Boost Your Dressage Scores Part 4: Obedience


Do you want to improve on marks of 3 to 5 in every movement of your next dressage competition? ? Read on… In Part 4 of this series, Manuela McLean continues to explain dressage judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science shaping scale, helping you develop clear training strategies to boost your scores!

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 and boost your dressage scores? 

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, founders of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) and Directors of Equitation Science International, 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. 

We began the series with Dr Andrew McLean’s revolutionary proposal to align the judging system to how the horse learns. In Part 3, Manuela explained why test movements receive lower marks of 3 and below, and how to improve on these to achieve a Basic Attempt of the movements and responses. 

Part 4 – Obedience 

Want to improve on 4 and 5? Read on….

According to the judging scale proposed by Dr Andrew McLean, judges should begin to reward movements with marks higher than 5 when they occur obediently and without resistance. 

A mark of 5, which in the current judging system is labelled ‘sufficient’, should be given to any movement that is recognisable and occurs at the marker and between the markers.

A mark of 4 (insufficient) is normally given if the movement is shown but it is delayed or anticipated, is accompanied by some resistance shown in the mouth, neck, back or tail of the horse, or the shape of the figure or movement is not accurate.

Marks of 6 are achieved when the transitions and movements have developed rhythm. In this article, I will be focusing on improving a Basic Attempt of the movement performed and developing Obedience to the aids, which leads to rhythm and the disappearance of resistances.

Resistances are less serious than incorrect responses or conflict behaviour – which would receive marks of 3 and less – because the horse is still performing the movement. (These were discussed in last month’s article.) Resistances occur often because the horse is not responding immediately and lightly to the rider’s or trainer’s aids, i.e. he is not ‘obedient’. For example, he ‘opens his mouth’ when he feels the rein aid to slow or stop, ‘shortens his neck’, raising it or curling under, or ‘tenses his back’ and responds later. These resistances often disappear when the horse is trained to respond immediately to the light aid – when the response is ‘Obedient’.

From basic attempt to obedience 

Achieving marks of 5 and higher

In the previous article, we spoke about a Basic Attempt (the first step of the shaping scale) where a basic attempt of the movement was achieved, e.g. the horse cantered between C and H, but he may have rushed into the canter after several faster trot steps. In the current judging system, a Basic Attempt would receive a mark of 4 (insufficient).

‘Obedience’ is the next step of the scale and will result in marks of 5 and higher. It means that when you apply a light aid for a transition up or down a gait or for a turn, the response happens in two steps of the front legs.

Achieving the response within two steps (which means that by the third step the new movement has begun) ensures the horse is balanced, light to the aid and, therefore, the transition is smooth.

Training tip 

You should start to plan early and prepare the transition or movement when the horse’s head is nearing the marker by counting down 3, 2, 1. You must make the movement or transition occur when you (the rider) are at the marker.

Reading body language 

As trainers, we need to work out where to start giving an aid and how to go about it. This involves reading the body language of the horse.

Horses do not always behave as we like them to. Some are dull and termed ‘lazy’ or, at the other extreme, some are hyper-reactive and too sensitive. A trainer or rider needs to read the horse’s level of awareness, attitude and willingness to learn to decide the best way to train.

Horses that are hyper-reactive need more work on their stop responses, as well as lengthening their stride (and frame), while horses that are lazier will need work on their upward transitions and quickening their strides.

Looking at the horse’s leg movements, his eyes, ears and nostrils, and general demeanour gives the trainer increased awareness of potential reactions and will give him insights as to the way he should train.

We’ve all been in a situation where the horse ‘is not home’, i.e. not responding, running in fear or ‘pushy’. His legs are moving quickly and all over the place, his ears are very pricked or mostly back, his eyes are very open and nostrils flared, his body is tense and heart rate high. He is pulling on the bit, but not slowing and this makes him tense because the reins no longer mean slow down (the aid and its related response are no longer consistent and predictable), there is no self-carriage and the rein aids cease to function.

About ‘Evasions’ and ‘resistances’

These are, in fact, descriptive terms for conflict behaviours where evasions are similar to resistances, except that evasions refer to the more severe and violent behaviours.

These terms arose because of the horse’s‚ natural tendency to avoid pressure/pain by learning through negative reinforcement to perform any attempted behaviour that results in lessening of pressure/pain. The problem with these terms is that they imply malevolent and calculated behaviour on the part of the horse whereas, in fact, these behaviours are more likely to be the result of errors in negative reinforcement.

Horses that tend to be lazy are easier to ride and generally show their resistance (conflict) by laying their ears back, hollowing and raising their heads, or by contracting their back and swishing their tail. The rider feels the constant urge to keep them forward and, as a result, can become dull and lazy to the leg aids.

