german training scale
Filed in Category: horse training
The Alternate Training Scale
People who are interested in dressage and classical training will be familiar with the German Training Scale. I discussed it in some depth on the Horse Talk page. It is part of the German system for training horses and consists of 6 stages or elements of training – rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection. The theory is that the elements are trained in order and each part forms the basis for the next stage of training. For example, relaxation is derived from establishing rhythm. Contact is only achieved from working on rhythm and relaxation. I’m sure you see how it is meant to work.
The German Training Scale forms the basis of almost all the competitive dressage training in the world. It is even well entrenched among many non-competition riders. The German Training Scale is to dressage what the 10 Commandments are to Christianity. Therefore, to question the scale and it’s basis is almost blasphemous in some circles and can label a person a heretic or madman.
So here I go.
In my view there are several problems with the GTS, including the order with which it is laid out. But the single biggest issue with the GTS is twofold. First, it gives people the idea that by following its rules you are guaranteed success and dressage nirvana. It is assumed that by following the system at the end your horse will be the best dressage horse it can be. But, of course, this is not necessarily true and the reason it is not true is the other biggest problem I see with the GTS. That is, nowhere in the teachings of the GTS is there thought or discussion for what it takes to achieve good rhythm, good relaxation, great submissive contact, excellent impulsive energy, brilliant level of straightness and the highest degree of collection. The variables that go into making each element of the scale the road for producing excellent results are absent from any discussion of the GTS.
So I want to propose a new scale.
The elements that should make up the new scale are focus, clarity and softness. The beauty of this scale is that it can be applied to any training, not just dressage. A rider could use it when training for reining, polo, jumping, western pleasure, hunter, harness etc.
The first element is focus. In focus we require a horse to be attentive to the rider or trainer. There is not a lot you can teach a horse if they are not paying attention. So many riders are always interrupting a horse whenever they ask something of their horse. But a horse should be paying sufficient attention that anything asked from a rider does not come as a surprise or interrupt his other thoughts. If you have a horse’s focus you’ll feel him become prepared as you start to ask something of him. He’ll know when you are getting ready and he will get ready in response.
Furthermore, if a horse becomes distracted away from the rider it should only take a quiet reminder for the horse to return his attention to the job at hand. The better a horse’s focus the less his thoughts ever leave the rider and less effort required to bring them back if they do.
The second part of focus is that not only should a rider be able to have a horse’s focus, but also he should be able to direct the horse’s focus. A rider should be able to orchestrate a horse to think about all the things he might ask. If a rider asks for a half pass, the focus should be on the half pass and where it is going. It should not be an exercise just for the feet and body, but for the mind as well. How many horses are asked to turn left yet are thinking about going right? Even in horses that are trained to the highest level with the GTS, they often are thinking about things other than the manoeuvre they are performing. They perform on auto-pilot.
The second element is clarity. Clarity is the basis of understanding that training brings to a horse’s focus. To send a signal to the horse’s mind and have that signal understood without causing emotional tension is a must for the “happy athlete” (as the FEI likes to call the elite horses). Without clarity, there can only be confusion for a horse. Confusion is the birth mother of worry and tension in most horses. If a horse is not clear on what is being asked and is not clear that he can achieve the task without compromising his safety and comfort, then there is always tension.
Clarity is an essential element to overcoming resistance. Most times it’s easy to be a strong enough rider to push through a horse’s resistance and give the appearance of a horse performing at a high level. We are all guilty of this to some extent some times. But when things are clear to a horse and offer him a good deal, there is no need to be a strong rider. The horse gives us what we want. We don’t have to take it.
The final essential element to the new training scale is softness. Softness is the love child of focus and clarity. It is the result of the first two elements being at their highest level. Softness is not lightness. Many people think that lightness to the aids is the same as softness. But in my view, lightness is a physical response to pressure of the aids and softness is a mental and emotional response to the aids.
Softness is the magic ingredient that gives us not only the correctness to the movements, but the beauty to them too. True straightness, impulsion and especially true collection cannot be achieved without softness. That’s why there are so few examples of these things for us to see. Even at the highest levels, it is rare to find a horse offering true collection through softness. Most is forced on a horse because the focus and clarity has been substandard during the training.
None of the 6 elements of the GTS have any benefit without the 3 elements I have discussed. Without focus, clarity and softness, performances become a series of bad tricks no matter how strictly the training has adhered to the GTS.
I think I can count on one hand the number of trainers I have seen who regard focus, clarity and softness as part of their every day training – even if they don’t talk about it in those terms. Some of us training horses are content for the tricks we can extract from our performances. That might be okay for people with the perfect horse that has no problems and who does not perform at a high level. But it is short changing the rest of our horses.