Dressage is about retaining and developing the horse's natural athletic ability and paces. Today, more and more emphasis is placed on the horse's way of going rather than on the performance of the technical requirements of the tests and judges are being trained and encouraged to assess horses in this way.
It has long been acknowledged that the German Scales of Training are the way to achieving a correct and established way of going. These training scales are generally approached in order as they are designed to act like a framework; one linking naturally to the next. Through their diligent application, the horse progresses correctly and confidently from novice through to advanced work. Judges at all levels will look for the correct development of the horse in line with the Scales of Training.
The Scales of Training
The rhythm of every pace should be correct: walk is clear four beat, trot has two beats with a moment of suspension and canter has three beats with a moment of suspension. The tempo (speed) should remain unaltered within the pace and the horse should not speed up or slow down whilst negotiating the arena or moving from an extended stride to a collected one.
The horse should be relaxed and loose in his movement with no tension or resistance. The muscles of the top-line; i.e. quarters, back, over the withers and through to the poll, should be relaxed and swinging as the horse moves along. If the rider eases the rein forward, the horse should seek to stretch forward and round to the bit.
The contact should be even in both reins; light and elastic in the rider's hands. This should be achieved through the legs and seat. Driven by rider's leg, the horse works forward through his back and over his top-line to the bit and it is this energy that the rider feels down the reins.
Impulsion refers to the contained power of the horse. This energy is created by the hindquarters. The steps become more energetic and the horse's legs are placed further underneath his body. The energy is contained in the rider's rein contact so that the horse does not speed up. If the horse is not supple and there is tension or tightening in the muscles of the top-line and back, the energy will be blocked and an elastic contact cannot be achieved.
Like their riders, horses are either right or left-hoofed and are inclined to move with their bodies slightly curved to one side or the other. A crooked horse will find it difficult to work through his back, remain balanced and develop impulsion. The rider should train the horse to move straight so that the hind feet step into the tracks of the forefeet on both straight lines and circles and the rein contact remains even. Of course, the rider must also sit straight and not collapse one hip or lean in which will cause the horse to become even more crooked in an attempt to compensate for his rider.
When a horse is first ridden he will lose his balance and carry most of his weight on his forehand often using the rider's hand to lean on in transitions and through turns. Through training, the horse gradually becomes more muscled and stronger. He is then able to transfer more weight to his hindquarters so that his forehand lightens and he becomes more manoeuvrable and athletic. In time the horse will be able to take more and more weight behind and to step further under his body. By the time the horse has reached Advanced level he will be showing clear collection; the icing on the cake being the ultimate collection required to perform piaffe and passage at Grand Prix level.
It is said that it takes at least five years to make a Grand Prix dressage horse. All horses are different. Some learn more quickly than others and some will never progress beyond medium level work. Of course there are also the variables of soundness to take into account. From a judge's perspective, it is always obvious when a horse has been trained correctly and allowed to mature and develop rather than pushed into work that is beyond his confidence and physical comfort.
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