Dressage training pyramid - question re: greenies

Popping over from h/j land. I’m riding a very green youngster and the idea of the dressage training pyramid appeals to me as a paradigm. But here’s a question I can’t find the answer to…

Rhythm and relaxation are the foundation of the pyramid. So, if I’m focusing on the horse achieving rhythm and relaxation, do I ignore other issues? Like, what if he is falling in? What if he’s pulling down/forehandy? Do I just ignore that stuff for now and focus ONLY on rhythm and relaxation? Thanks!

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Great question, and the answer is generally No - you address everything in the priority of the training scale. So if he is trotting around nicely with good, regular rhythm and is relaxed, with good contact and good impulsion, and then he falls in (straightness), you address the straightness. If he’s going around with good rhythm, relaxation, contact, but not impulsion, and then he falls in, you address the impulsion first, then when all those four ducks are in a row, you address the straightness.

Then again, if he’s a youngster, sometimes you have to play it by ear and adjust as needed. But the goal should be to get all the elements of the training scale (as much as the horse can at their stage of training), in the priority of the scale. So if he’s crooked, has no impulsion, and is not relaxed, you get your rhythm first, then address the relaxation (I think now they call it suppleness in the updated version), then contact, etc. Then with a youngster especially you’ll lose something again, then you’ll fix it, and it’s a long game of whack-a-mole in each ride as you tuck in a shoulder here, get back your relaxation there, etc.


The horse is unlikely to be relaxed and rhythmic if he’s pulling down or falling in. If his balance is simply more on the forehand than ideal and he’s not leaning or pulling that’s okay. It’s easily addressed once rhythm and relaxation are there.

If you think of suppleness instead of relaxation it is easy to see that the horse falling in or bulging out is not supple. The good thing about green horses is their tendency to fall in/bulge out at the same places in the arena/exercise so we as riders can be prepared and ride to prevent it rather than fix it.

There can be no rhythm without a certain degree of impulsion, but of course a green horse will not have the same degree of sit and push as a horse further along. We start by finding the horse’s natural, comfortable balance and push to be able to maintain a steady rhythm and relax. Then we start nudging for a little more impulsion or shifting the balance further back or greater suppleness returning to the rhythm and relaxation as needed.

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I don’t agree with this. There is always rhythm, but not necessarily steady at a good tempo. Additionally, you can have good, steady rhythm and tempo a the walk, which has no impulsion.


what do you define as impulsion?

Even at the walk you can’t get rhythm unless the horse has some swing and forward to his step.


The pyramid is the progression of building blocks that the horse and rider work through in sequence over time. The horse has to develop physically, starting with rhythm. It is the bottom tier that focuses on tempo and regularity in the basic gaits. If you look at the paper copy of the each test it lists the purpose. Training level 1, for example, is looking for correct basics. Rhythm is footfalls within a gait. Walk is 4-beat gait, canter is 3-beats. Steady tempo is the speed of the footfalls and should be consistent within a test. Your horse shouldn’t take off like a rocket on the trot-canter because you surprised him with the transition. Nor should you slow down so much it gets a 4-beat canter. His movement won’t be regular, so you probably can’t follow it, and he won’t relax. If your horse doesn’t have a solid base of rhythm and tempo in each gait you aren’t going to get far. His physical development may or may not provide an adequate base to work at the next level, let alone impulsion a couple of levels beyond.

You do “ignore” the higher level skills. Horses do much better when they aren’t confused. That happens when they get too many cues in a short period of time. They were born knowing how to canter, but not which human cues say “canter”, which lead is “correct” and how fast they are supposed to go. They guess at what we are asking for. Training is what we do so they link a correct answer to a clear question. If you are concentrating on rhythm and tempo, that’s your focus. Getting them off the forehand will come as they develop. If you don’t have solid, clean, consistent gaits you have nothing to build on.

I was taught that preparing and getting a nice transition is better than pounding on them to “do something we are at E” for accuracy. I retired from riding tests years ago (I’m 73, he’s 26) because I could stop at a good place on Intro level. We opened the second test with “3 nice try.” My horse still avoids the part of “halt” that requires him to stop. We retired on “8 Straight and square” and moved on to fun shows. I’m happy we are still riding. Minds and bodies are still functional. Working on W/T is fine.


If rhythm in the training pyramid is simply the order of footfalls within the gait why is it there? Any time a horse moves there is rhythm by that definition. Surely the training principle is to get a consistent tempo in the rhythm of the gait.

I would say I do have (or sometimes lack) impulsion in the walk with my horses, but I don’t know what you’re using as the definition of impulsion. I am aware that we are using English words that someone chose as translation from German and as such the definition of the training pyramid words do not entirely match the English definition of the word. What is your understanding of the training pyramid term “impulsion”?

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A four-beat canter has a rhythm, but not the correct one. An impure walk has a rhythm, but not the correct one.

As for the walk, you want activity in the walk. The walk has no suspension because there no thrust off the ground. Without suspension, there’s no impulsion.

Dr. Josef Knipp, FEI judge writing in “Dressage Today”:
“The walk, however, has no phase of suspension, so there is no impulsion. Instead of suspension, we look for activity.”


Hmm… I definitely get thrust from the hind end in my horses walks. This translation using the English word impulsion is obviously lacking the meaning of the German word.

