When you want to train a horse you should know how he learns things and what his natural reactions are. And we’ll get to that. But first I want to introduce you to the guidelines that helped horse masters for centuries.
In Dutch and German it’s called ‘the Scala of dressage’, which can be seen as a pyramid of steps you have to go through to reach the ultimate goal, which is a well-trained, light, obedient horse that you can ride in true harmony. The steps are:
1. Natural rhythm of the gaits
I’ll explain them in short, but I’ll get back to it in detail later, as it is the base of all.
Each gait has got a natural rhythm, a certain footfall. If this is compromised in any way, it is nearly impossible to move on and get the other points right. It can mean there is something wrong physically, but it can also be the rider, who is restricting the horse too much.
A horse has to stay relaxed, willing to obey. Relaxed doesn’t mean he’s going around all dopey and slow. It’s about cooperation and trust.
There will have to be an elastic, constant and friendly connection between the riders hands and the mouth of the horse. He accepts the contact and reaches for it, when the rider stimulates the hindlegs to go more forward under the body. Energy is about the forward flow of the horse, generated but also controlled by the rider. Straightness doesn’t mean he’s as straight as a lamp post. It means he’s equally supple on both sides. His hindlegs follow the track of the front legs.
The top of the pyramid is the collection, when the weight is transferred to the hindquarters. Because of that the front goes up and becomes lighter. The horse is easier to steer and gives his back, which is a lovely feeling of harmony and ease. It’s heaven and we all want it.
In the Netherlands every dressage rider and judge can spell out the scala by head. It is drummed into us. Now a while ago the Germans decided to add two points to the scala. It’s ‘balance’ and the hard to translate ‘durchlässigkeit’, which means as much as the horse understands and listens to the aids of the rider, while staying supple and in harmony. These points are not in the pyramid, but at the sides, with an arrow from bottom to top, indicating these two points are important throughout the whole training scheme.
I expected some sort of revolution, as the ‘holy’ scala was touched. But nothing happened. I talked about it with the very kind German international judge Volker Moritz, who pointed out these two additions are not new. We all used them, it just wasn’t down in writing yet.
‘Durchlässigkeit’ is a difficult term which is sometimes explained the wrong way. It should not be seen as an end result, something you only have with a fully schooled horse. Young horses should also listen to the aids and work in harmony on their level. If you don’t have it, you won’t be able to move up the pyramid. And their balance is not as established as in an older horse, but that doesn’t mean you are not working on it. You should try to get the weight more to the hindquarters. And if you move on, it gets better and easier.
To me the scala is an enormous helpful tool. If I’m confused about something in riding or training (yes, it happens) I always go back to it. But I did an interview with Anky van Grunsven once. She’s al lovely person and can think out of the box like no one. She’s not too keen on the rigidness of the scala and made some remarks that sounded very logical. I’ll get back to that the next episode, so you have something to look forward to….