the triangle.jpg

 - by International Dressage Judge Debby Lush

You’ve probably heard of the Scales of Training, but do you know what they are? And, more importantly, do you know why and how they should be applied?

In short, the Scales are an order of priorities. They are used by judges to determine what part of your horse’s training their comments will focus on, and by riders/trainers to decide in which order they should tackle schooling issues. This article will elaborate on both the judge’s and the trainer/rider’s use of the scales as a guideline for prioritising what training issues need to be tackled in which order.


To quote the FEI handbook, ‘the training scale is the most important guideline for trainers, riders and judges’.

‘By following these classical principles the object and general principles of dressage can be achieved. In addition, the training scale is the measure of the quality of a performance and the guideline for the judges while judging a competition.’

And: ‘The training scale is a program of systematic physical education of a horse, a gymnasticising program to develop the horse’s natural physical and mental aptitudes. By following these principles, the rider obtains an obedient, supple and comfortable horse with a good basic training.’

So that’s what it’s about: basic training. And the order helps you to understand which order the scales must be tackled in to be effective.

Though it is true that none of the scales can be tackled totally in isolation – there is some interdependency between them all - but as a means of prioritising, they have an absolute order.

You can probably remember some, or all of the scales, but can you put them in the correct order?

1.     Rhythm

2.     Suppleness

3.     Contact

4.     Impulsion

5.     Straightness

6.     Collection.

Read and commit to memory, until you don’t even have to think about it. You will start to see why soon.


Each of the scales has a variety of facets, so keep reading to understand more about each one. Only then, will you be clear on how to apply them.

Scale no. 1 – RHYTHM

Rhythm has three components:

1.     The correct sequence of footfalls for the gait.

2.     Regularity – even length and height of steps

3.     Tempo – the speed of the rhythm

Walk is a four-beat gait with four evenly spaced footfalls – left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore.

Trot is a two-beat gait of diagonal pairs (left hind and right fore together, followed by right hind and left fore together) with a distinct moment of suspension between each pair of footfalls. The quality of a trot is partially dependent on the clarity of the air time in the moment of suspension.

Canter is a three-beat gait – right lead canter has the sequence: left hind, followed by right hind and left fore together as a diagonal pair, then finally right fore followed by a clear moment of suspension. Left canter has the opposite sequence. As for trot, the quality of a canter is measured largely in the amount of time in the air after a full sequence of footfalls, before the next sequence begins.

Rein back is a movement of two-time, with the horse stepping back in clear diagonal pairs, with no moment of suspension. If the horse walks backward in four-beat, that is incorrect.

Scale no. 2 – SUPPLENESS

Suppleness also has three components:

1.     Longitudinal suppleness - roundness and swing over the top line

2.     Lateral suppleness – the ability to bend equally around curves on both reins

3.     Mental suppleness – freedom from anxiety or tension

Indicators of suppleness:

•       A relaxed and happy expression

•       Elasticity in the steps

•       A quiet mouth gently chewing the bit to form an elastic contact

•       A swinging back and gently raised and swinging tail

•       Soft and rhythmic breathing

•       Stretches smoothly towards the bit when the reins are given without losing rhythm or balance

Scale no. 3 – CONTACT

Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth – if all is working correctly, the horse seeks the contact and the rider provides it.

Indicators of a good contact

•       Stepping forward to the contact

•       Working with a supple poll

•       Working over a raised and swinging back

•       An elastic contact

•       Poll the highest point

•       Nose slightly in front of the vertical

•       Horse works in balance

•       Seeks the contact forward and down when the rein is lengthened

Scale no. 4 – IMPULSION

1.     Impulsion is the “controlled, propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the eager horse”

2.     The most important criteria of impulsion, is suspension (time in the air, not on the ground), so is only possible in trot and canter. Walk should have good activity, but cannot have impulsion

3.     Impulsion is about a desire to go forward with both propulsion and carriage (carrying power)

4.     Forwardness is an attitude of mind (wanting to go) and as a result, swift reactions to driving aids. It CANNOT be produced by making a horse run faster, which causes the feet to come to the ground sooner, with smaller steps and loss of suspension

