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A Fresh Look at the Training Scale with Andrew McLean


The Horse Magazine

Story – Chris Hector
Photos – Roz Neave and file

One of the refreshing things about Andrew McLean is that he is quite happy to cross examine sacred cows, and always prepared to think outside the square. So while for most of us, the German Training Scale is very close to the revealed truth, for Andrew it is just another training method that needs to be critically evaluated like all the other training recipes kicking around the equestrian world – and yes, after due consideration, Andrew came up with his own training scale, based on scientific learning principles of ‘shaping’ which means progressive response building.

He explains: “I do think that it is important that the German Training Scale is open to scrutiny – we hold these things up as Holy Grails and never to be questioned, but I can’t think of many other instituted ideologies that are given such immunity except perhaps for the Ten Commandments. The Training Scale was never put to a peer reviewed process. I think it’s healthier for dressage, as with every other modern endeavour, if all theories and practices are seen as subject to change; as living rather than dead documents.”

The German Training Scale is as follows:


  1. Rhythm
  2. Suppleness/sometimes replaced with Looseness
  3. Contact
  4. Impulsion
  5. Straightness
  6. Collection

“Considering the German scale is the first training scale that we have in widespread use, I think it’s a great achievement. Many judges claim to follow the Training Scale in their judging, believing that the Scale offers a progressive set of qualities that should be accumulated in the horse. Many trainers see it similarly and frequently describe it as a pyramid, where one quality is dependent on the one below. I think there are problems with this and I want to talk about these so I can get riders, trainers and coaches to think more critically and a little more objectively about the notions we have inherited. I should begin by saying that the German Scale wasn’t the first training scale. Baucher developed one possibly a little earlier, published by his pupil, Francois Faverot de Kerbrech in 1891:

  1. To train and adhere to lightness
  2. To obtain obedience to the legs
  3. To obtain straightness
  4. To get the horse used to working without help from the aids
  5. To collect and engage the horse.

“I have to say that though I’m not enamoured by all things about Baucher, his Scale seemed like a pretty good effort. As a set of directives to trainers it is clearly progressive. In that respect it’s quite a good start.”

“But it is the German Scale that is the most recognised, apparently the most widely used and with many, many successes attributed to it. So I’d like to look at this scale more closely with some questions. Firstly, is it actually a scale or is it instead a set of principles? Do all elite German trainers and equestrian texts follow it to the letter? Is it complete and informative in terms of training responses or movements to horses?”

A scale, a concept or a set of principles?

“The word ‘scale’ implies a measured, directional, alteration of proportions. To a psychologist or animal trainer, a ‘training scale’ clearly implies shaping (the progressive building of a response, step by step). Yet research into the scale shows that there is a lack of unity in Germany regarding how the scale is used and while some see it as a gradual learning programme others see it as a list of directives. The Handbook of the German FN calls the scale a set of qualities, while Johann Hinnemann and Coby van Baalen describe the scale as a series of concepts. Others call the scale a series of principles. Last year, as an invited panellist at the Global Dressage Forum, I asked Johann Hinnemann if the Training Scale was intended to suggest a progressive training programme and many delegates got involved in the ensuing debate. But there was no consensus about it being progressive, particularly when I asked why straightness appears towards the end, after impulsion. It was agreed that the Training Scale was more of a set of training goals or principles than a scale. I think they are right here. Furthermore, if straightness is left in the scale in its current position, (and I’ll discuss that further in a minute) then I think it’s even less useful as a scale.”

“All other animal trainers recognise the steps of shaping and likewise horse trainers need a shaping scale. In all training, responses have a beginning, an end and definable steps in between. There are clear steps that need to be achieved in priority over others. If you are a successful trainer, you will have already shaped responses perhaps without knowing it. However, knowing the steps makes training more efficient, because if they are too big, the animal struggles to go further. Responses are built step by step, so that a single quality is added, consolidated and then another until a refined learned response occurs from the aid. The aim is to achieve the response as a reflex (like a rote-learned answer) from an aid. Steinbrecht was insistent on this: “[…the training exercises should] all follow one another in such a way that the preceding exercise always constitutes a secure basis for the next one. Violations of this rule will always exert payment later on; not only by a triple loss of time but very frequently by resistances, which for a long time if not forever interfere with the relationship between horse and rider”.”

A Classical scale?

