Using the Training Scale - In the Saddle and On the Ground!
A few years ago, I knew a nice lady with a horse. She struggled in her riding lessons with him, he would ignore her, run off, suddenly stop, disrespect her. I noticed that while she was on the ground with him, she didn’t buckle his halter, led him by the tip of the lead rope, and let him drag her around. These two situations are related. IN A HUGE WAY. And, the common denominator between ground behavior and under saddle behavior is the same thing - the TRAINING SCALE. The training scale is not just for dressage, it’s for ALL riding and it’s for ALL ground work.
I have asked FEI dressage trainer Nick Onoda to expand on all of this - to clarify the training scale and see how you can work on training your horse on the ground and in the saddle. Easy, right? Nick has a great clinic that he has taught in Germany, Norway, and upcoming in the US - Using the Training Scale To Solve Everyday Problems.
Nick is demonstrating...well...something.
Jumping right into the deep end of things - Nick outlines the history and basics of the training scale for us. “For me, academic riding theory is only as good, as it is practical. That is why the training scale is so important, it has proven itself over and over. It was first published in 1912 in a German cavalry training manual as a tool to train a horse and keep it healthy.“
The training scale tells us what judges are grading us on - it also tells our horses under saddle and on the ground what we expect of them. When you consistently set and stick to these boundaries, your horse knows the rules and your relationship with him can be safe and enjoyable.
Diving further into the training scale, Nick explains that “the training scale consists of Rhythm, Suppleness (Relaxation), Contact, Impulsion, Straightness and Collection. The key to using the training scale is to understanding that you cannot work on one element in isolation of the rest. Whenever a rider is on a horse and in motion, all elements are present and interrelated. “
Now we can look at each element individually. Starting at the basic level, Nick tells us that “rhythm is the only element that is black and white, it is either right or wrong. All other elements are always present in some degree. If your horse can move from a clean 4 beat walk, to a 2 beat trot, to a 3 beat canter and back down through the gaits, it means that you have achieved your first goal as a rider; to preserve the natural rhythm of the horse. Then it is time to roll up your sleeves and train your horse according to the training scale. “
You can help you horse learn and stay in rhythm while you are on the ground. Walk with purpose when you are leading him around the farm, and keep him so your body is between his head and shoulder. His attention is on you. He also walks with purpose in a four beat rhythm. When jogging your horse for the Veterinarian or a Judge at a show, he must stay at your shoulder and keep the two beat trot rhythm. (No hind leg toe dragging allowed.) This will compliment your work in the saddle and reinforce your relationship with your horse.
We move on to suppleness/relaxation as explained by Nick. “A supple horse is physically and mentally free from tension. This enables it to learn quickly and also its entire locomotion system can function at its peak. Rigidly held muscles do not make a coordinated horse. In fact, rigid muscles often over stress tendons and ligaments. Horses who lack suppleness in their back are often called 'leg movers' and are prone to breaking down. The opposite is a 'back mover' which is a dream to sit and uses its whole body to create forward movement. “
On the ground, your horse will look to you for leadership - you set the tone. Working with your horse while you are freaking out about work, being distracted on the phone, being afraid of your horse, or predicting his next spooks are all communicated to your very intuitive horse. Suppleness and relaxation are physical as well as mental, and inviting your horse to be relaxed around you by being relaxed and supple yourself helps on the ground and in the stirrups. No angry riding or handling allowed!! You should also use your daily horse inspection to make sure his muscles are not sore. Flinching or stepping away is a sign that he’s uncomfortable, and then you have some information about him - does his saddle fit correctly, is he working too much in a stressed state, does he have another issue in a leg that’s causing back soreness, are you tense and stressed around him?
Moving up the training scale we find contact. Nick adds, “Contact is defined as the constant, elastic connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. It is a great example of how all elements in the training scale are related. What ever you are feeling in your hand is a direct result of the other elements of the training scale in your horse’s body. “
Clearly this has nothing to do with ground work and your horse. WRONG. It does. Imagine walking down the path next to the paddocks and your horse is in front of you yanking to get back to the barn or diving to get some grass. Or, he’s turning his head left and right, or he falls behind you and you find yourself pulling him along. There is no constant and consistent contact, he’s moving all over the place, not paying attention to you, he’s lost his rhythm. It doesn’t make for happy (or safe) horse walking and it doesn’t make for happy riding either.
The top tiers of the training scale, while important to riding, are great places for you to do some investigating on the ground to make sure your horse is up to the riding task at hand.
For example, “Impulsion is the transfer of energetic impulses from the hindquarters into the overall forwards movement. It only exists in trot and canter, where there is a moment of suspension. When your horse has the right amount of impulsion, his stomach muscles will contract and his back will lift with every stride creating that soft bridge of muscle we all love to sit on.”
A great definition from Nick about Impulsion - but how do we look for it from the ground? A horse that is willing to go forward on the lunge line is one clue. Another clue is the horse that lifts his withers and spine when you scratch his belly - can’t have impulsion until that belly can lift! (You can have your Veterinarian or Equine Chiropractor show you how to do this if you are new to this.)
The next tier of the training scale is straightness - as Nick says, it “refers to the horses body being straight on straight lines and bent on bent lines, with the hind legs covering the tracks of the front legs. Straightness is extremely important to ensure that our horses are using their bodies symmetrically. Crooked horses often over stress one side of their body and end up with hoof irregularities and tendon injuries.”
As Grooms and caretakers of our horses, our daily horse inspections will start to show us any irregular hooves, strange tendons, and other signs of your horse’s body doing a wonky and crooked horse thing. Add that to any weird feelings you have in the contact and you now have valuable information for your trainer, Veterinarian, and Farrier. Do you notice that your horse over tracks his hoofprints on the right side but not the left? Or one of his hind legs steps out to the side? These are signs of crookedness and possibly a lameness.
The top of the training scales is collection. Nick sums this up easily “Collection is when the horse carries more weight on its haunches by advancing its hind legs underneath its center of gravity. Collection can only be trained by first building the pushing muscles of the hindquarters and slowly using those same muscles for a new task, carrying. “ You will typically only see collection on the ground when your horse has laminitis in the front legs (he will shift all weight to the hind legs) and when he's rearing (Note: This is not a trait of the well behaved horse when being handled. At liberty, it’s usually playful and often accompanied by punching the air with the raised front legs. You can give bonus points for that.) You may also notice that collection is apparent in the downward and upward transitions on the lunge. Does your horse fall in to the trot from canter? Or does he carry at that last moment and arrive in balance?
Nick has oodles of wisdom on the training scale and how it applies to you in the saddle. You can find him around San Diego giving lessons and clinics, and you can also learn more on his website. The next clinic is June 20 in Vista CA, where Nick will focus on problem solving in the saddle using the training scale. You can learn about the clinic here!
I have oodles of wisdom on the training scale and how it applies to you on the ground. If you are reading this you already know where to find me!