Rhythm apparently misses the mark as well. I can see how a four beat canter is missing “rhythm” but I’m not understanding the lack in the walk. Perhaps I’ve never seen one. A walk rhythm is LH LF RH RF repeating. What kind of order of footfall would an impure walk show?

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No, what you have at the walk is not thrust, but push.

I’m not sure what mark you’re talking about, but a four beat canter is not missing rhythm; it is missing the correct rhythm.

The footfalls you describe in the walk are not the rhythm, but the sequence. A lateral walk is an example of an impure walk. The sequence of footfalls would be the same, but instead of ONE – TWO – THREE – FOUR you might have ONE TWO - THREE FOUR. This would be a change in the rhythm.


I think it depends on the severity of the problem. The training scale assumes a basic level of obedience to the aids, such that the horse goes at the speed you asked for, in the gait you asked for, on the line of travel you asked for. If any of those skills fail you address them in the moment.
The scale comes in when you are ready to address the QUALITY of the horse’s performance. It gives you a priority list for improving the horse.

So in your example, if I’m working on the horse putting all of his mental and physical energy into going actively forward in a correct rhythm, and he falls off the line of travel, I’ll put him right back on it. If he’s just not bending correctly yet, I won’t try to introduce that until he is steadily forward into a consistent contact.


Also, I think relaxation/suppleness easily gets conflated with bend, which is under straightness. The suppleness at the bottom of the training scale I think translates more as a lack of mental or physical resistance - what he’s doing may not be complex, but he’s putting his full energy and attention into doing it.


@TBKite I like this input very much. I have seen both “relaxation” and “suppleness” on that second tier of the pyramid. The way you explain it, relaxation/responsiveness is really more accurate (because I do confuse suppleness and bending for sure)…and that makes a lot of sense for this particular horse.

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I’m not sure I can really answer your question because for me, backing and starting youngsters is so much by feel. I have a coming 4 year-old that I backed in the fall. Once I had the basics fully entrenched - forward off the leg; slowing and halting based on voice, stilling my body; and steering, we hit the trails. I have found over the years that instilling forward is a must. Of course I keep the appropriate rhythm in mind which means the walk is always to be 4-beat and the trot 2-beat. I wait until they’re strong enough and find their balance with a rider on board before even thinking about canter under saddle. For some that’s a longer process than others. Trail riding really helps me keep the horse focused on moving off my leg and coming back (slowing or halting) maintaining proper rhythm without tension. It’s the tension that often causes the incorrect rhythm/paces such as lateral walk. After many, many miles of trail riding, I get back into the arena to start working on balance. The horse is still expected to have impulsion (moving forward and thinking forward even in the downward transitions) and maintain appropriate rhythm but then I start working on tempo and balance (inside leg to outside hand, bending lines, maintaining rhythm and balance) - by incorporating all of this I have a better chance of eliminating or minimizing tension. The final piece is acceptance of the bit/contact (let me be clear, I’m asking for it all along but I don’t sweat it if they aren’t really signing up for it right away or have inconsistencies) because I know that with strength and balance which needs time to develop (different for each horse) that this piece will come eventually. My goal is to have a forward, balanced horse moving in the proper rhythm and tempo and accepting contact at all three gaits consistently…The part of your question that struck a chord with me is that I find that relaxation is better achieved the more you guide your horse (even a greenie) into better balance and understanding on the horse’s part as to what moving straight into both reins is; so, I don’t ignore it but I will put more emphasis on the building blocks of the pyramid and my expectations of what their understanding should be builds as time and miles and just as important STRENGTH increases.


The TBKite has given me lots of opportunity to ponder rhythm, relaxation, and contact :slightly_smiling_face:.

This is an excerpt from Reiner Klimke’s book on training the young horse, discussing the meaning of the German word.


Sorry, I’m missing something. What is the difference between rhythm and tempo? It seems like your second example is a change in tempo. Is tempo the timing of the complete set of footfalls and rhythm the timing of footfalls within the single complete set of footfalls?

Rhythm is the pattern (sequence and timing) of footfalls. Tempo is how quickly the pattern repeats.


Rhythm is the sound pattern. It’s like the meter in music.

Tempo is the speed of that pattern.

Lots of horses are subtly off on the walk and trot. They are a bit lateral at the walk and a bit broken at the trot.

If the trot gets significantly broken you have a gaited horse. At one end of the continuum there is trot (totally diagonal) and at the other end pace (totally lateral). All the fancy gaits like fox trot, amble, rack, are on this continuum. Lots of green horses who aren’t gaited will have a trot where the rhythm isn’t quite 100 % diagonal especially if they are stiff or body sore. A clean trot is one two one two one two. That’s the rhythm you want. Then you can choose the tempo you want which is how fast the one two one two beat goes.

It’s like making a rhythm track on a synthesizer. You can speed it up or slow it down but it’s the same pattern.


To add to the subtlety, there are two creatures in the partnership. It is easy to push a horse off its own natural rhythm when seeking ones own. Think of a mother in a hurry with the child beside her having to do a couple of running steps in the walk to keep up. It can happen particularly when ‘speed’ is mistaken for ‘impulsion’ so the horse goes faster but even as it is rthymical in steps the tempo is too rushed - think of dancing with a partner who flings himself around a room: not easy to enjoy, draw breath or look pretty, calm and collected.