The Dressage Scales of Training: Relaxation (Part 2 of 6)
Welcome to part two of our six-part series on the scales of training. In each of these articles, you’ll learn more about one particular scale of training, as well as how to improve that aspect of your horse’s schooling, and why the scales of training are so important to dressage riders.
In the first installment, we looked at rhythm. This article will focus on the second scale of training, which is suppleness, or relaxation.
What Are the Scales of Training?
The scales of training can be referred to by different names, including the German training scale or the pyramid of training.
Originally, the scales of training were used in training of the German military horses – hence German training scale. They have since been translated into English, and are used across the world to provide a systematic basis for the training of a horse.
Essentially, the pyramid is composed of six elements which build upon one another. This is used as a system of training, as well as the basis of dressage show judging.
The six scales are:
The first scale forms the base of the pyramid—which means rhythm is the foundation for other work. If you train the horse using the scale as a guideline, you should eventually produce a horse who is able to demonstrate collection.
The scales are interrelated. You can always be improving rhythm or contact for instance, so the scale isn’t completely linear. It also works in the sense that each level becomes easier as the preceding ones improve. If you improve impulsion, for instance, collection becomes easier – as does straightness. But the opposite also applies. If your horse’s ability to collect gets better, you’ll also see a corresponding improvement in straightness and impulsion. So each level of the scale can influence the others.
So rather than being progressive or linear, you can think of the scales of training as a set of interrelated principles. You might need to work on more than one at a time, or may need to address straightness before you can add impulsion, for instance.
Essentially though, the bottom three scales form the beginning stages of a horse’s training, and should always remain at the front of your mind as you begin to add the remaining three when you’re training a horse. Rather than being linear blocks, the bottom concepts are more like the roots of a plant. Without sufficient support from the roots, the plant will fail to grow and thrive.
Michael Eilberg has a useful explanation of the scales of training, which you can read here. It is very useful in visualizing how they all fit together!
So, let’s take a look at the second concept on the pyramid of training. That is, suppleness or relaxation.
The Second Scale – Suppleness/Relaxation
In German, the second scale is called “lossgelassenheit.” It doesn’t have a direct English translation, but it refers to the ability of the horse to be relaxed and to move with looseness and elasticity. Although it can’t be neatly defined with one word, suppleness is about the closest we can get in English.
According to USDF, “Suppleness indicates the absence of negative muscular tension, allowing the joints to move with harmonious flexibility. Elasticity describes the horse who is able to stretch and contract the musculature smoothly and fluently.”
But of course, suppleness can’t come without relaxation, which is why there isn’t a perfect substitute for the German version of the scale! Which is why some places will translate it as relaxation, or even as looseness. Just know that in reality, whether they all refer to the concept of a horse who is relaxed, loose in his body, and supple both longitudinally and laterally.
Longitudinal suppleness refers to the elasticity and looseness of the muscles which run from the horse’s tail and over his back and neck to the poll. These are the muscles which lengthen and contract as the horse stretches and then works into a shorter frame. You can also think of the horse being able to “swing” through from the hindquarters to the poll while maintaining rhythm and looseness.
A good test of longitudinal suppleness is to lengthen the reins and ask the horse to stretch. He should seek the contact forward and down without losing balance, at a level relative to his training. Of course, a Grand Prix horse would have more uphill balance than a youngster.
Lateral suppleness refers to the horse’s ability to bend from side to side. Often, riders make the mistake of bending only the neck, or thinking that the horse is stiff in the neck. This is rarely the case, as your horse can normally scratch their side with their teeth, for instance. Instead, it’s normally a lack of ability to bend around the rider’s leg. For true lateral suppleness, the bend must come from the entire body. This stems from the horse accepting the inside leg and activating the inside hind leg. The degree of bend must be uniform from his poll to his tail – and the degree of bend depends on what is being ridden. For instance, the horse will show more bend in his body when riding an 8m circle than when going straight across the diagonal.
Crucially, a supple horse can bend evenly on both sides and in both directions.
How do you Improve Suppleness?
Just as some people are naturally more supple or stiff, so are horses. Some have tense and taut muscles naturally, as well as conformation traits which make suppleness hard to achieve. Others have good joint angles and loose, lean muscles so they’re naturally more supple. That said, every horse can bend to some degree.
It’s also important to remember almost all horses are stronger on one side than the other. It might be a subtle difference, like not engaging the inside hind as effectively in the left shoulder-in than the right, or it could be very obvious, where the horse pulls, hollows, and is very obviously stiff on one side. Regardless though, it is up to the rider to even the horse out and gain even flexibility and suppleness.
Lateral work is one of the best ways to improve suppleness. This is because it encourages the horse to bend the ribcage and use the inside hind. It’s sort of like doing yoga, but for horses. Good exercises include leg yield, and shoulder in. Transitions are another key element in improving suppleness, especially longitudinally, as the changing of pace encourages the horse to use the hindquarters and stretch over the topline to the bit.
In our next article, we’ll be looking at the third scale – connection or contact. In the meantime, though, what helps your horse become more supple? Share your top tips in the comments!