W.D.T.H. "Western Dressage Training Hierarchy"

The best riders and trainers in the world will tell you that good training is that which is built block by block onto a strong, solid base. That base is comprised of the following six elements in that particular order:

1) Impulsion/Forward
2) Contact/Acceptance
3) Collection/Self-Carriage
4) Straightness/Balance
5) Rhythm/Relaxation
6) Suppleness/Softness


1- Impulsion/Forward:

is the pushing power (thrust) of a horse, which comes from his desire to move powerfully forward with energy. However, speed does not create impulsion, and a rushing horse is more likely to be "flat" than impulsive. A horse can only have impulsion if his hind legs are engaged and his elastic back allows the power to come through. It’s also a mental and physical state of the horse to obey the rider's demands as fast as possible, to move forward, and to maintain his forward impulsion without support from the aids" and ""Impulsion means to maintain the energy within the cadence." Another definition is that "horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the gait and into every aspect of the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward."

There is no prerequisite to forward movement, but impulsion could be argued that it is in association with collection. Because all equine training from reining, pleasure, trail, hunt, training level up to Grand Prix is a conditional response to cues and requires movement of feet, impulsion is the foundation of all simple and complex movements. By definition, if the feet or (hind end) are not engaged, there cannot be collection or rhythm with straitness and suppleness. All movements or training exercises require movement; impulsion is the desired first step in movement by definition.

2- Contact/Acceptance:

When the horse is constantly moving forward with impulsion, the horse needs to accepting the rider’s hands, seat, and legs with contact to teach the horse required movements. Without contact you can not properly teach how to move body parts with your aids. There is no prerequisite to contact, but it implies that you will teach a movement that requires some type of forward impulsion. Many people mistake contact for the horse being on the bit. That is not necessarily true and denotes riding with the hands alone. A horse moving under a rider is in contact with his seat, legs, and hands. Good contact is when the horse accepts and responds to seat and leg aids while maintaining a round outline with a mouth that is relaxed and accepting the bit. You can point out good contact when the horse’s back is raised, his quarters engaged, his poll the highest point, his jaw relaxed, and his nose a hint in front of the vertical (That is also a sign of good riding and training).

3- Collection/Self-Carriage:

Self-Carriage
Collection has 2 requirements, forward impulsion and contact. The pinnacle of the Training Hierarchy is self-carriage, collection is the ultimate goal for the any disciplined horse. Only when you consistently established impulsion and connection, can you start to work on collection. When you work on collection without impulsion, you will effectively impede forward momentum. Why is Collection an important component of the training hierarchy? It’s just not about physical framing, but it has a secondary result of collecting the mind and thoughts of the horse. Self-carriage is not completed at this stage, but is a on going process through the levels of this hierarchy. This is where is begins and ends at the top with suppleness. When all the previous elements are present, collection just happens! Collection involves the lowering of the croup, lightness of the forehand, and shorter and higher steps. Collection is possible in the walk, trot and canter, and is achieved by collecting exercises and refined by little half-halts (mini gives). A rider on a horse doing a great collected canter feels as though he/she can let go and the horse would still maintain perfect rhythm and self-carriage without any interference from the rider.

4- Straightness/Balance:

Horses are said to be in balance when they are straight. A horse that is not in balance will not be in rhythm and cannot achieve suppleness. Straightening is the job of the rider/trainer through impulsion, contact, and collection. Straightness is absolute and requires the first 3 levels of the hierarchy. The definition is not cylindrical straightness, but straightness is a straight line from poll down the spine to the croup. For example, many horses canter with their quarters slightly in and nose to the outside. Crookedness is caused by a lack of proper impulsion, collection, and by uneven lateral connection and or suppleness, i.e. one side stiffer than the other, and a weaker hind leg. Good training focuses on developing both sides and hind legs of the horse equally, which eventually leads to absolute straightness. A horse is truly straight when you have directional control with shoulders and hips without following the nose and when the hind foot steps in the line of the front foot (or sometimes a little deeper to the inside in the event of collection).

5- Rhythm/Relaxation:

It is the result of consistent performance and is a mental and physical relaxation. A horse that knows his job is one that is in rhythm and relaxed. Once the first 4 levels are in harmony and working with each other, rhythm is the result or byproduct of knowledge conditioned response to cues. It is the goal to always have a relaxed horse, but when you introduce a new or unfamiliar exercise or movements, the horse may become resistant and goes through a wide range of emotions until he understands the movement. You cannot teach rhythm, it is only reach after the horse is confident and moving freely with repetition. When the horse is relaxed, he is able to step into the natural rhythm of the four natural gaits without resistance: walk, trot, canter, and the hand gallop. A horse that trots in rhythm is trotting in a clear 2-beat rhythm in a steady tempo. There is good rhythm and bad rhythm: Good rhythm is when the horse’s canter is a true 3-beat, bad or incorrect rhythm is when it becomes a lazy 4-beat. Rhythm faults in the walk are when it comes close to 2-beat, and in the trot when it resembles a lame, hopping horse.

6- Suppleness/Softness:

Any disciplined horse is ultimately an athlete, and every athlete requires a certain degree of flexibility. Suppleness is the looseness, freeness, and flexibility of the horse’s body through a movement. It could be argued that suppleness could be lower on the hierarchy chain, but suppleness is a byproduct of performance. Each time you introduce a new movement or teaching exercise, you will run into stiffness, resistance and a wide range of emotional responses. Suppleness is a result of performance and knowledge of a consistent response to conditional response to cues.

When we ride a horse, we ride them from back to front, but when we supple them, we supple them from front to back. There are 3 types of suppleness: mental, longitudinal and lateral. Mental is a willingness to comply without resistance in the want to comply. Longitudinal suppleness is the looseness of the horse’s haunches, back, neck, poll, and jaw, giving him the ability to swing forward while remaining fairly on the bit. Lateral suppleness is the degree to which a horse can bend his body and neck sideways, either to produce a circle or to move sideways.

How the Training Scale Works If you are having a problem with a training exercise, first ask yourself 3 questions: 1) “what cue is the horse not resounding to”? 2) “What body part is not reponding”? 3) “what elements of the training scale describe the essence of (H.D.T.H) Western Dressage Training Hierarchy is missing? Whether you are working at any discipline like Western or English, reining, pleasure, trail or hunt seat, perfecting your spins, slides or piaffe-passage transitions. Any problems encountered during training, provided they are not due to physical or psychological problems, can be traced to a weak link among the building blocks of training. The first and most important building block is impulsion. Because impulsion is at the base of the pyramid, you cannot be focused on improving and straightness if the impulsion and contact at any gait is poor. In fact, you cannot be entirely focused on suppleing exercises (building block #6) if the rhythm is poor. The key to adopting the Training Scale is to understand how each block or element is related to the next.

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