Training articles

Do you know how to use your legs?

How often have you been told to: “Use your legs!

But did anyone ever tell you how?

Communicating with your legs can be as basic as a kick which crudely transmits a desire to go faster or, with development of control and finesse, can become a language filled with subtle nuances which produce a harmony only seen between the best riders and their mounts.

The first step towards this rewarding refinement is to gain sufficient control over your legs to avoid sending garbled messages to your horse.

Correct leg position.

We all know what a correct leg position should look like, and that the leg must remain relaxed, without gripping.

What is not often taught, is that to maintain this position some degree of tone is necessary in certain muscles; specifically, the inner thigh muscle – just enough to keep the upper leg lightly closed against the saddle without tension (gripping), without any corresponding tightening of the buttock muscles; the hamstrings (to keep your knee bent and your lower leg stable beneath you), and the muscle up the front of the shin, which raises the foot and stretches the calf to produce a deep heel, which should not be achieved by pressing down onto your irons.

  • Have a photograph taken of yourself, and check your position – is your heel directly below your hip – do your knees and thighs lie flat against the saddle – are your heels below your toes?
I would have liked my toes to be more pointed forward, but the alignment ear-shoulder-hip-heel is perfectly clear
  • Position your leg correctly without your stirrups, and then check the length of your leathers – if you cannot reach the irons without dropping your toes, they are too long.

Use of different parts of the leg

Once you have developed a degree of co-ordination of individual muscles within your legs, ie., you can tighten one muscle at a time without affecting others, you can begin to use your legs to produce a variety of effects:

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Why Should You Have An Understanding of Basic Horse Psychology?

Whether you are handling a horse from the ground, or from the saddle, it’s a big help to have some understanding of basic horse psychology. This makes it easier to predict how your horse may react in certain circumstances, and how he might respond in his interactions with you.

Always remember, a horse does not think like a human.

He doesn’t process ideas in the same way, and his priorities are different than yours or mine.

To understand equine behaviour, you should first study how horses relate to one another in a natural situation, i.e. in the wild, and not in the artificial environment of enclosed fields.

Basic Herd Structure

The most fundamental natural drives (instincts) have a huge impact on how horses respond to us, and our attempts to train them.

  1. Horses are herd animals; they always feel more comfortable in company
  2. Horses are prey animals; everything might be out to eat them

Starting with those principles in mind, let’s look at basic herd structure.

In the wild, horses live in large herds with a clearly defined hierarchical structure. Contrary to popular belief, the herd is not led by the stallion, but by the dominant, or lead, mare. She leads the herd between grazing grounds, while the herd stallion drives from behind, keeping all his wives together and seeing off other stallions seeking to steal his mares.

Aside from these two, hierarchy within the herd is determined by position and attention, and not, as used to be believed, by aggression (‘pecking order’), which is nearer to what we see in the artificial situation of small fields with limited food availability.

The nearer to the centre of the herd, the safer the horse is from predators. The ones on the outside are most likely to be eaten. Gaining a safer, inside space, is achieved by either moving in when a previously more dominant horse loses attention, or by jostling – shoving the weaker-willed horses to the outside of the herd, using their large shoulders.

Head height denotes dominance – the more dominant the animal, the higher the head carriage.

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7 steps to using the Scales of Training – how it all fits together

If you go right back to the introductory post of this series, “Do you know how to USE the Scales of Training?” you will find an outline of the reasons why it is so important to understand the scales, and how to apply them.

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.’

How do the Scales relate to the Stages of Training?

I described in that previous post the way to use the scales in your everyday schooling sessions, but a clearer understanding of the bigger picture can help you to understand their application and relevance relative to your horse’s stage of training.

When you train a young horse from scratch, consideration must be given to your horse’s

  • understanding of your aids
  • physical ability to respond to those aids
  • strength

As discussed before, whilst the scales cannot be tackled totally in isolation from each other, they must be developed in the prescribed order:

  1. RHYTHM (and relaxation)

Each scale is more or less related to the Stages of Training:

  1. STAGE 1 – the familiarisation, or preliminary riding stage
  2. STAGE 2 – development of pushing power
  3. STAGE 3 – development of carrying power
Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training – how it all fits together”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #6 COLLECTION

Collection is the ultimate scale of training, but is the most often misunderstood. Because the steps in collection are shorter, many inexperienced riders try to collect by using the reins to shorten the strides.