“We often hear people say that the Training Scale is classical, yet it is relatively recent. It launched into the psyche of riders and trainers not so long ago when Col. Burkner gave a lecture in 1953 based on the Training Scale called The requirements of a well-trained dressage horse which was so popular that it was reprinted 4 times.”

“It is difficult to find the origin of the Training Scale. The most popular theory is that it originated over a century ago in the Spanish Riding School, (whose training is based on the work of the Frenchman, de la Guérinière) but in their directives of 1898 (von Holbein and Meixner) no mention of the scale is made. Another theory is that it was derived from the works of Caprilli. Sigmund von Haugk is sometimes credited with its invention; his book published in 1949 gave a good account of the scale, but these ideas do not appear to be his brainchild. Olympic judge, Nick Williams has researched the scale and found it will be 100 years old in 2012. He found that its first mention was in the 1912 revised edition of the German Cavalry Manual, the “Heeresdienstvorschrift” or HDV as it is abbreviated. At less than a hundred years old, and not really implanted in the collective equestrian consciousness till less than fifty years ago, the Training Scale as an entity is not classical.”

A universal training scale?

“Only the most recent German texts mention the scale; Franz Mairinger didn’t give it a mention in “Horses are made to be horses”. However, in one way or another, the principles embodied in the scale are discussed in all dressage texts whether they are German, French, Swedish or Italian (collection and impulsion are as old as the Naples school of 1532).”

“There is a lot of variation on the components and use of the scale. Dr Reiner Klimke, one of my all-time favourite 20th century trainers, placed rhythm second to relaxation. Erik Herbermann (pupil of the famous Egon von Niendorf) is one who actually sees the Training Scale as a shaping scale. Interestingly, however he has altered the positions of the elements and placed straightness before impulsion. This makes much more sense to me, for reasons I will describe later. Herbermann’s version goes like this:

1. Rhythm
2. Relaxation 3. Contact
4. Straightness 5. Impulsion 6. Collection

Like Steinbrecht, he warns that you have to achieve each step before the previous one: each step is dependent on the ones before. So this, at last, is a more practical scale of shaping. “Only a straight horse”, says Herbermann, “can develop impulsion”. It makes a lot of sense to train progressively. If the German Training Scale were to be revised, Herbermann’s scheme would get my vote as an improvement on the original scale. I think the scale should be seen as a work in progress.”

Rewarding a “Good try”

“All animal training systems begin with rewarding a good basic response. It is one of the stand-out, successful features of the Parelli system that, regardless of whether you love it or hate it, works well because it obeys that basic principle. It’s like teaching a child to

spell; you make the task as simple as possible, the answer as easy and obvious as you can and you reward the good try. So with the horse, when it is responding to the basic question with ease you raise the expectations just a little and reward a slightly more correct answer. No matter what you are teaching the horse, whether it’s a breaker learning to walk forward, a horse learning canter under saddle or an advanced horse learning piaffe, you must reward a series of good tries in the beginning. A good scale should inform that. So while successful trainers might actually do this themselves, there is no systematic assurance that there pupils will be learn it in the absence of a scale. A scale is instructive to all trainers. I say this because you can see trainers train complex movements quite well yet they can’t coach their pupils to teach their horses basic horsemanship skills like standing still beside the mounting block. A scale would even inform the training of that too. It is also not uncommon to see trainers raise expectations in steps that are too large, and to try to get more in the beginning than just a hint of the correct answer and reward that. A scale should always begin with rewarding a good try. (In behavioural science we call it ‘successive approximation’ implying an approximate answer, not the correct one).”

An immediate response from a light aid

“The importance of obedience to the aids, (meaning an immediately initiated response to a cue or light aid) is the hallmark of all successful animal training and many texts advocate it but it isn’t part of the German Training Scale. Delayed responses go hand in hand with the lack of a light aid and so as one diminishes, the other tends to follow. Delayed response suggests that the animal hasn’t got a consolidated reflex type response. So obedience should occur on a practical training scale before rhythm because it is so basic and fundamental. Again many trainers are excellent at training lightness but because it isn’t laid down and systematised, it isn’t relegated to the status of rhythm.”

