Conrad Schumacher’s Rider Training Scale from the March 2000 issue

At the 1999 National Symposium Conrad Schumacher assumed that most participants were familiar with the Training Scale for the Horse from the German handbook, Principles of Riding (and featured in the USDF Instructors’ Manual). “But there’s another scale,” he said. “It is hardly ever talked about, and you won’t find it in any books.” It is a progressive scale of development for the rider.

His Rider Training Scale consists of six parts. From the bottom up they are: 1) establishing balance in the seat, 2) the seat becoming an active but non-disturbing influence, 3) understanding and applying the basic aids in combination, 4) increasing control of the horse through lateral movements and bending, 5) finely tuning the aids in situations of reduced speed, and 6) using the horse’s natural tendency to anticipate for the rider’s own purposes.

The first stage – finding balance on the horse – is more than just being in the right alignment. Balance on a moving horse is dynamic, not static. To illustrate this, Mr. Schumacher described the motions in a horse’s back that you would observe if you sat in a carriage above and behind him. The side to side and up and down motion of the horse’s swinging back, he cautioned, would be ruined if the rider sat stiffly. Discovering how to swing in the hips is the key element. “The rider must learn to take the movement of the horse into his body and then put it back into the horse.”

This is best accomplished on the lunge line. The rider must find the hinges in his lower back and develop the strength in his stomach muscles to control them. The rider must also develop a “breathing leg” which does not grip. Unlike a jumper rider’s, the dressage rider’s knee must be open, with the horse’s barrel surrounded by the legs “like a baby in his mother’s arms.” Mr. Schumacher encourages even his advanced riders to go back onto the lunge periodically to re-confirm these feelings.

The second stage on Schumacher’s Rider Training Scale is fulfilled when the rider’s seat evolves beyond passive following and becomes an active influence on the horse. The rider learns that the motion of the hips not only goes with the horse but also modulates and regulates him. Not that the seat should constantly drive the horse forward, but how the hips swing can influence the height and length of the strides as well as their tempo. Likewise, at this stage the rider learns directional control with the weight aids, turning the horse or moving him laterally with her hips and seatbones.

In Stage Three the rider learns to combine the basic aids. The driving aids must always dominate, Mr. Schumacher said, but they must be used in co-ordination both with each other and with the reins. At the Symposium, two Young Riders demonstrated the feeling required to use each of the aids in correct proportion as they rode changes of direction through the circle in the trot and later simple changes of lead through the same pattern. Mr. Schumacher emphasized the fluid application of each influence, mentally supporting the horse through the turns and transitions but not “dropping him” or letting him hang in static aids which would block him from coming through and stiffen him.

Stage Four involves the study of bending exercises. An “honest bend,” he explained, is one in which the horse is more than just curved through the length of his body. The horse must agree to his positioning, staying soft, pliable, and willing to be ridden forward. This stage includes more for Mr. Schumacher than the rider simply knowing how to bend her horse. It is also a matter of knowing how to use bending exercises to achieve other ends in the training process. “The weakest rider, ” he said, “is stronger than the strongest horse if the rider is able to bend the horse really honestly.”

To illustrate, Mr. Schumacher began this session with half pass in the walk, an exercise that is executed slowly enough to give the rider plenty of time to feel what each aid does. In a proper half pass there is an invisible, cyclical ebb and flow of the aids. Inside leg, outside leg … inside leg, outside leg. Inner hand, outer hand. As his rider rode left pass from F to X, full walk pirouette left, and then fluidly back into the left half pass to H, Mr. Schumacher reminded her to check each element of her aids and especially whether the horse was attentive to each one and answering correctly.

The rider was then asked to carry the walking half pass forward into trot half pass. Mr. Schumacher likes this exercise because it requires an understanding of how the driving aids must work in the lateral movements. Riding a slow trot in half pass and then forward into a very active, ground-covering stride while maintaining the bend and angle reinforces this concept. Later during the same exercise, he called for uberstreichen [see last month’s article] to prove the horse was carrying himself and not being restrained by the hand or physically held in a rigid, forced “bend.”

Stage Five of the Rider Training Scale is the rider’s ability to reduce speed with very refined aids used in close sequence and under pressure. To show this, Mr. Schumacher reconfigured the arena boards to make a square just ten meters across. Along the track within this small space, he asked his demo rider to make very measured, deliberate strides of collected canter, riding deeply into every corner. To receive praise, every detail had to be correct: the rider’s leg long and not gripping, the rider able to soften the inner hand forward in the turns, the horse convincingly in front of her hips, the horse’s neck soft, round, and reaching over his topline to the bit as he responded to his rider, “Yes, ma’am. I am there. I am with you.”

“To ride the horse on the ten meter square with invisible aids and complete submission looks easy enough, Mr. Schumacher said. “But try it at home. You’ll get very big eyes!”

Another exercise which demanded tact, feel, and quick reactions was to canter back and forth across the short side of the arena, repeating half canter pirouette near M, flying change at G, half pirouette near H. “When a rider gets good at this,” he said, “they laugh when they have to do a pirouette on the centerline. It becomes no big deal.”

The final stage is the ability to employ the horse’s tendency to anticipate for the rider’s own purposes. Rather than be frustrated by this natural reaction in a repetitive situation, a clever rider will re-arrange her patterns to use this behavior to good advantage. A simple example that Mr. Schumacher showed was in the development of the one-tempis. With a horse just learning a single pair of the “ones,” the first change can be done along the rail from true to counter lead. The second change – which follows in the next stride – is done back to the true lead, which the horse is more eager to perform in order to get back to the lead he knows he “belongs” on. Later when pairs of one-tempis have been confirmed, the rider can add a third change by beginning along the rail in counter canter. The first change is to the true lead, the second one to counter, and the new addition – number three – is back to the true lead. If this sequence is placed so that the third one occurs just before the corner of the arena, the horse’s natural inclination to change back to the true lead is further enhanced. In this way the horse can become comfortable and confident in the new movement and remain unstressed.

Like the regular Training Scale, this one which Mr. Schumacher posits for the rider is incremental and progressive. Under his direction, rider skills begin with passive alignment and balance, grow into increasingly active, coordinated influences, and mature into a sophisticated feel for what the horse is telling the rider and how to make the horse’s will and the rider’s coincide.

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