This, of course, is completely wrong. The shorter steps of true collection come about by changing the horse’s balance so that his steps become taller, which results in them covering less ground, i.e. becoming shorter.

In the process of collecting the horse, his frame will also shorten as a result of his hindlegs moving more forward beneath his body (engagement) and lifting his forehand, all of which is only possible if the earlier scales – and his strength – are well enough developed.

Understanding more about what collection actually means, in a physical sense, is key to understanding how to create it.

What exactly IS collection?

The FEI states collection is when:

“More intensive bending of the hind legs leads to the centre of gravity being shifted further backwards. This results in the increased lightness of the forehand.

The steps and strides become shorter, but activity/impulsion is sustained and makes the horse’s movement appear more cadenced.”

Courtesy of “DRESSAGE: A Guideline for Riders and Judges” by Wolfgang M. Niggli

Put simply, collection is contained power. The rider must generate energy and impulsion from the hindquarters, while employing a momentary soft restraining contact followed by a release – in other words, a half halt. A series of several short half halts, rather than one or two longer ones, will help develop a more sustained collection.

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #6 COLLECTION”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #5 STRAIGHTNESS

Straightness is the most difficult of the scales to place in terms of order. Although it is ranked #5, (after Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact and Impulsion), it cannot be totally ignored at the earlier stages.

Try to think of straightness in the following terms:

  1. ‘Straightness’ is rather a misnomer – a better word to use is ‘alignment’.
  2. The forefeet must be aligned with the hind feet on straight and curved lines.
  3. The horse should have equal bend (and hence, alignment) on both reins.

So you can see that this sounds a lot like scale no. 2 suppleness, and is also integral to gaining equal contact (no. 3) in both hands, and developing impulsion (no.4), which depends on both hind legs thrusting with equal power and in the same direction.

However, prioritising straightness too early is a mistake, because without the earlier scales in place you will not have the necessary tools to address it . Any attempt to straighten the horse too early will rely on rein aids, resulting in backward riding and consequent stiffening and blocking the hind legs from stepping forward under.

All horses are born crooked, and straightening them is a never-ending task; without monitoring, their natural crookedness will reassert itself.

Straightening natural crookedness takes months and years of persistent work, and although you should not prioritise it until your horse is working well at Elementary level, you should start chipping away at it as soon as your basic controls are established.

Why is straightness important?

  1. Through developing even weight distribution on both sides of the horse, we help him to maintain health and soundness for ridden work, by promoting equal wear on the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments of both sides.
  2. Increased straightness will further develop suppleness and throughness. (Conversely, only a supple horse can be genuinely straightened.)
  3. Impulsion will be limited if the hind legs push to one side, instead of forward, or the horse predominantly carries weight on one hind placed under the centre of his body, while the other always avoids carrying by stepping out to the side.
  4. Balance is more difficult when the horse does not work the same way on both sides.
  5. To prepare him for collection (scale #6). Only a straight horse using both hind legs equally, and taking even weight in both sides of the contact, can engage his hind quarters sufficiently under his body (assuming he is correctly supple over the top line and working ‘through’), to transfer more weight carriage to his rear end, and so lighten his forehand (i.e. collection).
  6. Very often, even at high levels of competition, horses swing the hind quarters out on small circles (and in shoulder in). The inside hind may even cross out, over the track of the inside hind. This totally avoids the point of the exercises, which is for the inside hind to step under the body and carry more weight, thus increasing engagement and leading to collection.

What exactly IS straightness?

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #5 STRAIGHTNESS”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #4 IMPULSION

Asking for impulsion before the previous 3 scales (rhythm, suppleness, contact) are established is a recipe for disaster. Only once your horse can maintain his rhythm, and is supple enough with a responsive contact, will his body physically be able to manage the demand for impulsion. If asked for before these training milestones are achieved, impulsion will only produce running, and not the controlled power of engaged hind quarters.

