What Is The Dressage Training Pyramid?

If you’re participating in dressage, you are sure to frequently hear about the Dressage Pyramid or scale of training. This method of training was developed by the German cavalry in the early 1900s and translated from the original German, it is simply called the training scale. It was taken up by dressage trainers in Europe and the United States in the 1950s.

The original German manual (The German Training Scale) presented the principles associated with the goals for training a horse. This manual outlines a very detailed plan of training that includes the rules used for training a horse for military use. This manual is still in use worldwide by coaches, trainers and riders and makes up a part of the foundation of judging used in dressage competitions.

United States Dressage Federation Pyramid Of Training

The principles described within the Dressage Pyramid of training are as follows:

  1. The horse must become accustomed to the weight of the rider.
  2. Both relaxation and rhythm of the horse are of utmost importance.
  3. Contact along with the development of gaits and of thrust are major consideration.
  4. Focus on straightness.
  5. Focus on thoroughness by keeping your horse in the frame and on the bit.
  6. Work on your horse’s collection by focusing on the development of carrying power.
  7. Pay attention to origination of elevation.
  8. Follow standard rules for working frame.
  9. Understand and perform dressage frame, even if only for short periods of time.

Dressage Terms Explained

Dressage Terms Explained

Rhythm

This term is used to describe the correct sequence of footfalls and the timing involved in performing a pure walk, trot or canter. The horse’s rhythm must be expressed at a consistent and suitable tempo and with appropriate energy. While moving forward, the horse must stay balanced and exhibit self carriage that is appropriate to training level.

Relaxation

A relaxed horse is supple and elastic. Relaxation is a term that is primarily used to refer to the mental state of the horse. A horse is said to be relaxed when he is completely calm and shows no signs of nervousness or anxiety. This term can also refer to the horse’s physical state and is applied to an absence negative tension in the muscles.

A horse who is able to accept the rider’s influence without tension is said to be relaxed. When in this state of mind, your horse can develop supple, elastic muscle tone and a swinging back which facilitates the rider in bending the horse laterally and in instructing him to lengthen or shorten his frame.

Connection

Good connection is exhibited by your horse’s acceptance of your aids and of the bit. The energy your horse generates through his hindquarters and through correct response to driving aids should flow through his entire body and return to you through your hands.

Bit contact must be adjustable and elastic and create easy and reciprocal interaction between you and your horse. Your communication with your horse must result in the right changes in your horse’s outline.

When your horse has accepted the bit, you will be able to identify it because he will quietly chew the bit. Chewing activates salivation and keeps the mouth moist. When you see a horse chewing the bit and evidence of saliva, it means that the horse has accepted the bit. This results in the tongue moving softly beneath the bit and creates a very responsive level of balance and connection.

Impulsion

This term refers to the horse’s thrust and energy and describes a horse who is energetic, eager to perform and yet well-controlled. Your horse’s propulsive thrust should be generated from his hindquarters resulting in a controlled and athletic movement.

Correct impulsion is associated with the phases of suspension that exist in the trot and in the canter (not in the walk).

Your horse’s level of impulsion is measured by his evident desire to move forward with elasticity in his steps, suppleness in his back and full engagement of his hindquarters.

Good impulsion is needed to develop medium paces and extended paces (with proper collection).

Straightness

This term refers to proper balance and alignment. It is only natural for horses to be “crooked”. This means a horse may be stiff on one side and hollow on the other and may use his body in an asymmetric manner naturally.

This natural state of affairs causes rein contact to be uneven. This asymmetry can be corrected through gymnastic exercises which allow the horse to engage his hind legs in an even manner in preparation for proper collection. Exercises in straightness improve both longitudinal and lateral aspects of balance.

When the footfalls of both the forehand and of the hindquarters are correctly aligned on both curved and straight lines, and when your horse’s longitudinal axis falls in line with the curved or straight track upon which the horse is being ridden, he is said to be straight.

Collection

This term refers to the level of lightness of forehand, engagement and self carriage your horse manifests. When your horse is collected, he will lower and engage his hindquarters and shorten and narrow his base of support. This results in mobility, lightness and elevation of forehand.

The reason for this is that your horse’s center of mass shifts backwards and causes the horse to feel more “uphill”.

A collected horse has a raised, arched neck and a stretched top line. His steps will be shorter, cadenced and powerful.

Elevation

When the hindquarters are lowered, elevation is the result. It must be relative to the degree of lowering of the hindquarters (i.e. relative elevation).

If a horse’s neck is raised absent of the displacement of center of mass toward the rear, this is considered a training problem called absolute elevation.

Pervasive absolute elevation is damaging to a horse and can affect his way of going and even his health. Conversely, collection with relative elevation enhances your horse’s self carriage and facilitates enhanced response to leg aids, as well as a light seat and light handedness in the rider.

How Can You Make Use Of The Dressage Pyramid Of Training?

Every step of the training pyramid

Every step of the training pyramid can be used at each stage of your horse’s development. It’s important to understand that the training pyramid is intended as a frame of reference that will support you in making general progress and deepening your interactive development with your horse. Refer to the training pyramid on a regular basis throughout the course of working with your horse. It will help you to keep track of the progress you’re making.

In present day training of dressage horses, these principles are used as a basic platform to define the various steps that combine as crucial ingredients to the correct and proper training of horses from a very young age through maturity and advanced levels of performance.

Remember that all of the elements of the scale are interdependent. Pay attention to each of the principles to provide comprehensive training. The elements flow one to the other, and you must pay close attention to how your horse is progressing at each level. Don’t move forward from one level to the next until you and your horse are both proficient and ready to do so.

By taking your time and paying close attention to each of the principles, you will attain a level of thoroughness and of obedience that will lead to all around superb performance. By learning the principles of the Dressage Pyramid training method, your horse will learn how to carry more weight in his hind legs and to work in a very balanced, collected, calm and confident manner.

How Should You Progress?

How Should You Progress with dressage pyramid

During phase 1 of training, focus on relaxation and rhythm of the horse and of the rider. During this time, you’ll work on contact, and your horse will become accustomed to you and to the aids that you use. You’ll use this phase every day during your warm-up.

In phase 2, continue to focus on relaxation and contact and transition into straightness and impulsion. These aspects of training help develop the thrust or driving power of your horse’s hind legs.

While working on phase 2, ask your horse to work from behind more and to step forward diligently into the bit. During phase 2, you’re working on versatility and gymnastic work which will help your horse to build up in strength and flexibility. When your horse is able to use his back correctly, he will move more freely and will be more straight.

In phase 3, you’ll build on the collection, straightness and impulsion you’ve been working on and help your horse develop more carrying power in his hind legs. If your horse is to be truly collected and exhibit proper elevation, he must learn to carry more weight over the hindquarters. This is absolutely essential to advance dressage training.

Why Is It Important To Follow The Dressage Training Pyramid?

Ultimately, this combination of skills leads to success. The dressage training pyramid was developed to help both horse and rider develop together to display the skills and qualities of balance, symmetry, suppleness and coordination that lead to success.

If you are participating in dressage, as you move up through the levels, your skills and those of your horse will be tested more and more specifically. At higher levels, the higher skills (e.g. impulsion and straightness) become more important.

When you school your horse successfully through the pyramid foundations from start to finish, your horse will develop a thoroughness and the level of obedience to your aids while staying relaxed and moving in rhythm.

Here is a handy reference resource from the United States Dressage Federation.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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