himself shoulders first into trot, lifting his head and pulling or balancing on the rein incorrectly? Does he actively and with IMPULSION step into the trot willingly? Or is the transition laboured and lazy? Does he stay STRAIGHT in the transition or does he resist pushing with the hindleg by being crooked? Crookedness in a simple transition like this could reflect a lack of suppleness, or reluctance or inability to collect at an appropriate level.

David McKinnon & HV Her Highness showing superb straightness and balance © Franz and Toni Venhaus

David McKinnon & HV Her Highness showing superb straightness and balance.

© Franz and Toni Venhaus


In general, the up transitions are easier than the down transitions, as the latter require more balance. When going from canter to trot there is more likelihood of the horse losing his balance and running. By running, I mean his rhythm may be too fast in the first trot steps and the contact may increase as he pulls on the rein as his weight goes on to his front legs to balance himself. He may be crooked. There is maybe 500kg of horse with the momentum of canter speed, which has to be balanced into a slower speed and pace. Repeated training of the transition with a focus on the qualities of the Training Scale will improve the horse’s balance. He will learn to collect himself before and in the transition.
As the rider/trainer of your horse, you must prepare for the transition by asking that he slows down in the canter; you may lean back a little before the transition, putting weight back on his hindlegs and asking him to also put weight on them. You may use a small circle to get him to slow down and balance; if you keep him straight on the circle with his hindlegs following the front legs, he will have to get his hindlegs more under himself. The circle helps maintain SUPPLENESS. You pay attention to the CONTACT that he doesn't lean on the bit. Just use a small impulse on the rein rather than a continuous pull. If he leans on the rein, take and give with the rein to insist he stays in self-carriage. If he loses the rhythm and the canter becomes four-beat, you must send him forward a bit more to restore the rhythm, then ask again. This is very important. If you allow him to do the wrong thing, such as lose rhythm, you are in effect training him to do it wrong.  RHYTHM is the first quality on the Training Scale, so you must restore the rhythm any time it is lost. SUPPLENESS in this transition refers to the longitudinal suppleness: Can he get the hindleg reaching under him, and achieve lateral suppleness? Can he maintain the correct bending rather than lose the bend by pushing the shoulder to the inside to balance incorrectly? With training, the transition will develop rhythm, suppleness, correct contact and lightness, straightness, and impulsion with a higher, more cadenced and collected trot. His balance improves and he can stay in self-carriage through the transition.


. Brett Parbery and Furstin Friendship showing plenty of impulsion © Roger Fitzhardinge

Brett Parbery and Furstin Friendship showing plenty of impulsion.

© Roger Fitzhardinge


When you are training the higher-level movements, the principles remain the same. Can you leg-yield with constant rhythm? When you half-pass, does the rhythm remain the same in all the steps? A horse struggling with the balance and suppleness required in a correct half-pass will take shorter, quicker steps. He must learn to keep his balance, and so keep the rhythm the same as he trots into the half-pass. In training, if he speeds up or becomes irregular in the rhythm, or if he loses the suppleness by losing bend and flattening out his body, you should correct him, re-establish the correct rhythm and ask again until he finds a way to do it. You can help by returning to a small circle to get rhythm and suppleness (bending) or by going into shoulder-in to re-establish the rhythm and bending.  At a higher level again, when training piaffe you must keep the clear two-beat rhythm of the trot, and the reaching into the contact.

At any level of work the horse is likely to try to avoid collection and work (don't we all) by being crooked and putting the hindquarters to the inside or outside where they don't carry weight. So, if we are training collection but lose rhythm or straightness, or something lower on the Training Scale, we have to go back and restore what we have lost. This way the horse will slowly build capacity to collect correctly.

I have had the experience of thinking I had good straightness only to find when we got to one-tempi changes, piaffe and passage, he was not as even in both reins as I thought, and I had to go back to making him straighter and more even in both reins to be able to make the one-tempis straight.


Kerry Mack, pictured here riding her beautiful stallion Mayfield Pzazz © Michelle Terlato

Kerry Mack, pictured here riding her beautiful stallion Mayfield Pzazz.

© Michelle Terlato


Training is a continual process of review in terms of the quality of the work informed by the Training Scale. I hope you can see how you can use the Training Scale as a guide. Keep the qualities in mind; when you lose a quality you must try to restore it.




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