We all want a calm and relaxed horse that has attentive ears that flick back and forth to the rider when he is asked to do something, and one that is responsive and relaxed with a soft eye and a closed mouth. Training begins from the moment you make contact with a horse and so it is important to begin training Obedience on the ground or while leading him.

Train your horse from the ground to lead beside you without running (which is associated with shortening the neck) or without stalling (which is associated with lengthening the neck). If you pay attention, you will see either of these incorrect responses happen when you ask him to stop or to lead forward.

Try this by teaching him to back, park (stand still without moving until signalled to do so), and to lead forward and stop from a light pressure aid, rather than from following your feet or body movements. This will create a calm and relaxed and obedient horse on the ground.

If your training at home is good, practice backing, parking as well as leading, and stopping from the ground before you get on to warm up for your dressage test. Do this ground work around your float, and around the warm up and competition area. Training on the ground flows through to training under-saddle.

An effective riding position 

Rider position is an important part of delivering the aids. Apart from sitting in the perfect position, a rider needs to be able to use his core, seat, elbows and back as part of his posture to deliver the aids effectively.

A stable position of the seat bones is important. Imagine your seat bones are an electrical plug, the prongs of the plug should all face vertically down for you to be in the correct position of the seat. Seat bones that point forward cause an increase in weight at the back of the saddle and towards the loins; seat bones pointing backwards puts too much weight on the forehand. To be ‘plugged in’, all the prongs need to face down vertically and the front part of the hips is forward. (See Annette Willson’s article ‘Rider Posture’ on Page 64 of this issue).

Shifting the rider’s weight to the front or the back affects a horse’s way of going. Some horses dislike a rider that leans back and others dislike riders that lean too far forward. To be an effective rider and make it comfortable for the horse we must remain in a neutral, balanced position.

The position of the rider for the ‘Stop’ and ‘Step Back’ aids 

To improve Obedience one needs a stable position. The first aim for any rider should be to apply rein aids without applying a backward pulling pressure. A recent study showed that, in a downward transition, pulling back is associated with resistances, such as raising of the head or shortening of the neck.

The position of the rider for the ‘Go’ aids 

Your core will need to be engaged for the upward transition as well or you will fall to the back or front of the saddle during the transition. Keep the ‘plugged in’ feeling.

A squeeze of the inner side of the calves for two steps is the aid for up a gait. This also involves a lightening of the seat (gluteal muscles), the muscles clench upwards, which also involves a tightening of the back of the thighs. A rider should aim to use the seat while applying the leg aid and maintain both during the transition.

The release of pressure follows upon the desired response of moving up a gait.

We can now think of some exercises to deal with the different types of temperaments to improve Obedience and to get rid of those resistances that are lowering your marks.

Improving the ‘Go’ response 

A ‘lazy’ horse is best re-trained from whip-taps and, in this situation, it is important to train the whip on its own rather than in conjunction with a leg aid. It is surprising how, despite being tapped with whips, many horses do not really understand what the whip means. Using the whip can be very motivating for some horses and, if you carry one and use it, then you need to train it.

As with all aids, remember to target the correct response, so if your horse kicks out, swishes his tail or backs-up from the whip taps, continue tapping until he goes forwards.

Training tip 

Ride an upward transition every time you feel like using your seat or leg, or when your horse slows down. You may feel him push on one leg more than the other as he bulges his ribcage and, if this is the case, then aim that he goes up a gait each time he does so. A self-maintained rhythm and tempo becomes achievable as he becomes lighter to the leg aids. 

Problems such as running into a gait or breaking in the gait decrease when you practise these sorts of exercises.


For more accurate figures and developing straightness, flexion and rhythm

Obedience to the leg and rein aids, and the development of rhythm are closely related, but they cannot be achieved completely without also making a horse straight. This involves training him to turn obediently so that he turns immediately to a light rein aid.

Circles, corners and diagonal lines always involve some degree of turn and flexion but, before flexion can be introduced, it is important that a horse learns to turn with a relatively straight neck from the poll to the wither.

In the beginning, the rider should be able to see both cheek pieces of the bridle at all times when turning or riding straight lines. Flexion is easily shaped later once both turn responses are light.

The direct turn 

The first turn to train is a direct turn where the horse changes direction by opening the inside foreleg away from his body when the inside direct rein aid is applied. The hind legs should follow the forelegs in the turn and not step away sideways or turn before the forelegs.

