Friday, December 14, 2018

The Training Pyramid

One of my readers, lytha, commented on yesterday’s post and asked for my feelings on the training pyramid. It turns out that I have a lot of things to say about the pyramid, so I figured I’d write a whole post about it๐Ÿ˜Š

If you haven’t engaged in dressage lessons or competitions, you might not know about the training pyramid. You can see a pretty colorful diagram at:

It’s a diagram that a lot of dressage instructors refer back to when teaching, and it supposedly forms the basis of the various levels of competition for dressage. I think the idea is that the lower that the concept is on the pyramid, the more basic of a requirement it is. Ideally, you would achieve mastery at each level on the pyramid before proceeding to the next and then when you get to the top, you have collection. (If only all relationships could be reduced to such a simple process!)

But like most things that seem simple on the surface, training a dressage horse is much more challenging that a simple diagram can convey. For one thing, I don’t think a pyramid is a good way to represent the things listed, assuming that you think they are good things in the first place. I once spent an entire semester learning about graphic organizers as part of my training to become a teacher, so I’m kind of cringing at the visual choice in this case. For another thing, I question some of the concepts and the priority placed on them.

To start with, RHYTHM (with energy and tempo) forms the foundation of the pyramid. This is problematic for people like me who have no rhythm (despite being in band and/or orchestra from the time I was in 6th grade through my senior year in college). Nimo doesn’t have great rhythm either, so it’s pretty much the blind leading the blind here, and we are basically disqualified from dressage before we even start. (I once bought one of the metronome watches used by dressage freestylers to try to help us keep rhythm and it was a complete fail. My dreams of a stunning musical freestyle performance crashed and burned…) The big issue, in my humble opinion, is that rhythm forms a dynamic relationship with a lot of other things. For example, you aren’t going to have good rhythm if your horse isn’t balanced. You won’t have good rhythm if you aren’t communicating well with your horse or he’s worried about something (like the bleachers and the white jumps surrounding the arena!). It seems to be the result of or created in combination with something else, rather than the driving force behind better work, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have it at the bottom of the pyramid.

Next we have RELAXATION (with elasticity and suppleness).  Few things set Jean Luc Cornille (JLC) of the Science of Motion off quite like this particular word. I think part of it might be that he is a native French speaker while the pyramid is meant more for native English speakers. I’m not sure how the French interpret the word “relaxation” but I have the sense that it involves sitting around in a recliner watching TV, not engaging in an athletic endeavor. Being a native English speaker, I’ve got another interpretation of “relaxation” that means something like: able to focus; not anxious, afraid, angry, frustrated, or overexuberant; ready to engage without being stressed. So I would suggest to the makers of the pyramid that this word might be replaced with something like, “Ready to Learn and Work” to indicate a horse who is in a frame of mind that allows mental discipline and physical effort in partnership with a rider. And honestly, this should be the highest priority of them all. Like lytha mentioned in her comment, it makes sense for this one to come before anything else. If your horse isn’t in the right frame of mind (and the rider too!), you’re not getting anything productive done, no matter what discipline you choose.

Third up on the pyramid is CONNECTION. The fine print is good to read here too. “Acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids.” I think this language has given the bitless community more than a little consternation. And now that I’m working on riding with using the tone of my body instead of specific aids, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either. I think what was probably meant here is more along the lines of communication. Can the horse and rider communicate regardless of whether there is a bit or not or specific leg aids or not, etc.? I would love to see this concept renamed to promote the idea of communication rather than an acceptance of aids.

Acceptance of aids is along the lines of obedience, which is also a term employed a lot in dressage (and alongside the pyramid in the graphic from the link at the beginning of this post). I’m not fond of using the term of obedience anymore. It implies a hierarchy in the horse/rider relationship that I’m no longer comfortable with. I had an experience during my most recent lesson that I hope to write about soon, but during the lesson, Nimo actually ended up taking an active role in solving the problem we were working on, and it led to a pretty big break-through. That isn’t obedience. That is the horse helping the rider, working with the rider, and actively engaging in the process. Horses are much smarter than this pyramid gives them credit for being, and I think we should encourage the idea of communication or even partnership, rather than obedience to an aid.

