The Training Pyramid

The Training Pyramid

Understanding the Horse Score - Training Pyramid

The training pyramid is the most important guideline for trainers, riders, lungers, and judges. 


The pyramid is separated into three parts:


  • Development of understanding and confidence, focusing on rhythm, suppleness and contact;
  • Development of pushing power, focusing on suppleness, contact and acceptance of the bit, impulsion and straightness; 
  • Development of carrying power, focusing on impulsion, straightness and collection.

None of the six steps of the training pyramid can be taken in isolation. The overall aim of training is to develop a horse that is “through” (Durchlässigkeit) and willing to immediately obey the lunger’s aids without the slightest resistance.


Rhythm is the regularity of the beat in all gaits. The regularity is the correct sequence of the footfalls; the tempo is the beats per minute (BPM). Steps and strides should cover equal distances and also be of equal duration remaining in a consistent tempo. The rhythm should be maintained through the whole performance. In order to judge the correctness of the rhythm, the judge must refer to the correct biomechanics of the basic gaits.

Photo courtesy Jerry Wang


Relaxation is key to producing supple muscles that can be properly developed. Suppleness, together with a pure rhythm, is an essential aim of the preliminary training phase. Even if the rhythm is maintained, the movement cannot be considered correct unless the horse is working through its back, and the muscles are free from tension. Lack of suppleness can take many different forms, e.g. tightness in the back, severely agitated tail, rhythm faults, hind legs lacking activity, a tense and dry mouth, and crookedness.


Indicators of suppleness are:


  • A content happy expression – freedom from anxiety
  • The elasticity of the steps – the ability to stretch and contract the musculature smoothly and fluently
  • A quiet mouth gently chewing the bit with an elastic contact
  • A swinging back with the tail carried in a relaxed manner
  • Soft and rhythmical breathing, showing that the horse is mentally and physically relaxed.

Contact is the soft, steady connection between the lunger’s hand and the horse’s mouth. Correct, steady contact allows the horse to find its balance and find a rhythm in each of the gaits. The poll should be the highest point of the neck, except when the horse is worked (without side reins) forward and downward. Contact must result from the energy of the active hind legs being transferred over the swinging back to the bit.


Indicators of good contact are:


  • The horse steps forward to the bit through a straight and supple poll
  • The horse accepts an elastic contact with a quiet mouth gently chewing the bit – the tongue is not visible
  • The poll is the highest point
  • The line of the nose is slightly in front of the vertical, and for moments, at the vertical

Photo courtesy Andrea Selch


A horse is said to have impulsion when the energy created by the hind legs is being transmitted into the gait and into every aspect of the forward movement. A horse can be said to be working with impulsion when it pushes off energetically from the ground and swings its feet well forward.


A horse is said to be straight when its forehand is in line with its hindquarters; its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curved track it is following. Straightness is necessary in order for the weight to be evenly distributed over the two halves of the body. If the horse is straight, the hind legs will push exactly in the direction of the center of gravity.


The aim of all gymnastic training is to create a horse that is ready and willing to perform. For the horse to meet these conditions, its weight, plus that of the vaulters, must be distributed as evenly as possible over all four legs. This entails reducing the amount of weight on the forelegs and increasing the same amount of weight on the hind legs, which were originally intended mainly to create the forward movement.


The increased flexion of the hind legs results in the neck being raised. The horse is then in a position, if the carrying capacity of the hindquarters is sufficiently developed, to move in balance and self-carriage in all three gaits. 

Understanding the Horse Score - Gaits

The gaits are considered an important part of the horse’s score during a vaulting performance. Vaulters compete at the walk, trot and canter gaits. 


The Canter

In vaulting competitions, the horse should show a working canter, demonstrating a shortening of the frame on the way to collection.

Indicators of a quality working canter include:


  • The canter is a three-beat gait.
  • The canter has a moment of suspension.
  • The working canter is a pace between the collected canter and a medium canter, in which a horse shows natural balance while remaining “on the bit,” going forward with even, light and active strides and good hock action. The expression “good hock action” underlines the importance of the impulsion originating from the activity of the hindquarters.
  • The horse maintains steady contact with the lunge line.
  • The horse’s nose should be slightly in front of the vertical and the “poll” is the highest point.
  • The horse demonstrates suppleness throughout the body and elasticity.
  • The horse demonstrates energy, activity, self-carriage, natural balance and uphill tendency.
  • The canter should always have light, cadenced and regular strides.
The Trot

At vaulting competitions, the horse should show a working trot. Indicators of a quality working trot include:


  • The trot is a two two-beat gait of alternate diagonal legs (left fore and right hind leg and vice versa).
  • The trot should show free, active and regular steps. 
  • A quality trot has regularity and elasticity of the steps with cadence and impulsion. This quality originates from a supple back and well-engaged hindquarters, and by the ability to maintain the same rhythm and natural balance. The horse should remain “on the bit,” moving forward with even, elastic steps and good hock action.
The Walk

During vaulting competitions, the horse should show a working walk. Indicators of a quality working walk include:


  • The walk is a marching four-beat gait demonstrating regular and well-marked footfalls with equal intervals between each beat. This regularity combined with full relaxation must be maintained throughout all walk movements.
  • When the foreleg and the hind leg on the same side move almost on the same beat, the walk tends to become an almost lateral or pacing movement. This irregularity is a serious deterioration of the pace.
  • The horse should remain “on the bit” and walk energetically but relaxed with even and determined steps. The hind feet should touch the ground in front of the hoof prints of the forefeet. The lunger should maintain a light, soft and steady contact with the mouth, allowing the natural movement of the horse’s head and neck.

Understanding the Horse Score was created to give judges, lungers, vaulters, and coaches an understanding of quality training and basics. It was created (with permission) from the FEI guidelines for vaulting.