Dressage with learning theory
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Do you want to score higher than 7 in your next dressage test? In Part 6 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. Here’s how to turn them into clear training strategies.

In the last part, Manuela McLean talked about developing rhythm and explained how you can achieve a regular tempo and correct stride length.

Part 6 – Straightness (first of two parts)

Want to score 7 and more? Read on….

In last month’s article, I talked about developing rhythm, and gave exercises to train the horse to self-maintain his rhythm (tempo and stride length) and develop smooth transitions.

Straightness is shaped after rhythm and can also be assessed with self-carriage tests. Does your horse keep his line (going straight or during a turn) on his own, without the need of constant reminders from your aids?

Straightness is the precursor of bend and, without it, we cannot develop the engagement, self-carriage and harmony that leads to the higher levels.

Have you ever tried to bend a piece of fencing wire in a particular way? It is almost impossible unless you straighten it first.

Before achieving true bend and correct flexion, it is important to achieve straightness of the shoulders, rib-cage and hindquarters, and an even contact on both reins. Straightness improves the development of rhythm and ‘throughness’ and, without rhythm and straightness and the self-carriage of both, correct, true bend cannot be achieved.

Once the horse is straight from head to tail on straight lines or correctly bent on circles, corners or in lateral work, then your dressage marks will improve from 6’s to 7’s.

Straightening the Crooked Horse

The road to higher marks….

Straightness is achieved with a combination of the stop and go aids, as well as the turn and yield aids.

Horses are naturally a little ‘crooked’ – we are too – and, sometimes, the two do not mix well, particularly if a horse can displace a rider to allow more crookedness. Watch dogs trotting or cantering along, they generally go on two tracks; their back legs do not follow into the tracks of their front legs.

Horses are a bit like that too and, when a judge comments that he is on ‘two tracks’, it means the horse’s hindlegs do not follow the hoof prints of the forelegs. This is most commonly seen when the horse travels down the long side and his hindquarters are to the inside or, where it matters most, down the centre line for the first mark of your dressage test.

There is a common denominator to straightness problems and it is not found in the horse’s body, but in his legs. One of your horse’s diagonal pair of legs will be running or stepping longer, and the other pair will be stalling or stepping shorter. This means they are pushing unevenly and the result is the horse tends to drift, either out on a circle or line (‘falling out’) or drift in towards the centre (‘falling in’).

Try walking a straight line taking one long step and one short step; you will very soon be drifting towards the side that takes the long step. You will also find that your short step will not be pushing upwards as it is being dragged by the pulling leg or long step.

Horses do this too and, if allowed to continue, will develop further irregularities and asymmetry resulting in unsoundness because their biomechanics are incorrect.

As far as training goes, this uneveness in the steps happens because the pair of legs that lengthen have trouble ‘stopping’ and the pair of legs that shorten have problems ‘going’.

Finding the running pair of legs

Riding transitions is a good way to work on the running pair of legs. As a rider, you can time your aids to target the stop (or go) as one foreleg or hindleg is beginning the swing phase (the time when the leg is travelling through the air). You will then be able to shorten a foreleg that is lengthening or lengthen a hindleg that is shortening and, by evening out the steps, improve straightness.

Since we are not always lucky enough to have some eyes on the ground to help us, we need to know the feeling we get when it is wrong.

Horses that have a slight hopping action in lengthened strides are simply not lengthening evenly both diagonal pairs of legs; one is lengthening more and the other is not lengthening sufficiently.

A horse that lengthens the right foreleg/left hindleg (which we call the right diagonal pair) often feels a little heavier on the right rein as he tries to lengthen his frame. One that is shortening the left foreleg/right hindleg feels lower or empty under the right buttock.

Training Tip:

Riding walk to halt transitions will often give you an insight to the horse’s crookedness.

If the horse halts with one foreleg more forward than the other, then that foreleg and diagonal hindleg are the ‘long’ or ‘running’ pair. If a horse consistently stops with the same foreleg last, but he ends up square in front, then it is likely that this foreleg and related hindleg are the ‘short’ or ‘stalling’ pair.

When halting from any gait, for the horse to end up square, the last step (the last foreleg/hindleg pair) has to be half its original length so, in the 2-3 steps of the halt transition, there should be a gradual reduction in the length of the steps. This means that, if your horse consistently stops with right foreleg last, then you should aim to stop left foreleg last. It is a matter of timing your aid (pressure and release) accurately.

Count down as you walk, so that the beginning of the stopping aid occurs as the right (running) foreleg begins its forward motion. If the walk-halt transition happens in the correct two steps, it will end with the left foreleg taking a half step to square up. You can use this technique for any transition between the gaits or when slowing. If shortening, aim to shorten in the swing phase of one pair of legs and lengthen in the swing phase of the other pair of legs.

The response from walk to halt should occur from a rein aid for two steps. In trot, the rein aid shortens the stride first and the transition should be complete in four steps; the canter is the same, the horse stopping in two strides. To teach the horse to stop from the seat/posture cue (classical conditioning), the rider’s seat has to stop following the movement just before and at same time as the rein aids are applied (blocking).