“The horse’s mouth is the chief response that is neglected here. Methods that take strong pressure on the horse’s mouth (or use leg pressure simultaneously) cause the light rein aids to be de-trained, resulting in brake failure. The reins and the contact are such pivotal aspects of dressage that it is easy to forget that the horse has learned when he was young that the reins are fundamental agents of stopping. It’s no problem that the seat acquires this too, but the rein effects shouldn’t be de-trained. As signals the reins can easily become ambiguous and blurry and the horse protests by showing tension or bad behaviour and then gets punished. So much tension and behaviour problems can be cured when you simply ensure that from light aids the horse can stop, slow, shorten its step, step backwards a stride and turn from both direct and indirect rein aids. Similarly from light leg aids the horse should be able to go, lengthen, quicken, and leg-yield. After that roundness for any horse is easy, if it hasn’t already fallen into place.”

“When a horse is equally light to the forward and restraining aids, rhythm emerges; the horse self-maintains its speed. Going on his own, in other words keeping on doing what you already asked him to do, is an essential defining feature of rhythm. So obedience is a precursor of rhythm. Self-carriage also applies to straightness and contact. Nobody would disagree that the three main things we want to do is control the horse’s rhythm, straightness and outline but what I am pointing out is these should be trained to be self-

maintained by the horse, not held by the rider so they collapse when the reins and legs are removed for a step or two. All animal training is about teaching the animal to persist with whatever response till signalled otherwise. So invisible light aids and self-carriage all the way through training are essential. I don’t like the concept of training with constant heavy aids and believing that self-carriage takes months or years to occur. It isn’t fair to horses because too many horses that simply can’t handle that kind of psychological pressure are rejected and/or develop behaviour problems leading to their blame, poor welfare and sometimes death. If trainers ensured that rein aids were equally as light as leg aids, then they would see that self-carriage is easily attainable. Self- carriage and its consequence for the horse, the freedom from constant pain, are essential welfare aspects and it is the horse’s right to expect it all the way from breaking-in to Grand Prix.”


“Straightness should be right next to rhythm. In fact I am quite sure it is in fact a sub-set or a part of rhythm. The fact that it sits after impulsion on most examples of the German Training Scale make no sense to me. I think the problem begins with the definition of Straightness. Traditionally straightness is thought of being about the body of the horse being straight and I agree in part but that isn’t causal to the problem of crookedness. Training straightness is about training the horse to maintain a designated line set by the single light aid of the rider. A crooked horse is one that is drifting sideways or attempting to drift – if the rider weren’t holding one rein tighter or had one leg on stronger, the crooked horse would drift. Of course most vertebrates are born with some asymmetry and tend to drift one way or the other as a result of differential limb propulsion that characterises asymmetry. Riders that sit crookedly also cause this differential propulsion. Because of the weight of the horse’s head and neck (around 10% body weight) a bent neck also causes uneven propulsion. Regardless of the effects of nature or nurture, asymmetrical propulsion is the hallmark of crookedness. From a biomechanical point of view, rhythm is about having symmetrical propulsion and so straightness is clearly important in perfecting rhythm. To put it in another way, a crooked horse can’t have an even rhythm and without a bilaterally even propulsion it couldn’t have impulsion either. The American dressage association (The USDF) has already acknowledged the importance of a maintained line of travel in their definition of straightness in their glossary.”

A scale based on behavioural science

“Some years ago, I aimed to develop a shaping scale that would be useful from start to finish in training including breaking in youngsters and going all the way through to training any movements such as a lengthened trot to higher composite movements such as pirouettes and half-passes. I decided to use the shaping philosophy informed by the behavioural sciences and proposed by Skinner, the father of behavioural psychology. Skinner’s explanations of how organisms learn are used by all other animal trainers from domestic to zoo animals, display animals and service animals.”

“In constructing a shaping scale the first thing to do is to break down all behaviour into the smallest units; into single learned responses. Then to add one by one each learned

response. It is essential to begin with the most important variables that need controlling and these are often the ones that present the most danger. Imagine that you have an animal (any animal) and you want to train it so you can ride it from point A to point B across country, but the animal is not yet broken in. So the first thing you want to install is a basic accelerator, brakes and steering.”

