Dressage with learning theory
Share with friends:

In Part 2 of this exclusive series, Manuela McLean makes sense of the current judging system against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science training scale,  helping you develop clear strategies to improve your horse’s dressage training and your next competition performance.

Dressage judges play an important role in the education of both riders and their horses. The marks and comments they provide can inform rider and coach of the level of training achieved and any areas that need more work. But can you turn them into clear training strategies that will boost your dressage scores? 

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, Directors of Equitation Science International, will explain dressage judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science training scale. Breaking down the judging criteria into training deficits to help you rectify the problems. 

In Part 1, Dr Andrew McLean mentioned that the reflections of the judges and the marks they award need to be objective. He argued that this can only be done if there are clear directives or criteria for each mark given and, that the marking should reflect a scalar training strategy. 

It is widely accepted that the horse’s education or training progresses in a series of ‘steps’ – something which is reflected in each of the different levels of competition – from Preliminary to Grand Prix. In dressage, horses have to demonstrate they can perform at one level before moving on to the next.

Through this series of articles, my aim will be to explain many of the judge’s comments against the backdrop of learning theory and to give riders ideas of how to apply it in order to rectify a particular training problem.

When training each response it is important to shape or improve it progressively.

The Equitation Science Training Scale follows the learning process in a clear and simple way:

  1. ‘Basic Attempt’, the horse offers an approximation of the correct response.
  2. ‘Obedience’, the horse offers an immediate response to a light aid. 
  3. ‘Rhythm’, the horse maintains rhythm and tempo from a single light aid. 
  4. ‘Straightness’, the horse maintains line and is straight. 
  5. ‘Contact’, the horse maintains connection and outline; refinement of contact develops into engagement as the horse develops physically. 
  6. ‘Harmony’ displayed between horse and rider. 

If we were to apply the Equitation Science Training Scale to judging, the levels from ‘Basic Attempt’ to ‘Harmony’ would incorporate the marks from 4 to 10.

All marks from 0 to 3 would reflect the following: incorporate the following:

  • 0 = No movement shown
  • 1 = Major disobedience 
  • 2 = Minor disobedience 
  • 3 = Resistance 

Using the proposed Scale, it is easier to see that a rider and horse consistently scoring 6’s but not 7’s is likely to have straightness issues. He will need to train straightness in all transitions and movements to score 7 and above.

How horses learn 

Understanding and applying learning theory helps us train responses in a way the horse can understand and retain.

Horses learn responses through the process of trial and error (Operant Conditioning), e.g. he nuzzles and plays with the gate latch, it opens and he is rewarded with a nice feed of grass the other side or some company. Because he gained a reward, he does it again and may even do it more often: he has now learnt to open gates.

Reward-based training 

In training, the ridden or led horse is rewarded for a response primarily by a release of pressure. The pressures can be leg or rein aid, posture, voice, whip, spurs, bit, and the environment. The horse is freed from pressure the moment he gives the desired response; the rider’s connection of seat, rein and leg, and maintenance of posture is what maintains the movement and gait.

As trainers we need to identify the pressures or aids we want to use to train each response, we must use different aids for different responses and then systematically train our horses by applying the aid and releasing it as soon as he responds correctly.

The pressure of, let’s say the rein aid, is used to motivate him to trial a response, when he stops, that rein pressure is released to a very light contact (like holding hands) and he therefore learns that rein pressure means stop.

Sometimes a horse manages to reward himself for an incorrect response by making the pressure go away. Rearing and bucking, for example, can be learnt as an incorrect response or disobedience because when the rider loses balance and control he inadvertently releases the pressure.

Pressure-release training is also called Negative Reinforcement, the negative term is meant in the mathematical sense – taking away a pressure. In the beginning it might look a little rusty but with good timing and shaping it can be refined to postural cues and light aids.

Using a scratch at the base of the wither paired with a ‘good boy’, when the horse has performed the correct response enhances his learning. Scratching is proven to have greater positive effects on horses than patting. In fact, patting was shown to make horses accelerate, and if you’ve tried patting a young horse for the first time, he will just about have a heart attack!

Scratching is referred to as Positive Reinforcement, meaning the addition of something pleasant to increase the effectiveness of learning. Clicker training, where the clicker is used to mark a response and food is given a moment later is another form of positive reinforcement. Studies have shown that the use of both positive and negative reinforcement together enhance learning even further.

The road to harmony 

The pressures should become so refined that they are imperceptible and become cues associated with the response. Postural cues such as the seat, core, back, elbows, thighs, calves and heels are used in dressage and the use of the voice is permitted in some disciplines. These cues are learnt by being simultaneously paired with the signal or aid (pressure) the horse already responds correctly to in a process called ‘blocking’ (as in stacking building blocks). In blocking, no aid or posture is removed until the response occurs. For example, the rider applies a seat cue, adds rein or leg pressure and maintains these till the horse responds correctly. It is also called learning by Classical Conditioning where a cue or posture is given just before the aid used. This is how animals learn the postural cue for responses and the reason why it appears as if the trainer or rider is doing nothing and is in complete harmony with their horse – the ultimate goal of dressage training.