A horse that ‘swings his hindquarters’ out during the halt can be drifting with his shoulders, but it could also be that the hindlegs didn’t actually stop and, therefore, overtake the forelegs. If he swings his right hind out, then aim to stop the left fore last. Improving the obedience of the transition and aiming to stop the hindlegs will remedy this. Watch that he doesn’t displace the leg contact on the swinging side.

When riding any downward transition it is important to make the rein pressure as even as possible. As a rule, we tend to ‘pull’ more on the heavier rein and this can lead to more crookedness. Match the pressure of your reins.

Straightening with the legs

During an upward transition, the horse can be straightened with the legs – the drift or bulging side is corrected by making that side longer. You may need to ‘ride him straight with your legs’, while maintaining a light contact with the reins, positioning your hands either side of his neck and disallowing neck bend.

Look at the judge, don’t forget to smile and ride forward towards C before you make your turn. Pretend you love that judge, be assertive and go for a 10.

Making sure the horse’s neck is straight – check that you can see both cheek pieces – is important when targeting the stop and go aids. You should also try to sit evenly on both seat bones, feel both legs evenly and not let him displace you by maintaining your position, especially your core and shoulders.

Improving the straightness of upward transitions takes practice; they will not be obedient initially as straightness is the targeted response. Your aim is to have obedient and straight transitions, so if it takes more than two steps for the transition to occur, but it is straight, you are on the way.

Straightening the shoulders

When straightening the horse that is on two tracks, in the beginning it is necessary to place the forelegs in line with the hindlegs, rather than the other way around. This is done with the reins through a combination of direct and indirect turns.

Remember to check your direct (rein away from the neck) and indirect (rein into the neck) turn aids regularly to make sure your horse responds correctly and immediately, and is in the correct rhythm and tempo before the turn and maintains it after the turn. Use an upward transition, quickening or slowing or longer or shorter strides to improve the rhythm, correcting the tempo first. You can use a tap on the shoulder to improve the speed of his turns if he stalls or slows during the turn aid.

Helpful Hint:

Chances are that if a horse is crooked he has displaced the rider’s position and made the rider crooked too. Take care to keep your straight position, ‘plug-in’ your seat bones evenly either side of the middle of the saddle and keep your shoulders above your hips.

When a horse is obedient to the turn aids and maintains rhythm, the thighs begin to control the shoulders and can be used in a turn. Losses of straightness can often be felt through the thighs. If a horse drifts his shoulders to the left, he is likely to displace a rider’s left thigh with his same-side shoulder.

Try to imagine the front inside part of your thigh is glued to the saddle with Velcro. If you have trouble, place a leaf or something biodegradable under your thigh to become aware of your position. Think of your knees as headlights, they face forward. Look through his ears and keep your hands evenly either side of the neck. Use your obliques in the turns to prevent collapsing in the waist.

Allowing your thigh to open also displaces your hips, so you may need to think of pointing the top of your left hip towards your horse’s right ear if he drifts left.

When turning a corner or a circle, position your outside shoulder and hip forward on the circle. When riding an indirect turn from the centre line to the outside, position the outside shoulder towards the arena letter and press the inside thigh towards the saddle. Your shoulders and hips should be perpendicular to his when riding any movement.

Training Tip:

If his hindquarters are to the left, then his shoulders will be to the right, so you need to position his shoulders to the left. He may be looking left, so that you cannot see the right cheek piece of the bridle and, if this is the case, bring his shoulders left with an indirect right rein. Or, he may be looking to the right, in which case use your left rein as a direct turn to place his shoulders to the left.

Testing for self-carriage of straightness involves giving on one rein for 2-4 steps – this tells you if he stays straight. If he drifts, correct the drift and replace the shoulders on your line with the rein you have been giving with. It may be a direct or indirect rein.

Falling in and falling out

A horse that is on two tracks is also likely to be falling in or out on circles. When a horse ‘falls out’, he makes the circle bigger and, when ‘falls in’, he makes the circle smaller. A horse that falls out on the left rein is likely to fall in on the right rein.

If a horse ‘falls out ‘ on a circle or straight line, he keeps drifting or veering to the outside. His outside foreleg and inside hindleg are taking longer strides than his inside foreleg and outside foreleg. He will be bending his neck too much to the inside, which has the effect of causing an imbalance and it feels like he is dropping his outside shoulder.

If a horse ‘falls in’ on a circle or straight line, he keeps veering to the inside. His inside foreleg and outside hindleg are taking longer steps than the other pair and he is often ‘running to the inside’. In this case, he will be looking too much to the outside and dropping his inside shoulder. Both falling in or out cause rider imbalances.

Helpful Hint:

Often, coaches will ask you to use more outside leg (if the horse is falling out) or inside leg (if the horse is falling in), but this may not help because, if he is running or lengthening too much, he is going to run faster.

