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The Biomechanics of Dressage vs the Scales of Training

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

When it comes to dressage the scales of training are the stepping stones that many riders live by when training horses. They form the basis of what judges look for in horses during a dressage test. But what about biomechanics. How does anatomy and biomechanics link in with the scales of training? This is a question explored in this blog and one which we will study in greater detail in the Dressage Dissected online lecture demonstration

gillian higgins horses inside out The anatomy of dressage. equine skeleton, rider skeleton, joint movement, collection, trot, enagement, outline, rollkur, hyperflexion, scales of training

The team at Horses Inside Out is excited about this lecture demonstration as we delve deep into the biomechanics of dressage. In the previous two lecture demonstrations in the series we've covered the horse's movement and the effect the rider has on the horse.

gillian higgins horses inside outLili Brooksby-Dalby and Hans PSG Prix St Georg dressage horse, love horses

Our main rider in this demo is international dressage rider Lily Brooksby-Dalby who has produced horses, up to Grand Prix level. She rides the lovely Hans a 17hh Dutch Warmblood.

Gillian's horse, Artistic Flair, will also be making an appearance.

The Anatomy of Dressage

In the first half of the online lecture demonstration we look at the anatomy and biomechanics specifically related to dressage. This will cover many popular topics of conversation in the horse world such as; how the horse maintains an outline, the different head and neck positions and how those different positions affect the movement and way of going of the horse.

We will look at the 2 very different ways a horse achieves "getting his nose on the vertical". And question whether this really is the best marker for a good outline? Also, what is the correct way of going for improving posture and musculoskeletal health and the positive impact on the horse’s performance?

The answer to these questions and many others lie in an understanding of anatomy and biomechanics.

Other topics that will be covered include, the importance of the base of the neck, the positioning of the hind limb relating to the sacroiliac joint and lumbar sacral junction, and how this is important for collection and engagement.

The Scales of Training

In the second half, we ask Lily and Hans to demonstrate a variety of different dressage movements and exercises designed to improve each of the scales of training and in turn we’ll discuss the relevant biomechanics.


1. Rhythm

gillian higgins horses inside outRhythm the first scale of training in horse training, long and low, relaxation, anatomy, skeleton, biomechanics

The first scale of training is rhythm.

Relaxation is critical to achieve rhythm. However, relaxation doesn't mean a lack of activity or purpose. Here we will look at exercises designed to improve rhythm, focus the mind, relieve tension and relax the topline and utilise the fact that physiology can affect psychology!

"Physiology can affect psychology!" Gillian Higgins

2. Suppleness

The second scale of training is suppleness. This actually refers to suppleness of mind as well as body. The word suppleness often conjures thoughts of lateral flexion and bend.

gillian higgins horses inside out Suppleness, 2nd scale of training horses, lateral flexion, bend back movement, neck, spine, pelvis, carrot exercises, baited stretch

So in this section we will focus on the biomechanics of lateral flexion and anatomically how the horse achieves bend. It's well known that the horse does not bend evenly from poll to tail but exactly where does the feeling of bend come from?

How can we utilise bending within our training for the health of the musculoskeletal system?

"Employing lateral flexion exercises can help to maintain back mobility..." Gillian Higgins

3. Contact

The third scale of training is contact. This should be elastic and responsive yet consistent. The horse should not lean excessively on the rein nor avoid it's pressure. The contact should be even on both the right and left.

gillian higgins horses inside out HNP head and neck position or outline of the horse. Consistent contack, poll at the highest point, nose on the vertical, horse rider good contact,

This is not just about the horse - both horse and rider symmetry and balance will affect the contact. Often by focussing on rider position, symmetry and hand position and stillness, the horse's contact and outline will improve.

"Consistency is key to a good contact!"

Learn more about the biomechanics of different outlines in the book Posture and Performance and in the recorded webinar "Understanding the Horse's Neck".


4. Impulsion

gillian higgins horses inside out Impulsion is the 4th scale of horse training. canter, Laura Tomlinson, Betty, hind limb propulsion, equine anatomy and biomechanics horse and rider skeleton bones joints

The fourth scale of training is impulsion. Only when the first 3 scales of training are consistently established can impulsion be significantly improved.

For example, increased impulsion can affect balance and upset suppleness if the horse isn't strong enough to support it.

On the other hand, a lack of impulsion can be of detriment to the rhythm, suppleness and contact!

So all the scales actually affect each other -a little like the anatomy of the horse.

It is impossible to affect one part of the body without an effect on the rest of the body!

"All the scales of training are connected just like the anatomy of the horse!" Gillian Higgins

5. Straightness

When it comes to the fifth scale of training, straightness, it is easy to think this is all about going in a straight line.

 gillian higgins horses inside out  is the fifth scale of training, horse and rider harmony, symmetry, asymmetry and performance, soundness and health

However straightness is as important through turns, circles and lateral work.

A 'straight' horse will bend evenly to the left and right. In the lecture demonstration Dressage Dissected, we will look at how the horse moves sideways and the muscles involved in not only creating adduction (taking the leg towards the body) and abduction (taking the leg away from the body) but those involved in lateral stability.

Strength, suppleness and balance within all these muscles is important for good performance in terms of straightness, lateral work and bending and for helping to reduce the risk of joint and connective tissue injury within the limbs.

"To develop straightness it is important to balance lateral suppleness with lateral stability." Gillian Higgins

Learn more about assessing straightness in the biomechanics course in horse movement: Anatomy in Action


6. Collection

Collection is considered the pinnacle to the scales of training. The last scale to be worked on.

When we consider the biomechanics, collection is relative to the horse's age, muscular condition and stage of training. For example, a simple progressive downwards transition from trot to walk, is a collection exercise for a young horse as is the balancing half halt. In these exercises we see a change in the action of the hindleg from one of pushing to more carrying. This is something highlighted beautifully in the second online lecture demonstration in this series: Riding from the Anatomical Perspective.

In the online lecture demonstration, Dressage Dissected, we will be looking at the biomechanics of more advanced collected movements (not quite the Levade as pictured) and methods to assess correct posture and way of going throughout.


As a finale Lily and Hans will ride a dressage show to music.

This is an exciting and fascinating demo - one not to be missed - and can be purchased on the academy

Dressage Dissected demonstartion video costs just £20, or purchase all four in the series for £60.

Learn more about the biomechanics of dressage in the book Posture and Performance and in the recorded webinar "Understanding the Horse's Neck"

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