Scale no. 5 – STRAIGHTNESS

·      A better term for straightness would really be ‘alignment’ – where the body and limbs are correctly placed relative to the figure on which the horse is moving

·      Although this scale does not become a priority until quite late on, it should be addressed to some degree at all levels, as all horses are born crooked and developing true ambidexterity takes a long time

·      Correct alignment is essential for even loading of the limbs, and therefore even wear and tear on the joints on each side to promote longevity

·      If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push towards the centre of gravity – only then can the horse progress through engagement towards collection

Scale no. 6 – COLLECTION

·      Collection is about the increased ability to lower the hindquarters to raise and mobilise the forehand – in other words, to find that ‘uphill’ carriage we are all looking for

·      At the earliest levels of competition where collection is requested, it need only be sufficient to perform the movements of the test with ease

·      The gaits become taller and shorter as a result of collection – never be tempted to try and shorten the strides in the mistaken belief that is what is required in collection.


It’s all very well knowing what the scales are, and that a horse’s training should conform to these with increasing clarity as he progresses up the levels, but how exactly do we use them?

The scales are there to guide us in which order to tackle training issues.

When you begin with a new horse, or even with your own horse that you ride every day, always run through the list in each training session.

Start with scale no.1

·      Is the horse in a good rhythm? If not, tackle that first. Remember that rhythm requires relaxation, and conversely, a good rhythm promotes relaxation. Concentrate of establishing the rhythm. If you don’t have a good rhythm, nothing else matters. This might sound melodramatic, but it’s the truth. Worrying about further scales when you don’t have a good rhythm is a pointless waste of time, as nothing will work without a clear rhythm to underlie it.

·      If your horse has a good rhythm, consider scale no. 2 – how supple is he? Take a look back at the definitions of suppleness – it has a number of factors that should be present. If your horse is less than established in any of these factors, then that is what you must work on.

·      When you feel suppleness is at least reasonable, then consider scale no. 3 – contact. If you don’t have a fair degree of suppleness, you will never have a good contact. Conversely, out of good rhythm and suppleness, a correct contact becomes both possible and likely that your horse will offer a pleasing connection.

·      When, and only when, you have rhythm, suppleness and contact established, should you start thinking about impulsion. If you go after impulsion before you have the earlier scales established, you will only cause problems. Pushing for impulsion before the earlier scales are in place will cause the horse to hurry, and as a result he will stiffen his frame and come against your hand.

By now, this should be starting to make a clear picture of how the scales of training should be applied.

Remember that whilst, as already mentioned, none of the scales can be worked on totally in isolation, the order of priorities must be adhered to if you want to train effectively.


Just like the rider/trainer, judges use the scales to order their priorities.

When watching a horse perform a movement – any movement, be it a 20m circle in working trot, or a piaffe – the judge mentally measures the horse’s way of going against the scales.

Always first, the judge will consider, is the horse in a good rhythm?

If not, that is what the judge will comment on, and reach their mark accordingly. For example, if a walk is not in a correct sequence (one of the pre-requisites of good rhythm), then no matter what else in the way of going might be in place, the mark will be a 4, which = insufficient.

If the horse displays a fairly established rhythm, then the judge will consider how supple the horse appears. This will include lateral bend (conformity to curved lines), longitudinal bend (roundness of the outline), and whether the horse appears relaxed. 

If scales 1 & 2 appear quite well established, then the judge will look at the contact, and so on up the scales.

In the end (collective) marks, the judge will write a summary and underline certain words or phrases in the printed section, with the intention of drawing the rider’s attention to the area of training most in need of addressing, which will be the first scale that displayed inadequacies on the day.   


Hopefully you can now see why and how the scales should be applied in your own riding/training. If you do not have them committed to memory in the correct order, then write them down and post them everywhere you are likely to look until you do. You should reach a stage where you don’t even have to think about the order – only then you will be on the way to becoming an effective horse trainer.