Too often, judges find themselves making the well-known comment: “Do not confuse speed with impulsion”, and yet many riders continue to do so.

So what IS impulsion?

The FEI defines impulsion as: “The transmission of controlled, propulsive energy generated from the hindquarters into the athletic movement of the eager horse. Its ultimate expression can be shown only through the horse’s soft and swinging back and is guided by a gentle contact with the rider’s hand.”

In a nutshell, impulsion = power, but this only translates into a usable feature when your horse’s body is supple enough to permit the energy to flow through it, and comes with the controls you need to direct it.

Too much, and you may get:

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #4 IMPULSION”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #3 CONTACT

Achieving an acceptable contact depends on the previous scales (rhythm and suppleness) being relatively well developed.

Contact is the easiest of the scales to see and feel whether it is good or not, but is the most difficult to achieve. It is a complicated and divisive topic about which there is much disagreement: how strong/light should it be? What is a ‘correct’ contact?

Contact varies. It will be slightly different between different horses, at different ages, at different levels of balance and development, during different movements and even different moments within an aid. Contact is a vast topic, and you should always be seeking to expand your knowledge, and discover what works for you and your partner.

What IS contact

The FEI defines contact as: “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and seek the contact with the rider’s hand, thus going into the contact.”

This sounds confusingly as though you need to be addressing impulsion (Scale #4) to achieve contact, but this is not true: an acceptable contact can be achieved without a great deal of impulsion provided the horse is reactive to the rider’s legs (i.e. thinking FORWARD, which is not the same thing as having impulsion or, indeed, speed).

In fact, contact is not just about the hand and the bit -aids are given by the seat, legs and hands – all three form contact points between horse and rider.

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #3 CONTACT”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #2 SUPPLENESS

Suppleness is #2 on the training scale, and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a horse. Even when #1 rhythm (see my previous article) is maintained, a horse’s movement cannot be considered to be correct unless he is also working through his back without tension.

Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm (#1) will continue to improve, and a reasonable contact (#3) becomes more possible.

Suppleness is a central theme throughout schooling which must never be neglected or taken for granted, but constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training.


So what exactly is suppleness?

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #2 SUPPLENESS”

7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #1 RHYTHM

As discussed in my last post, the SCALES OF TRAINING form the guidelines by which you should decide which aspect of training to focus on at any given point in your horse’s training, both within a single training session, and during a training phase that may be ongoing for several sessions, or even months.

Unless you address the scales in order your training will be less than effective, because each scale underpins the ones above, as depicted in the diagram below.

Without establishing the most basic of the scales at the base of the pyramid – rhythm – anything else you do with your horse will be worthless, because a horse without a correct rhythm can never develop any of the further scales, nor will such a horse ever find ridden work relaxing and enjoyable.

I often term this first scale ‘rhythm and relaxation‘, because the one promotes the other.


First, we need to consider what (in equestrian terms) constitutes good rhythm.

Continue reading “7 steps to using the Scales of Training: #1 RHYTHM”

Do you know how to USE the Scales of Training?

First, I’m making the assumption that you have heard of the scales of training.

I’ve been astonished to discover how many people during even quite long careers in competition dressage, have managed to miss out on this aspect of their education.

SO in case you come into that category, or even if you know of the scales, but aren’t quite sure in which order they are arranged, here they are:

  1. RHYTHM (and relaxation)

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I wrote a book called THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF TRAINING, so-called because it details how to build your horse’s training in a progressive, logical manner, explaining the order in which movements should be taught (as well as how to teach them).

Well the SCALES OF TRAINING are the underpinning guide to how your horse’s way of going should be built, and in which order to tackle any issues.

They are also the order of priorities used by dressage judges to determine what part of your horse’s training their comments will focus upon.

I use the word ‘underpinning’ not only to remain with the same building analogy, but also because this describes very clearly what I have demonstrated in the above picture: that each scale is dependent upon the ones beneath to hold it up.

Continue reading “Do you know how to USE the Scales of Training?”