Moving on to IMPULSION (increased energy and thrust). I have to admit that I don’t really know what impulsion is. How do you know if your horse has impulsion? I turned to this article from Dressage Today to find out. Apparently impulsion consists of: “the horse’s desire to move forward, the elasticity of his steps, the suppleness of his back, and the engagement of his hindquarters.” Is it all clear to you now? Because it isn’t to me. I kept reading. “The desire to move forward means that the horse moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm and tempo; that he is readily available at the aids of the rider to move off into an energetic gait without quickening.” OK, so we’re back to the rhythm thing again and that the horse is energetic in response to aids. So we covered rhythm and aids in earlier parts of the pyramid, right? Why do we need to see them again here?

But we’re not done with this level. “The elasticity of the steps has to do with the flexion and extension of the legs: The horse shows a springiness to his gaits or, in other words, cadence or suspension. If the horse quickens his steps instead, he tends to flatten the gait, which will actually hinder impulsion.” So impulsion includes springiness or suspension. Except probably in the walk, because there isn’t any suspension in the walk. And God forbid, we don’t want to flatten those gaits, whatever that means.

How about suppleness of the back? “The suppleness of the horse’s back implies that he is relaxed through his topline and that he is using his abdominal musculature to support the stretch of his back muscles.” This sentence literally sent me into an involuntary twitch. Let’s just be clear. If your horse is relaxed through his topline, you’ve got a serious medical issue and you should not be riding. That topline is supporting you, the rider, and all the muscles need to be working (not lounging by the TV). And if I’ve learned nothing else through Science of Motion, it is that the abdominal muscles do not support the back muscles. I have looked at cross sections of the muscles and the evidence is just not there to support this statement. And the stretch of the back muscles. There is no stretching going on here. The muscles are working not stretching.

And finally, “The engagement of the hindquarters means that the horse is capable of carrying his weight with his hind legs and propelling the energy into a longer, more upward thrust for the medium and extended gaits.” Seriously? This doesn’t even make any sense. Any horse not capable of carrying weight with his hindquarters should not be alive. So let’s get rid of that bit. It’s completely unnecessary. And another thing I’ve learned from my SOM classes it is that the forelegs are more responsible for thrust than the hind legs. Plus this statement only applies to medium and extended gaits. Yet the top of the pyramid is collection. What is going on here?

My brain is kind of swirling around and in danger of collapsing on itself, but let’s keep going. The next level is STRAIGHTNESS (Improved Alignment and Balance). Great, I think we can all get behind straightness (as long as we are, ahem, straight, ha, ha!). If you’re on a straight line, the horse needs to be aligned front to back, and if you are more advanced, you might be thinking in terms of up and down too. Like the withers should remain vertical. But what about transversal rotation? Let’s skip that for now. What if your horse is on a circle? Well, I’m probably going to leave this one mostly alone too, but suffice it to say, horses’ spines don’t bend nearly as much as some people would have you believe, so you want to be careful when getting into bend on circles and in lateral movements. But straightness is important there too. I could probably live with straightness as a component of this pyramid, but I think a better word might be “balance.” Or maybe even “balance and coordination.” Because alignment sort of sounds like a chiropractic term and not a riding term.

And at long last, we’ve reached the pinnacle of the pyramid: COLLECTION. Wait, what? What about medium and extended gaits? Or backing up? The parentheses help a little bit – “Increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, and self-carriage.” Oh, OK. I can live with increased engagement and self-carriage. In fact, based on my admittedly minimal experience with an actual collected gait, I would suggest that self-carriage is really the goal here. In my mind, the idea of collection always brings an image of a scrunched up, compressed horse, performing mincing steps with hardly any forward motion and usually a twitching tail indicating extreme distress or discomfort.

And the piaffe has become the pinnacle of the vision of a well-trained horse because it seems like the ultimate in collection. But did you know that even kids learn how to ask horses to piaffe and that piaffe is taught early in the horse’s education at French riding schools? (I know from talking to people from said French schools, and I was amazed.)