“So once basic stop and go are installed, (a basic attempt at the correct response is now consolidated) you now want the response immediately and from light, invisible signals so you don’t have to work so hard and so the animal doesn’t feel offended by the pressures. (Obedience to the aids) The animal is much safer now. Next you have to deal with the constant alterations of speed so the animal learns to go on its own, no matter what speed you set (Rhythm). The animal is calm now. Next you want to train the animal to maintain a designated line and get rid of the constant drifting (Straightness). Now you’ve got its legs under control, it’s much softer and feels more supple now. Next you do more transitions until accelerator and rein connections are consistent, resulting in a consistently maintained head and neck posture. It now feels very easy to ride, power steering, smooth accelerator and brakes and good shock absorbers…. You will have to revisit some aspects of your training from time to time when environmental conditions change, say for example when you get to a creek and the accelerator fails. So exposure and training in different circumstances and environments is another learning aspect that we call Proof. Proof is a term I borrowed from American dog trainers – it means the animal responds equally well anytime, anywhere. This hypothetical format informs the basis of my shaping scale and provided the basis for my elephant training programmes. It is similar to any animal training programme. It is also similar to the optimal way to teach children to read and spell.”

“What I have described is the basis that all successful “horse breakers” use, even if they don’t know that they do. These things are important because when responses deteriorate such as in any disobedience, or bad behaviour such as rearing bucking, shying bolting etc or even tension, you revisit these aspects that are trained by the reins and legs. In dressage training we want more than what I have just described, because we aim for continuing development of the horse’s physique through engagement to collection. We want the horse to carry more weight on its hindquarters, lowering the croup and raising the poll.”

Basic Attempt 1.      Reinforce a basically correct response. Usually a single step from pressure


Horse basically goes forward Horse experiences canter with rider astride. It may run into canter Horse simply experiences longer strides
Obedience Reinforce one stride from one light aid Horse initiates forward immediately from a light aid Horse goes takes correct lead from a light canter aid Horse lengthens from one light aid (transitions in stride length)
Rhythm Reinforce

multiple strides

from one light aid, maintains speed

Horse keeps going forward from one light aid. Maintains changes in speed and stride length Horse maintains canter from a single aid, learns to lengthen and shorten canter Horse learns to lengthen without quickening from one light aid (transitions begin in slower tempo)
Straightness Reinforce multiple strides on your line from one light aid Horse goes on your line and with straight body from one light aid Horse canters on your line from single light aid Horse lengthens from one light aid maintaining 1⁄4, 3⁄4, centre and diagonal lines
Contact Reinforce multiple strides with correct posture from one light aid Horse goes forward with consistent head, neck & body posture from one light aid Horse canters with consistent outline from single light aid Horse lengthens from one light aid with consistent outline
Proof Reinforce all previous qualities in any environment Horse maintains the above qualities as it goes anywhere and everywhere Horse canters anywhere and everywhere from single light aid Horse lengthens from one light aid anywhere and every

The AEBC training scale. As a progressive building programme, movements can be deconstructed as follows: a movement consists of one or more basic responses (e.g. go, turn, etc) in a particular gait; the smallest unit of a gait is a stride (complete cycle of all for legs peculiar to that gait) the smallest unit of a gait is a step. These form identifiable behaviour units that can be targeted and reinforced consistently.

Andrew explained that he has modified his training scale somewhat, partly as a result of a peer-review process by colleagues: “Engagement (leading to collection) used to be at the end of our scale (before Proof). But for my purposes in terms of reinforcement of responses, I’ve removed it because engagement and collection are progressive physical developments more than learned responses. They are quantum effects that occur during

training. Of course the end result is that the rider may well be able to switch from a working trot to a collected trot, but differences in physique alter those expressions forever. I have removed engagement and collection because while the dressage horse definitely requires these things they are acquired differently from other aspects of his training. I don’t want to give the impression that one day you can decide to train collection. There is already too much of that going on and it’s extremely bad for horses to suddenly coerce them into a frame. It’s what I hate about auction riding and training. Engagement and collection are best seen as the classical goals because they emerge as a function of correct, progressive training.”

A scale for judging

“I also believe that judging is currently very difficult and part of that difficulty is that the criteria are poor and the range of marks is too narrow. Wayne Shannon proposed at the last GDF that we should begin to look at half marks and go in the same direction as the sports of diving and skating, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears. Yet it does seem inadequate since most horses in the top 20 of big competitions are getting from 6 to 8 for every movement, so the range of 3 marks seems outdated. It is important to recognise that if the German Training Scale is not an incremental progressive scale then it doesn’t lend itself to helping judges come up with correct marks. It seems to me that if we used the scale I proposed above as a fundamental basis to mark movements and judges were trained to understand it, judging would become more objective. For example if a judge can identify a movement, then it should be worth a 5 (As Eric Lette pointed out many years ago). If the horse is going from invisible aids then a movement should be worth a 6. If that horse appears to be self-maintaining its speed in any designated stride length, and doesn’t look as if it would dash off if the rider were to let go of the reins, then it’s worth 7. If the horse is straight as well it’s worth 8 and if it’s sufficiently engaged and collected 9. That leaves a 10 for the perfect response. I think every movement can be judged this way. I am suggesting this because many judges claim to be using the German Scale in their judging yet they may reward a horse with flash movement with an 8 when it is clearly running away and thus defies the principle of rhythm (self-maintained speed). So clearly something is going wrong.”