Using more leg in this situation will make him lean on the reins and he will keep doing what he was doing, only faster. This will result in problem behaviours. Depending on the horse’s temperament, he may show flight behaviours, for example start to shy. He may habituate to the leg, and become dull and unresponsive to the go aids. Some horses become quite angry and start to kick out or buck when you use your leg. These are all conflict behaviours because using your legs and reins to straighten the horse at the same time causes a lot of confusion. The legs are used for acceleration and can only be used once the rein aid is softened.

Training Tip:

It is the reins that control the shoulders. Place the shoulders in front of the hindlegs. Use an indirect outside rein for falling out and an indirect inside rein for falling in, this will place the shoulders in front of the hindlegs and straighten the neck so that again the rider can see both cheek pieces. Your thighs are being used at this stage, but not the lower leg.

Ride diamond shapes, a square shape with the corners on the centre line, or hexagonal shapes using an outside indirect rein to correct falling out on each corner or if falling in an inside indirect turn in each corner.

When these responses occur obediently, test self-carriage on one rein to see if your horse stays on your line on a circle. You may have found that, by now, he is beginning to flex laterally in association with the direct or indirect turn aid.

Lateral flexion

Lateral flexion is seen as a slight bend of the neck from the wither to the poll, so that one eye is more visible than the other.

Vertical flexion (sometimes called direct and longitudinal flexion) is when a horse flexes at the poll and relaxes his jaw and, when associated with lateral flexion, a horse is round and on the bit. His forehead and nose should be vertical and his nostril more or less in line with the point of his shoulder.

Training Tip:

If your horse does not flex well, teach him to do so at the halt. There are several ways to do this and which one you choose depends on how stiff your horse is in the neck.

He will learn to flex by trial and error or Operant Conditioning – the release of the pressure trains the response and the pressure motivates him to trial a response. Shape the response of flexion with a release of pressure when he flexes laterally first, then ask for vertical flexion. He will then end up doing the two together.

Stand in front of him, holding either side of the bit with your thumbs and train him to look left or right.

While riding at the halt, use your rein slightly away from his neck till he looks in that direction and you can see one eye more than the other. Or use your rein a little towards his neck by turning your fist and putting your little finger closer to his neck. Small vibrations on the rein will help him to relax his jaw.

Another technique is to massage with your thumb (enough to get a reaction), just below the nuchal ligament at the base of the wither and above the point of his shoulder blade. This can be done while standing beside him and when he flexes laterally stop massaging and scratch. You can then push his head away to straighten it and ask again. Repeat this until he not only flexes laterally, but also begins to arch his neck.

This can be done when mounted too by pushing your knuckle or fist into that same spot. This has been a very effective technique for horses that are stiff in the neck, and do not soften and relax their jaw from bit pressure.

Lateral flexion can now be associated with the turns and horses generally relax the poll vertically once lateral flexion has been achieved. We can now look at bending the horse through his body and spine.

Lateral bend

The beginnings of bend can be achieved riding indirect turns either from the centre line out or from the long side in towards the centre line. Lateral flexion is added by pushing the rein more into the neck during the turn aid.

Once this is achieved, we can start to address the hindlegs, whether they stall by losing tempo or by losing stride length, and this will be the beginning of achieving bend.

Training Tip:

Once your horse has moved his shoulder, he should also begin to look to the inside (flex) if going out from the centre line to the long side, or look to the outside if going in from the long side to the centre line. Maintaining a contact on the flexing rein or pushing your fist towards his neck, like turning a car key or door knob, does this. Remember to release this pressure once he has done so, and repeat the aid when he forgets until he will maintain flexion and turn all the way across.

Now, start to look at where he positions his inside hindleg while going out. You want it to look like he puts it between the tracks of his forelegs. He brings his inside hindleg towards the outside. If he doesn’t, then his inside hind is too short in the stride. You will need to add the longer aid from the inside leg to achieve it and repeat the aid if necessary.

Your horse will now be bending at the shoulder, flexing laterally and vertically at the poll, and bending his ribcage away from your thigh. You have the beginnings of bending him around your inside leg and putting him into the outside rein.

An inside indirect turn is useful when riding into a corner. It puts the shoulder towards the wall, then the inside leg can be used at the beginning of the corner to bring the inside hindleg more under. The outside rein and your position are then used to move out of the corner. This is ‘turn him with the outside rein’.

Helpful Hint:

At home, practice riding circles in each corner, as this will improve your marks as you will find that you go deeper into the corners. Corners set you up for the next movement and the next movement depends upon the quality of your corner.

Bend using direct turns

Bend can also be achieved through direct turns and shoulder-fore exercises. Direct turns can also be used to achieve lateral flexion, the turn aid should be applied as the inside fore is in the swing phase, so that not only does the inside fore turn, but also the outside hind as it is its diagonal. The rein is held a little away from the neck to achieve lateral flexion, and maintained until the horse turns and bends.

Be sure to read the next part – Part 7 – on Straightness.

To download the illustrated version of this article as a pdf scroll to click below.

To read Part 1 of this series click here.

To read Part 2 of this series click here.

To read Part 3 of this series click here.

To read Part 4 of this series click here

To read Part 5 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.

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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