My interest in classical dressage started many years ago. It has been a long journey and one on which I am thankfully continuing. The path to knowledge, although proving a fascinating one with many twists and turns has also proven to be at times confusing and contradictory.
I soon realised that to train horses I really needed to understand the mechanics of training, the physiology of movement and the psychology of the mind. In this endeavour, with what I would like to call a fairly logical mind, I set out to find the A, B and C’s of training. I was searching for the dressage equivalent of the Holy Grail – a training system that would be clear and concise, applicable to every eventuality and that would stand me in good sted with every horse. In my naivety I thought I would find the one system, one training scale that every trainer followed.
Then the day dawned! As my knowledge increased and my experiences started to accumulate, I realised that there is no one path. In fact there are many paths, many ‘schools’ of training with various Masters talking about their training scales or strategies. I have actually taken this further to now believing that not only are there many roads that lead to Rome but there are indeed, in a dressage sense, many Romes.
As a way of illustrating my point I am going to briefly summarise two of these schools of thought. This article is not meant to suggest that one school is better or more correct than the other. I am merely demonstrating how different the so called scales of training can be.
My two examples are the German Scales of Training and the “Ecole de Legerete” or “School of Lightness” as presented by Philippe Karl who was a member of the famous school in France, the Cadre Noir.
The German Scales of Training:
I have used the Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation as a guide to the German training scale. The scale is a list of six aspects of training which are essentially followed in order. They are:
Most schools of thought agree with the use of lunging as the best preparation for the horse for his working career. The horse is introduced to the working environment and work started. The use of side reins in my first example of ‘school of thought’ is an integral part of working the horse. Before the rider even gets on, the horse has accepted to work forwards with activity around a circle path, to have a degree of contact and to be in rhythm.
The rider is then introduced onto the horse and his first main role is to establish a rhythm by maintaining a good, active forward tempo through simple curves and turns. This is achieved by the rider sending the horse crisply forwards to a soft receiving hand. Forwards does not mean speed but an active stepping forwards of the hind leg in order to propel the horse forwards – in other words engagement. The regularity or rhythm of the movement in all three paces is the primary objective at this point.
The essence of the term, which has no direct English translation, is that there is a freedom and relaxation to the way in which the horse moves combined with an absence of tension through the whole body. For the back to swing and a true rhythm to be established the horse must be supple, loose, have all of the joints working such that he can move forwards with good engagement.
The horse will appear relaxed, with an ease to his way of going. His back will undulate with a softness that allows the rider to sit and he should accept the bit with a closed mouth.
Frequent referrals are made about the ability of the horse to stretch forwards in numerous books that adhere to this training scale. The horse is encouraged to “chew the reins” from the riders hand as the horse stretches forwards out and down.
The Handbook talks about the contact in terms of a soft and elastic connection between the riders hand and the horse’s mouth. This connection between the hand and the mouth is created only from the developed energy coming from the hind quarters. The emphasis being that the reins only come into play following the use of the seat and the leg.
Another similarity in all of the old texts concerns the rein contact. All schools agree that there should never be a backward traction of the reins to promote a specific head set of the horse. All agree that this would be detrimental to the horse’s way of going. However the German thought is quite catagoric when it states that the horse moves forwards upon receipt of forward driving signals and reaches to the contact.
Again all schools agree that the horse should not use the rein like a fifth leg, i.e. he should not be allowed to lean on the rein and use it as a support.
The German scale is suggesting that by this point the horse is providing energy from behind through engagement. This energy is rippling through his body via the soft, swinging back and is being received in the mouth via the soft elastic contact. Because of this he flexes longitudinally at the poll, accepts the bit and is said to be on the bit. This situation therefore gives the rider the chance to influence the hind quarters via the reins.
The curvature and length of a horse’s neck must never be determined by the hand alone rather they only depend on the activity of the hind legs.
4. Schwung (impulsion):
The Handbook defines schwung as “the transmission of the energetic impulse created by the hind legs into the forward movement of the whole horse. An elastically swinging back is the necessary pre-condition.”
Impulsion is the next rung up the energy scale from engagement. The later being the active swing through of the hind leg. Impulsion adds to the already established factors of looseness through the body, the swinging back and the want to travel forwards. The hind leg snaps up off the ground with a forward reach, not just simply the hock snapping vertically up. The schwung will improve the action of the forelegs as it by definition moves the horse up and forwards with the weight being taken more back on the haunches.
Essentially schwung can realistically only happen in trot and canter due to the suspension phase of these two gait sequences. At any one point in walk the horse will have at least two if not three legs on the ground.
So far the scale has talked about relaxation, absence of tension in the horse’s body and then through the development of engagement and schwung energy is created. However this can only be fully utilised if the horse is pushing equally with both hind legs, i.e. that he is straight.
All horses are born crooked, just in the same way as humans are left or right handed. The trainer has to deal with this imbalance between the two sides of the horse’s body. Invariably the right hind is the weaker one of the two and steps to the right of the right foreleg. He also has to take into account the fact that the horse is wider through the hips than the shoulders.
In nature the horse normally pushes with the hind legs and uses the front legs for breaks and/or for support. In training this emphasis must be changed such that the hind legs carry more weight. This is achieved by the propulsive force being increased but the hand receives this and does not allow it to escape out to the front but rather it is returned to the hind legs. The horse must be straight and the result of the collection is a horse with more lowered and bent haunches.