A scale for coaching, training and retraining

“When you deal with behaviour problems as I have in my life’s work you begin to see systematic aspects of training that most people miss. I lay claim to having ridden more rearers, leapers, shyers, buckers and generally badly behaved horses than most others and I’ve done this in all states and 9 different countries. I did it so much I got to the stage of feeling quite burnt out by it and that’s one reason why the elephant training project was so appealing. But what I learned from these last few decades is that obedience is by far the most important aspect of a training scale. By that I don’t mean humble subservience but instead I mean that you train so efficiently that the responses should all be initiated immediately and from invisible aids. This is something that the German philosophies have also maintained as well: the notion that badly behaved horses are simply “not on the aids.” But fixing the rider is usually only part of the story because horses are unbelievably good at forming habits. Bad habits need fixing, and a useful training scale should suggest where to go to fix it.”

“So practically every behaviour problem that becomes habitual shows deficits in obedience of one or more of the basic response of go, stop, turn and yield. Recently published studies in this country looking at the whole range of equestrian coaches show that coaches have insufficient knowledge about animal learning theory, yet that is their profession. Surveys show dog trainers know a little more. There is no reason to expect that the situation is any better elsewhere. Yet these principles are easy to digest. While I don’t advocate Röllkur and I understand it even less, I admire the Dutch Federation for being the first to embrace some scientific understanding of training. Last year in Holland I was invited to give a lecture to 50 invited elite coaches on learning theory at the KWPN, the Royal Dutch centre. Anky then gave a demonstration on a young horse and the coaches had to explain what they saw only in the language of learning theory terms they had just learned. They did it surprisingly well.”

Acknowledge but don’t worship great trainers of the past

“We will always need to utilise and develop existing techniques for improving riding position, that is for sure. But I think our biggest drawback is placing too much emphasis on the training of the Renaissance. It’s absurd calling great trainers of the past “Great Masters”. That’s ok if you are talking about art or music, but it’s nonsensical when you are talking about a technology of behaviour modification for horses, which is essentially what training is. That would be like exclusively using 400 year old medical techniques to treat the sick. Sure, let’s learn from past great trainers where we can but don’t throw away the accumulated knowledge humanity has acquired since then. As soon as you elevate horsemen to this godly plane their words are gospel. So I think if anything, we should tread lightly in the footsteps of the “Great Masters”. These wonderful classical times were when slavery was a good idea and ethnic cleansing helped create good Christian countries. I don’t think too many in those days thought horses had rights to optimal welfare, (except for minimal standards that permitted usefulness), because women, indigenous people and the poor didn’t have any.”

Behavioural science gives you a tool-box

“I think it’s time coaching, training and riding philosophies all embraced a more objective and scientific approach. I don’t mean we should ride and train like robots, because there will always be the human side of ‘feel’ and rapport that separates a good trainer from a poor one. Perhaps the limitations of behavioural science are those aspects of the human-horse relationship that are impossible to measure, define or directly observe. Love, rapport and empathy remain important to us as humans and should remain so, but they too are emergent properties of positive interactions, of good communication and therefore of good training and good teaching. But behavioural science allows you to know what’s in your tool-box (a term I like and borrowed from Kyra) as a trainer and when and how to use it. When you look at the finesse of a great rider, you can boil much of it down to consistent, correct finely-tuned rider biomechanics, good psychological skills that make a winning performance, and optimal horse training practices. The most exciting thing about using learning theory correctly and incorporating it into coaching is that it informs all methods, from natural horsemanship to dressage. It helps riders at every level but when highly skilled riders take it on the results are more extraordinary. We have

to strive at all levels to develop self-carriage and the lightest invisible aids (which is why the International Society for Equitation Science” and societies such as “Allege-ideal” in France and “Xenophon” in Germany are so important). Good welfare-based principles including a workable and universal shaping scale are essential for acceptable modern horse training in every discipline.”