In training we also require the horse to be able to develop stronger reactions for certain responses, for example, when going from a canter to a halt. Although the basic aid will be the same as in any other downward transition, our posture cue and pressure aid will need to be stronger for these sorts of responses for our horse to understand that the difference between canter-halt and canter-trot.

In the beginning it may take a stronger aid to go from canter to halt but with practise this can also become more refined to an imperceptible postural cue. The postural cue must be given first for the process of Classical Conditioning to work.

For perfect training the horse should be relaxed but attentive or, in other words, have some level of awareness. In some instances horses can become hyper-aware and this can lead to dangerous behaviours such as, rearing, bucking, bolting or leaping.. They will require some re-training, sometimes from an expert, to allow for easier handling or riding. In these cases it is important to keep demands and aids very clear and consistent, one thing at a time, and even more importantly to have correct timing of the release for training to be effective and the horse to become relaxed. Relaxed horses are not only those that are so by nature, they are the easy ones! Those that become relaxed through consistent training are the best.

Horses are different 

As trainers it is our responsibility to know that mentally, horses are not like us. They are unable to recall their memories unless they are in the same or a similar situation.

They cannot imagine, develop abstract ideas or reconstruct events and plan for the future. The horse’s memory is strongly linked to his senses and may be triggered by a sight, sound or physical cue. This almost makes it easier for us to train because what you see is what you get.

Sometimes horses become adrenalised and we need tools to help them relax, at other times they may be half asleep or inattentive and we need different tools. When a horse feels completely secure, he is calm and responsive and his security is directly related to the consistency of his environment and his training.

Applying an aid 

Responses need to be correctly trained and reinforced regularly so they become habits and for the horse to learn to respond to posture and light aids.

The following training statement is an easy way to remember the timing:

(Download this article in a PDF – scroll down to the end and click on the link)

Of course, it is only necessary to apply the ‘do it’ part of the statement if the horse either doesn’t respond to the aid or if he is a bit delayed to respond.

If you are using alternative motivating pressures such as whips and/or spurs they also need to be trained in the same way and, preferably, as separate aids.

If the horse doesn’t respond to the light aid then it is important to repeat the process until there are 3 improved or correct responses.

Perfect practice 

Horses learn well if repetitions are performed in 3 sets. For example to improve a trot to walk transition, ride these transitions frequently, every 8 or 10 strides. During the first set you should see an improvement on the 5th to the 7th time. Give your horse a short break (1 or 2 minutes) including scratching, and then ride a second set. The transition will generally improve and show itself earlier – on the 3rd to the 5th repetition. Once again, give the horse a short break and if you are applying and releasing the aid consistently and with good timing, in the third set, your horse will show a marked improvement in the 1st to the 3rd repetition.

Repetitions during future training sessions will consolidate the response.

Each of the basic responses needs to be ‘shaped’ or improved following the Shaping Scale from a ‘Basic Attempt’ towards developing ‘Obedience’ (the horse responds immediately to a light aid), ‘Rhythm’ (the horse maintains tempo from a single light aid), ‘Straightness’ (the horse maintains the line and pushes evenly with both diagonal pairs). Training this way will produce a light connection or ‘Contact’ of the rider’s seat, hand and leg, which then leads to throughness, engagement and later, collection.

When shaping the responses it is important that relaxation is prioritised, for the correct biomechanical development of the horse and also for his general wellbeing.

In the beginning of training up to Novice level dressage, the aids need to be used individually but, as the horse progresses through the grades, the aids are brought closer together to create the lateral movements and, to almost be on at the same time to produce movements such as pirouettes which are a composite of shortening, turning and yielding aids and postures.

As training develops and the horse is clear in all signals, is steady in the rhythm, straight and accepting a light contact of seat, leg and rein, there will be an improved suppleness, throughness and engagement and a lowering of the hindquarters as collection increases.

Self-carriage wins 

Riders lose marks when the horse is not in self-carriage – i.e. the horse may be leaning on the bit and be too strong causing the rider to lean back and brace against him. In this case the horse may also be trying to avoid the strong pressures by opening his mouth instead of responding to the aid. He may be ‘behind the contact’ or ‘behind the leg’ which means he is not maintaining his speed and tempo from a single light leg aid, and the rider is using excessive or constant leg aids to maintain the gait.

Testing for self-carriage (softening the rein contact for 2-4 steps, or taking the leg off for 2-4 steps – are important parts of training and something that riders must do frequently to check the quality of training.

Losses of control, bad behaviours, delayed responses, heaviness to the aids and incorrect responses show a lack of self-carriage, and will receive the lowest marks in dressage tests.

