Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Dressage Training Scale

Pictured above is the dressage training scale. Although several variations exist, the idea behind the visual is a foundation of training eventually leads to upper-level ability in the horse. Much like a world-class athlete, a certain amount of genetics, fitness, nutrition, and other contributing factors lend themselves towards greatness in horses. I love the Fugly Horse of the Day blog, and the author clearly demonstrates the negative effects of poor breeding and ignorance in equine husbandry that leads to an unprecedented amount of "fuglies" born every year.

That said, even talented, awesome horses have bleak futures with bad training. Here is a well-documented case of a stellar Tennessee Walking Horse that was ridden to the ground and is now in constant pain. One look at the picture to the left indicates that Mr. Biggs is uncomfortable simply standing in the sun on even ground.

That's where the training scale comes in handy. Long before we can expect collection and gorgeous upper-level movements from our horses, we must strive to build a strong foundation. This is especially important for OTTBs; these horses have no sense of rhythm, and they certainly are never asked to be supple and bend beyond the sloping turns of the track.

Sadly, and all too often, emphasis is placed on collection of the horse before the horse is fit, elastic, and willing to truly accept the bridle and come onto the bit. I adore the Sustainable Dressage blog, and I highly recommend that anyone rehabbing OTTBs or a rider interested in dressage training should follow the blog and read this post about true and false collection. One of the reasons I love the blog is because the author, Theresa Sandin, advocates practical training methods that do not force the horse in a particular frame, but instead opts for training that slowly strengthens, balances, and increases the flexibility of dressage horses for long, healthy, and successful careers.

Compare that to the racehorse industry, where, at least in the United States, thousands of horses are used up and basically tossed out every year. Although the exact number is tricky to nail down, some sources indicate that 1 out of every 1,500 racehorses will suffer from a fatal injury while conducting racing activity, while others simply breakdown or retire and are quietly disposed of. Thankfully, the sad plight of many of these horses is sometimes intercepted by a group like CANTER and eventually adopted to private owners.

My point is this: ex-racehorses are not performance horses served to trainers, owners, and competitors on a silver platter. They are diamonds in the rough. There's heart, there's drive, hopefully there's good confirmation and a healthy body, but rhythm, relaxation, suppleness... these things take a long time to teach. I printed out the training scale as presented to me by a professor at my college and I taped it to my tack trunk. Every day, I look at that scale, and I know that one day, after lots of training, long days, and patience, I'll strut my stuff in the show ring with a bounding bundle of elastic equine underneath me, but in the meantime, I'll be happy with that nice, rhythmic, balanced trot.


  1. Great post. I think dressage is thought of as one of the more humane equine sports (at least compared to racing) I mean horses are not really considered "mature" until around 8 and horses compete successfully in their teens. However all of that is ruined when people try and take short cuts and rush training. People need to realize that true collection and impulsion can not be faked!

  2. I agree with you. I think riders should set goals for themselves and their mounts. A lot of the people I've been around just aim for the horse to look "pretty" or "fancy" without understanding why it is desired or how to properly achieve it so that is natural to the horse and not forced. I've known a few girls that were new to riding and lucky to have a horse of their own right away but didn't ride/work with the horse properly and all the training has been lost.
    It is also sad that race horses seem so disposable by some people too, but it is just as sad when people adopt a horse not knowing what to expect from them nor any other horse. I've seen a lot of mismatches and sometimes I just wish I could throw horse books at people to educate themselves before they make such a commitment on a animal they hardly know anything about.