The aid to turn involves the rider changing position and applying a rein aid. There should be no lower leg pressure during a turn, as you would then be asking him to speed up as well as turn. This is confusing to the horse because, until now, he has been trained to move more forward from leg pressure, and if you involve your legs in the turn, you would be telling him to turn as well accelerate. There are too many single answers from one aid.

The rider’s position for a direct turn 

Start by aiming to go across the diagonal as this is a turn that is small (it takes just a couple of steps of turn to achieve).

First, look to where you want to turn.

Turn your shoulders to be perpendicular to the diagonal and use your obliques (front and side of your front). This brings the front of your outside thigh and hip around the turn.

Go back to a neutral position to finish turning and go across the diagonal or maintain the body position if you want to ride a circle. Apply the turn aid again if he fails to keep on the circle.

Aid for the direct turn 

Initially, both reins are used to turn, the outside rein keeps a contact through the rider’s closed fingers on that side. The outside hand should be closed towards the neck and the rein

tension used to prevent any bending of the neck in the turn. The rider closes the fingers on the inside rein for the aid too, and begins to open it away from the horse’s neck.

Timing your aid so that you ask the horse to turn as his inside foreleg lifts off the ground and starts swinging forward will improve the response and give him the opportunity to turn easily.

Training tip 

Horses that slow down while turning or that fall out (drift to the outside of a turn) can be trained to turn from two light whip-taps on the outside shoulder. Train this at the halt and use a tapping action on one shoulder, e.g. the right shoulder if you are aiming for him to turn left. 

Once the horse understands the whip-tap on the shoulder is a turning aid, you can also use it to train him to turn more quickly or improve the speed at which he turns. There is always one good turn and the other is not Obedient, so the whip may only need to carried in one hand. A short jumping whip is much easier to use in this situation. 

Training tip 

Ride a wiggly line (loops) by turning in off the track and then back to the track using a direct turn aid. Ride 6 to 8 steps in from the track and turn back out to the track again with a direct turn. Your loops should be about 3 metres deep. 

Use the whip-tap on the shoulder to improve whichever turn is not Obedient. This will be the one that is delayed or where the horse feels heavy. 

This exercise can be ridden in all gaits too. If your horse has a poor left turn and slows down in the turn, don’t use your leg (never use two aids at once), use the whip on the right shoulder to increase his speed of turning, lightly tap the right shoulder until he turns. 

A horse that runs and bends his neck instead of turning needs to be slowed and then turned. Remember that in order to be straight you need to be able to see the outside cheek piece of the bridle.

The indirect turn 

Indirect turns are primarily used to straighten the horse’s shoulders and neck, and to begin training them to flex. They are particularly useful as a remedy for horses that fall in or out through the shoulder, and so improve his balance and rhythm.

Horses that bend their necks while turning need to learn to turn from an indirect turn aid. The posture of the rider is no different to the direct turn, the only difference is the position of the hands and direction of the rein pressure.

The indirect turn begins to train the horse to turn from the outside rein.

The aim is for the horse to move his shoulders away from a rein pressure against his neck (a bit like neck-reining). Remember the aid by thinking of the rein ‘into’ the neck. It is part of the secret to turning from the outside rein and to keeping your horse’s balance as the weight shifts from one shoulder to the other.

Aid for the indirect turn 

The first pressure is that of the rein towards the horse’s neck. The rider closes his fist around the rein and pushes it into the neck on just in front of the wither. Do not cross the rein over the neck. At the same time, the rider looks and puts himself in the position of the turn.

In the beginning, horses will not know what to do, so the rider can use an opening rein on the opposite side to guide the shoulders in the right direction. Using the previously trained whip-tap on the same shoulder as the indirect rein can also be used to improve the Obedience of the response.

Training tip 

Ride down the centerline, look to the outside and push the inside rein towards or into the neck; aim to step 2 steps to the outside. Use the whip on the inside shoulder if he slows or the outside rein to guide him that way if he doesn’t. Repeat this aid every 6-8 steps until you reach the edge. Aim that your horse gradually begins to bend his neck to the inside by maintaining and increasing the pressure of the indirect rein during the turn. This begins lateral flexion. 

The same exercise can be done from the outside track to the centerline and both exercises can be done in all gaits.

When riding any line the rider should be able to see both cheek pieces of the bridle. When the horse is straight and the rider applies an even pressure on both reins, the transitions down a gait become lighter and less resistant. There is always a tendency to pull more on the heavier rein, and this causes an uneven pressure on the bit and mouth of the horse. Try to keep the reins as even as possible by aiming to keep the cheek pieces even. If you can’t see the right cheek piece, you will need to use a right indirect rein to re-balance the horse. 