The judge’s remark ‘resistance’ in a movement is associated with a resistance to the aids, which may be the result of using pressure-release incorrectly – i.e. the rider is being too hard or too soft, releases to late and is generally inconsistent and imprecise with the aids.

At ‘Obedience’ level in the Shaping Scale, a loss of self-carriage is seen when the horse frequently breaks in the gait or is displaying a major or minor disobedience such as bucking, rearing or bolting.

At ‘Rhythm’ level a loss of self-carriage will show as a tempo which is too quick or too slow. The stride length could be too short (e.g. not tracking up in a working pace or overtracking in an extended or lengthened stride) or too long.

Often the judges will comment that the horse lacks impulsion or is not forward enough and it may be up to you to work out exactly what they mean – is the problem the tempo or the length of stride? This is important to know, as the aids for tempo and stride length are different and the rider may need to re-train one and not the other.

At ‘Straightness’ level in the Shaping Scale the horse may drift through the shoulders or hindquarters (fall in or fall out) and he may show crookedness and appear to swing his hindquarters. More often than not, the rider needs to correct the drifting by placing the horse’s shoulders on the correct track, and this is done by re-training the turn response.

At ‘Contact’ level, self-carriage losses will show up as the horse being too low in the frame and/or overbent, or being too high and/or above the bit. These issues can be associated with rhythm and straightness (meaning that they can be fixed by re-training or improving rhythm and straightness) but when neither of those are clearly visible then the problem with the frame is directly related to the engagement and connection between horse and rider. Remember that the horse has to develop great physical strength to maintain a correct frame in self-carriage and it takes time.

From the judge’s perspective, the remarks will be that horse’s back is not up, that he does not look round enough, they might say the horse is not through enough and lacks engagement.

Without developing self-carriage at ‘Contact’ level, collection will not continue to develop because will be no lowering of the hindquarters and raising of the wither. Testing for self-carriage of rhythm, straightness and contact frequently and then adjusting or correcting as necessary is the way to keep progressing and boost your scores.

The quality and self-carriage of the rhythm, straightness and contact in the different paces and movements is what leads to the higher scores that judges define as engagement and, in turn, they will lead to true harmony between horse and rider, when the movements appear seamless and flow from one to the other with minimum effort.

Inconsistencies in training and losses of self-carriage affect horses and will make them anxious or confused in some way. These will be identified by the judges as ‘tension’. Anxiety is primarily displayed in the responses of fight (bucking, biting), flight (tension, accelerating and shying), freeze (a horse will not move) or major dullness. All these reflect holes in our training and their appearance is a sign that we need to take a step or two back before any further progress is made. Re-training the basic responses will be necessary and when they are light and consistent, you will achieve relaxation.

Think about your training

As riders or trainers we need to continually think about our training. Hopefully everything will just be merrily ticking along, but when things don’t go to plan we need to question our practices;

Are we giving clear aids? Do we release the pressure when he responds correctly? Do we always get at least a version of the desired response? Can the behaviour be explained by something else, maybe pain? (Remember that your horse is not being naughty nor vengeful). Are our aids quite different for each response? Do we have behavioural problems to resolve? Why do they happen? (or how are they being reinforced?) Is our horse in self-carriage? Do the responses occur obediently, from light aids and does he hear your seat? Is our training progressive and are we still progressing or have we reached a stalemate? Is our horse alert and attentive? And do we know how to help him when things go wrong? Why do we need to resort to a gadget or additional equipment? Do we use them ethically? Is the horse confused?

In the next articles I will be giving specific training strategies and reasons why things go wrong. I will explain what the judges comments mean, how to identify the training issues and the training strategies that will resolve them and help boost your dressage scores.

To read Part 1 of this series click here.

To find out more about Equitation Science International and the work of Dr Andrew McLean and Manuela McLean, visit the ESI website.

Use the link below to download this article as it appeared in the magazine.

Manuela McLean
Equitation Science International | Website

Manuela McLean is the wife of world renowned Equitation Scientist, Dr Andrew McLean. Together they authored “Horse Training the McLean Way” and more recently “Academic Horse Training”. With Andrew’s focus on training and Manuela’s focus on getting the message across to riders, they have developed a rider- and horse-centred systematic training of horses according to the principles of learning theory. Manuela’s specialty is improving the rider’s posture and balance to enhance the delivery of signals. Manuela trained Joanne Formosa and Worldwide PB in just 8 months, to win a gold medal at the London Paralympic Games in 2012.

She holds an NCAS Level 2 (Dressage Specialist), a BSc (Biology) and Dip Ed.

Dr Andrew McLean

Dr Andrew McLean brings together a rare combination of academic and equestrian achievement. In the early 1990’s Andrew determined to explore the science of horse training. He found very little was identified or described, leading to his PhD on the topic. A prolific author of books and journal papers on the science and ethics of horse training, he also represented Australia in Eventing, ridden to Grand Prix in Show-jumping and Grand Prix in dressage.

Share with friends:

Leave a Reply