The Spiral Of Training

training scaleIf you have been in the dressage world for any period of time, you have probably heard of the Pyramid of Training, also called the Training Scale. It is a staple of dressage instruction world wide and posters of this pyramid hang on hundreds of tack room walls. There are many wonderful aspects to this pyramid, but even so, every time I looked at it, I felt one eyebrow climbing up my forehead. There was something wrong about the structure of the pyramid, I felt. When training a horse, I always imagined the shape of training to be more of a circle, or better yet, a spiral.

It was not until I heard Axel Steiner lecturing and he echoed what had been bouncing around in my mind for quite some time, that I finally decided to take pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

You see, when training a horse it is not as simple as beginning at the base and working your way upward sequentially. Axel likened the use of the Training Scale to a “stew” where you will find bits and pieces of each element in a mixture to produce the end product. I could not agree more. Each horse I ride is as unique in its feel as any human being that I have come across and thus requires its own “recipe”, of course made up of the elements of the training scale. For example, with one horse a disruption of the rhythm might be because he is ungainly and young. But in the stall to his left lives a little chestnut mare whose rhythm disruptions occur because of tension, and so you must work to relax and supple the horse. And next door to her lives yet another horse, a gelding whose rhythm disruptions occur because he moves very crookedly and so you must focus on straightening him and strengthening his weaker side until he is equally fit. You see, a deficit in one portion of the training scale can and most of the time will include issues with other parts of the scale.


If I am too small to read, you can click on me. I don't mind.

If I am too small to read, you can click on me. I don’t mind.

If you look at my version of the training scale, each portion feeds into the center point: collection. Let’s think of it like this, for training and first level you are prancing merrily around the perimeter of the Training Circle that I have created. Once you have gone around and around enough, one day you feel that your horse is straight enough, with enough impulsion and calm enough in his work that he is ready for collection. But as well we know, second level collection is not Grand Prix collection. This is where the ‘Training Spiral’ comes into play. Once you achieve second level collection you incorporate this into your training but then jump out of the center and start going around and around the perimeter again, until your horse is ready for third and fourth and finally FEI. Where are the movements in all of this? Think of the movements as tests of your horse’s strength and balance. Once he successfully learns a movement, you can then add it to his further training and strength building, but not before. If we took that big, young ungainly horse and attempted to execute a working pirouette the results would be traumatic. Which movements to choose and when are as individual as the horse and rider, where their talents lie and what developed when. But as he or she gets stronger you can begin climbing the spiral and asking more as his strength and straightness grow. The pinnacle of the spiral is Grand Prix, where the collection and extensions are at their most extreme at walk, trot and canter.

This is why there are solid dressage trainers who might receive a “finished” FEI horse into their barn and when getting on them, discover they are anything but. Though the horse might know all the tricks, they are performing them like a circus animal, without working correctly through their body. There are many horses talented enough and smart enough to get to a certain point by faking it. Inevitably though holes appear, the horse breaks down and you will have a twelve year old that is completely unsound or unrideable. When trainers receive a horse like that, though the horse is advertised as being at the top of the spiral, the trainer slides the horse back down to the very beginnings to start again. The same goes for a trainer whose horse is weak with a certain movement. Is it an issue with straightness? Or is the connection flawed? Any trainer worth their salt will go back to these basic elements when trying to understand why their horse is not successful at certain points, and incorporate exercises and strategy to correct the issue, rather than drilling the movement itself over and over and over again.

So when you look at the Training Scale, try not to think of it as a fixed thing, but rather a dynamic, ever changing template that can cater to all horses, with all of their individual strengths and weaknesses, a template that continues to be relevant past that initial achievement of collection and into Grand Prix. After you halt and salute on centerline in your first training level or Grand Prix test, behind you should be thousands of hours of playing the spiral upward into a happy and healthy partner.   

18 responses to “The Spiral Of Training

  1. No kidding! I wish USDF had the motivation to come up with a new interpretation of the training scale. My trainer is totally in your corner, emphasizing over and over again that as you move up the levels you have to make absolutely sure you haven’t lost those basics you had back at training level. And I have personally seen the results of leaving the basics behind–those broken down horses you spoke of.

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  3. So which issues should be started with first? For example if a horse is in pain, therefore over compensating and becomes crooked, that could contribute to lack of relaxation and other issues. Do you address the issues collectively at the walk, then trot/canter? Do you use side reins or other equipment or treat them like youngsters with easy basics? Not forcing the issues.

    • Hi Adrienne – pain must be dealt with first and one must get fairly creative at times to assist a horse who is compensating, or is just so weak that the musculature is mostly atrophied. It really depends on the injury, but lunging may not be appropriate for some. Others might need to be sedated for the first few rides for their own safety (and the riders as well). It also depends on what the horse knows, for example, if they are able to leg yield you can use that movement to ask them to stretch laterally over the back, so the horse’s knowledge base is a factor as well. I try not to over ride the walk, especially when addressing issues of crookedness, because the walk is so easily warped. I am not saying that you should never ride the walk, but just that you should be wary of depending on the walk too much to the detriment of the gait. I do use side reins, but only on the lunge. I do not ride in side reins. There is definitely something to be said for bringing a horse back to basics when bringing them back to work. Just check with your vet and physical therapist if you have one to ensure you do not do damage to your horse’s injury by asking them to work on the lunge.

      • I have used a vienna rein to lunge, and it works quite nicely. I have someone advise this horse to go in draw reins to address the head position. I feel the issue is a sore right rear end, because the saddle slips off to the right. I don’t see how forcing the front end in draw reins will help the back end engage. Do you have an opinion on that?

  4. Love this. I am into dogs but in that area we see a lot of “every dog needs to learn x,y,z in 1,2,3, order.” In reality, learning is a much more organic process and a good trainer needs to be flexible to adapt to the individual animal’s strengths and weaknesses. Especially when it comes to foundation work because when you miss something it ALWAYS comes back to bit you in the butt.

    • And that’s where I feel this horse has been overworked too early in her education, developing crookedness before she is even and moving from the back to front. The front never changes anything. That’s why the basics are so dull, so repetitive yet so ESSENTIAL.

      Forgot to mention interesting issue. While training with this rider, the mare peed in the cross ties religiously after being ridden. When I ride, there is no pee. Is it possible that the peeing on cross ties is a cry for help or stress related?

  5. One other thing. The pyramid, as mentioned in the blog is not the stone tablet of ten commandments. This is why this blog was so interesting.

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