By using this scale the trainer following this system is patiently working towards durchlassigkeit. This is the state where the aids go through the horse with ease, the horse is said to be permeable. This state has degrees of and is a constant aim for the trainer.
The scale, as shown by the diagram, has phases within it and is linked. It is not possible to focus on one specific aspect without it having an effect to another and to that end must not be looked at as a “shopping list” – items to be ticked off when achieved.
“Ecole de Legerete” – The School of Lightness:
This school of thought is presented and taught by Philippe Karl who was at the famous Cadre Noir in France for 13 years. The School of Lightness principles are clearly shown on Philippe Karl’s set of four videos entitled “Classical Dressage”.
The scale of training here is more based on a circular path with the aspects all being inter-related. At all times Philippe emphasises the respect to the horse and working with as minimal aids as possible. As you can see from the diagram there are three points which form a triangle around the respect to the horse centre aspect. These are relaxation (legerete to the hand), balance (legerete to the seat) and impulsion (legerete to the legs). These three points are related and are worked in unison. For example you cannot have relaxation if the horse is out of balance. However the number one of the triangle is the relaxation to the hand – you have nothing without the relaxation to the hand and this must come first.
These three points combined lead to the start of the circle of training with “Legerete”, or Lightness. From here the trainer works towards developing flexibility, defined as the ability to flex and bend left or right and to move the hind quarters. This is achieved by flexing and bending the young horse working towards suppleness. He suggests that nothing can be made supple by going forwards and straight, especially in side reins. As the diagram shows the training path is clockwise but there is a positive feedback shown by the dotted line going anti-clockwise. As the flexibility increases this will increase the lightness.
With the lightness and increased flexibility you can work on mobility and hence create straightness. The definition of straightness is not to go straight but a straight horse is one which has the same capacity to flex and bend on both sides. Then when he is supple and straight he will develop a good rhythm.
The increase to the mobility means that the horse has the want and ability to go. The impulsion (lightness to the legs), balance (lightness to the seat) and relaxation (lightness to the hand) means that he can go, halt, rein back and at this point collection starts. It is a gradual process and not one started on a singular day. This leads to cadence, i.e. the ability to stylise the gaits.
The circle is now complete. The collection gives rise to a horse that is lighter and the training continues. As each step proceeds it enables the rider to train the next step with positive feedback to the previous step.
Taking this into the working environment the young horse is lunged with no side reins, slow easy tempo gaining relaxation. He is worked on both reins with small voltes inducing flexibility. Then Philippe works the jaw with flexions in halt, creating lightness to the hand. Using a simple snaffle he talks through the various postures that allow him to encourage the horse to carry his neck but mainly soften and relax in the jaw. This must come before the give through the throatlash area. The horse is then moved laterally keeping the lightness to the hand, relaxation of the jaw. If at any time the horse loses this he is stopped, the jaw flexed and softened and the work continued. This is all done prior to a rider getting on. There are no big forward paces or side reins.
This work is then continued under the rider. The jaw is worked with subtle flexions, at times raising the neck to facilitate the horse carrying itself combined with the soft jaw. The voltes are used for the flexibility, lateral bend being added and lateral work commenced. The horse, through this work is now asked to yield in the poll.
Time is taken with this work. The tempo is steady, easy deliberate steps focusing at all times on maintaining the lightness and the balance. Only as the training progresses can the horse be moved into bigger gaits and be allowed to stretch down.
The descriptions of the two examples above are but a brief précis of the complete training system. It is intended to give a snapshot, a flavour of the scales of training. It is quite clear that there are some major differences in the thinking between the two.
The first point to pick up on is the placement of rhythm in both scales. In the German scale it appears first and through the young horse phase it is a prime concern. Their argument would be that without rhythm how can there be relaxation; no relaxation no swing through the body and suppleness cannot be achieved. Philippe would suggest that if a horse is not straight he cannot be balanced; no balance then how can you have rhythm. This is why he places rhythm much further on, preceding collection.
The creation of the contact combined with the relaxation to the hand is another interesting comparison. The German system would suggest that the contact is created by the horse being sent forwards with good engagement to a soft receiving hand, first on the lunge via the use of side reins and then under saddle to the riders hands. It is due to this that the horse releases through his body and gives his jaw and poll. Philippe Karl suggests that the hand mobilises the jaw from the very start of training, looking for the release through the jaw via subtle flexions. This is achieved without crisp forward engagement and the horse is then made supple by voltes and patterns - not side reins and straight line work.
The horse, in the German system, stretches through his body, reaches over his back and seeks the hand. This can and should feel light. It should not, as often mis-understood, be made from strong legs and heavy hands. However the feeling of a horse encouraged to be light via jaw flexions made by the hand, a neck carriage created without the energetic impulse from engagement will feel different. The optical impression these two methods give is also very interesting and clearly dissimilar. The term “throughness”, an article in itself, in both of these scenarios will feel quite different and this is why I now believe there are different Rome’s.
Sources of information:
1. “The Official Instruction Handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation” – printed by Threshold Books.
2. “Classical Dressage” with Philippe Karl - 4 part video series by TV Produktion, Thomas Vogel.
The “Scales of Training” diagram designed and drawn by Simon Battram.
The “Legerete” diagram drawn by Simon Battram, based on Philippe Karl’s organisation chart.