The Dressage Pyramid

Woman Dressage Rider Cantering Large Bay Horse

What is the Dressage Training Pyramid?

The Dressage Training Pyramid is a training system originally developed by the German Cavalry, recorded in an army training manual from 1912. The modern version of the “Training Scale” was canonized in the last two editions of the manual, circa 1927 and 1935. The purpose of the dressage training pyramid was to standardize and preserve classical training principles through generations of riders. Since its origination within the German Military, the training scale has been adopted by dressage riders worldwide. It has become the standard by which dressage horses are trained and judged in a competition.

Whether you’re a trainer, student, instructor, or just practicing dressage on your own, the dressage training pyramid should be at the foundation of every ride. While practicing dressage and progressing through the levels to more complex movements, you and your horse will naturally encounter challenges. The training pyramid is something you can refer back to as a way to help move through sticking points and continue to improve. Like any athletic pursuit, success in dressage (or any equestrian discipline) takes time and consistency to become good. Any rider will tell you that it is a process that can often feel like two steps forward and one step back. When a dressage rider feels discouraged, they can look back to the training scale, start from the bottom, and rebuild confidence by following these tried and true principles.

What are the Different Levels of the Dressage Pyramid of Training?

The dressage pyramid of training consists of six levels. A rider and horse are meant to start at the base of the pyramid and master each level before moving up the next. It is normal, as training progresses, for riders or trainers to find that a level they have moved up from may need to be revisited.


The first level includes rhythm, which focuses on the tempo attributed to the horses’ steps. A good rhythm should be energetic and consistent.


The second level includes suppleness, some references also label this level “Relaxation”. Suppleness means the horse must have elasticity and freedom in its movement, and be free from anxiety. A relaxed horse moves more fluidly and correctly in its body.


The third level is about connection. This refers to the connection from the rider’s hand, through the reins, to the
horse’s bit. Connection (also called “contact”) should be consistent. To maintain consistent contact with their horse’s bit, as the horse’s head naturally moves with its gaits, the rider’s hand should follow this movement to avoid the rein abruptly becoming too tight or too slack. A horse that has accepted the bit in its mouth may quietly chew on it and produce a foam around its mouth.


Impulsion is the fourth level, which is only evident in a trot and canter. The thrust of a horse should be energetic and cause suspension in the horse’s movements.


The fifth level, Straightness, focuses on the overall balance of the horse. An excellent balanced horse is essential for proper mobility and Collection.


The sixth and last level is Collection. When a horse is collected, the gates are compressed and powerful. Power is driven from the hind end, with the hind legs reaching well up under the horse’s center of gravity. This will allow the withers to come up, creating an “uphill” impression of the horse’s shape and movement.

What are the Keys to Success When Following the Dressage Training Pyramid?

The dressage pyramid of training provides structure to a dressage horse’s training. The most important habits to develop to use this pyramid are focus, patience, and consistency.

These three factors will help you build a stronger relationship with your horse and get the best results out of your training sessions.

Focus: Focus is one of the key factors that will help you achieve success in any endeavor. It is important for you to be able to stay focused on what you want to achieve with your horse, both long term and within a single riding session.

Patience: Patience is another key factor that will help you achieve success with your horse as well as other endeavors in life. Patience will help you stay focused on your goals and remain patient with your horse so that you can have the best possible training sessions.

Consistency: Consistency is a natural byproduct of focus and patience. You cannot be focused or patient without being consistent with your training sessions, which will help build trust and confidence in your horse’s performance as well.

What are Some of the Most Common Mistakes People Make When Using the Dressage Pyramid of Training Scale?

The most common mistakes people make when using the dressage pyramid of training are not following the rules and not starting at the bottom.

Some people start at the top of the pyramid and try to jump straight to higher levels. This will render poor results and could lead to injury since following the scale gradually conditions your horse to the physical demands of dressage work. If you ask them to do too much too soon, it will be a recipe for failure.

What is the Purpose of Dressage Tests?

Dressage tests are a test of a horse’s ability to perform the movements required for dressage. The purpose of dressage tests is to assess and improve a horse’s performance in dressage. They can also be used as an opportunity for trainers and riders to work on their skills together as a team.

There are various levels of dressage tests. In the US, the levels, from beginner to advanced level, are:

  • Introductory
  • Training Level
  • First Level
  • Second Level
  • Third Level
  • Fourth Level
  • Prix St. George
  • Intermediate I & II
  • Grand Prix

How do You Know if You and Your Horse are Ready for a Dressage Competition?

As you move up through the levels, the tests become more challenging and complex. In general, you should show your horse at a level below what you are training at home. For example, if you are practicing second level movements at home, you should compete at first level, and so on.

As understanding of the dressage training pyramid deepens, riders and trainers will find that it will consistently provide the tools needed for success in the dressage ring.