So this collection thing at the top of the pyramid? It doesn’t make sense to me that collection is introduced at Second Level and it is at the top of the pyramid. Few people would say that Second Level horses are advanced horses. Why would the top of the pyramid be something you do at Second Level (or much earlier in the French schools)?

And what about the goal of dressage?  To me, it is to produce an athletic horse capable of doing something else, anything else, really. It’s unfortunate that so many people never move past just doing dressage (but if it fulfills you and your horse, I’m not judging).  But collection can't be the goal with so many other possibilities going on.

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not a big fan of the pyramid. But I do understand how organizing information visually can be helpful to people, so let me propose my alternate graphic for consideration:

I just whipped this up in Photoshop in about 10 minutes, so it isn't fancy, just something to give you an idea of what I'm thinking (it is seriously better than the piece of scratch paper that I used, though). With this graphic, I have renamed Relaxation to “Horse and rider are in a frame of mind that supports mental and physical discipline.” (I thought I could be wordy to fill up more space in the circle.) You can probably think of a catchier way to say this, but it seems to me that without the proper mental state anything you try to do is going to be excessively frustrating and/or unsuccessful, which is why I used it as an all-encompassing circle.

Then I added in what I think of as spokes of a wheel. All the spokes need to be in good shape for the wheel to function at its best and each spoke contributes if not equally, at least significantly, to the end goal. So, I did put rhythm as a spoke because I don’t think you’ll see a horse with good balance and self-carriage that doesn’t also have good rhythm. But I also think that rhythm develops along with those things, so making it a prerequisite isn’t a great way to think of it.

Then I renamed Connection to Communication. I think the idea of communication better fits a broader approach to dressage work and is inclusive rather than exclusive. If you want to ride your horse with a cordeo and a bareback pad, more power to you!

You might have noticed that I got rid of Impulsion and anything like it. I don’t think it is helpful for understanding the successful path to self-carriage. What little I did understand from the idea presented in the Dressage Today article seemed to fit under other categories like rhythm and communication. The rest of it was scientifically inaccurate and should no longer be promoted.

Then I swapped Straightness for Balanced and Coordinated. Straightness is a good thing to work on, but I was looking for a term that was broader and that better captures the dynamic approach to riding that I think exists.

And I couldn’t help myself but add in another spoke that doesn’t relate to the existing pyramid. The idea that your horse should be healthy or if not healthy, supported in the best way to help him work if the work is intended for rehabilitation or management of an issue (e.g. arthritis). Healthy to me means a proper environment (turnout for at least part of the day with herd mates), good nutrition that is species-appropriate and designed for the individual horse and work level, proper hoof care, and any other things the horse needs to be happy and physically fit.

That leaves the center of the wheel for Self-Carriage. I like that term better than Collection because I think it is more inclusive of what we are looking for. A horse can be balanced and coordinated and moving well but if he’s going over jumps, he’s probably not collected. I think this idea that piaffe is the end result of dressage training is misguided. Instead, we need to think about creating a horse that is capable of completing a significant athletic exercise (e.g. jumping, cross-country, working cattle, endurance). If you decide engaging in those types of activities isn’t for you and your horse, that’s OK, but dressage was never intended to be the final stop of a horse’s development and we shouldn’t look at it that way.

This long-winded response may make you think twice about asking me for my thoughts about anything else, but I hope that it inspired you to think about the pyramid differently. And maybe even rewrite it for yourself. Think about what you want for your riding partnership and look for qualities that you see in other horses and riders that you want to incorporate into your own work. There is no law that says dressage training must be linearly progressive or that you have to use a pyramid to represent your training plan. Maybe a bulleted list works better for you. Or a Venn diagram. Or a pie chart. There are a lot of ways to visually organize information and choosing one that appeals to you and best represents your thoughts and goals can be a great way to internalize your plan.


  1. Ooohh I really like the wheel graphic to bring all of your thoughts together! Funny how a simple graphic can help the brain so much.

    1. Thanks, Liz:) Visual organization of information definitely makes a difference to some people and the process of organizing it can really aid in learning. I'm not typically a big fan of it for myself, but I did gain some insights through the process.