Perfect practice 

Riding these exercises and improving the Obedience of your horse to the basic aids will reduce the resistances when riding transitions or movements. You will have more control from lighter aids and, as he becomes clearer and more consistent in his responses to the aids, your horse will begin to relax in his body and lengthen his neck. Any head and neck resistances will disappear and, as a result, he will begin to relax his poll and jaw coming into a rounder frame that is ‘on the bit’.

As your marks begin to improve, you can start to focus on developing rhythm and bend which, in turn, will develop that ‘throughness’ and self-carriage that judges are looking for.

Check out these exercises:

The 8-step way to Obedience to a light aid

  • A great exercise for horses that run or are heavy to stop.
  • From halt, apply the leg aid for walk during steps 1 and 2.
  • Release on the 3rd step and walk a further 3 steps.
  • Apply the ‘stop’ aid at what is now step 6 so you end up halted by step 8 (two steps later).
  • So it is walk, 2, 3, 4, 5, stop 7, 8.

After a few repetitions your horse will start to anticipate the halt. He will become light and begin to develop rhythm in the walk.

The more sensitive the horse, the more important it is to maintain the leg squeeze for the first 2 steps of the forelegs. This is because these horses tend to want to make their riders take their legs off and not keep leg contact. With a sensitive horse, simply apply a softer leg aid to ‘hug’ the horse, but not initiate trot.

The same exercise can be done from walk to trot and back to walk, you will need to sit this trot as it is only small and slow and you will not have time to rise between the aids of ‘stop’ and ‘go’.

From walk: Trot, 2, 3, 4, 5, walk 7, 8. Walk 8 steps and repeat.

In the canter, the exercise can be done riding 4 to 6 strides of canter and 6 to 8 steps of trot. The canter aid is slightly different in that the outside leg goes back, but both legs are used to ask for a canter transition and the light aid should stay on for one stride of the canter (two steps of the forelegs) and then release.

From trot: Canter, 2, 3, 4, 5, trot, 7, 8. Trot for 6 to 8 steps and repeat.

Transitions up and down a gait help to achieve rhythm and a slow tempo. You can gradually increase the distance (steps) covered before the horse gets strong or runs. The moment a rider feels more than a light contact of the horse’s lips, feels like pulling back or the horse lengthens or shortens his neck and speeds up, ride a downward transition, making sure it happens in 2 steps.

Resistance to the rein aids will begin to reduce and riding with the reins close to the horse’s crest (as explained in the exercise earlier) will give the rider greater stability. Due to the closer connection it will help you feel the beginning of a lean back when your (the rider’s) fingers are pulled away from their position.

Downward transitions without pulling back

At the halt or at the walk, position your hands on the horse’s neck in front of the withers as shown in the photo on the right. (Unless you have long arms, most of you will feel like you are leaning forward. Don’t worry, this is just a training exercise).

To ask your horse for a downward transition, keep your thumbs on the crest (by pushing down) while you close your ring fingers. If this is not sufficient to motivate him, then increase the pressure by bringing your little finger back towards you, this will rotate your wrist. You may need to vibrate the rein to motivate him further and achieve the transition in two steps, so that Obedience and lightness can develop.

Using your hands in this position will help prevent yourself from pulling backwards and shortening the horse’s neck at the base, near the withers. Horses that shorten their necks often do so by shortening in front of the wither and this creates visible wrinkles in the crest, at the base of the wither. Pushing your thumbs on the neck helps to engage the core and become a cue for stopping. The hands can be raised gradually to the correct position above the neck when the horse is stable in the neck.

You will also need to use your core muscles during the use of the rein aid, imagine picking up a bag of feed or blowing up a balloon. Use your core to improve the effectiveness of the rein aid, as well as to begin to train the posture (seat) cue by classical conditioning (by association).

Remember to maintain core and rein pressure, increasing both until the horse responds by stopping (or stepping back if working from halt). The core plus the closing fingers and increased pressure must all be maintained for the process of classical conditioning and the training of cues to occur. Once you can use your core effectively, think of using your back muscles, such as your Lats (think closed armpits) and then your Rhomboids, which are between your shoulder blades (think shoulders back and down).

Release all pressures as soon as the horse has responded.

Training Tip

While you are sitting on the horse, have someone facing you in front of the horse. Ask them to try to pull you out of the saddle by using the reins and try to use the above postures and fingers to resist being pulled out of the saddle – aim to stay ‘plugged in’.

More about these and riding some movements in the next article!

  1. To read Part 1 of this series click here.
  2. To read Part 2 of this series click here.
  3. To read Part 3 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.

Download the complete Boost Your Dressage Scores series as an e-book, complete with diagrams and illustrations.

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.



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