Dressage Training Learning Theory
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Want to know the secret to scoring 9’s and more? Read on as Manuela continues up the training scale and dressage test marks, breaking down the judging criteria into clear training strategies, and providing simple exercises to help improve your training and your next competition performance. 

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, founders and Directors of Equitation Science International, explain dressage judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science training scale.  

Part 9 – Engagement, the gateway to 9s

Last month, I explained the horse’s ‘frame’ or outline, his back, neck and poll position. Part 8 was about training Contact and, this month, we move on to the realm of champions – the quality known as Engagement.

The development of ‘feel’ through the contact of the legs, reins and seat enables riders to influence the horse’s posture more effectively and engagement is a further refinement of the contact step in the shaping scale of learning.

More engagement is not only about achieving a rhythmical and straight horse that is ‘on the bit’ and in the correct frame, it is very much about the engagement of the horse’s core.

Engagement involves engaging the core muscles of the abdomen and pelvis, allowing a lift of the back, particularly in the lumbar area; the resulting tilt of the pelvis and sacrum produce a ‘lowering’ of the hindquarters.

An elevation of the forehand should also occur and this involves the muscles of the shoulder, chest and ribcage. The neck muscles should become more arched in this process, with the poll being at the highest point and the nose on the vertical in the trot. It should be slightly in front of the vertical in the walk and canter during the moment of neck extension in these gaits.

Engagement: The realm of champions

With more engagement, the horse becomes more ‘connected’ and the rider feels the development of ‘swing’, the back is soft and swinging, and the joints of the legs articulate evenly. These are the qualities the FEI Training Scale groups as ‘throughness’ (‘Durchlassigkeit’ in German). With more engagement, your dressage marks will improve again and should reflect the improvement, this means that 9’s are achievable.

To achieve correct engagement, the prerequisites of looseness/suppleness, a relaxed neck posture, and an elastic and soft back need to be established.

The correct neck posture is particularly important. Many of the associated neck muscles extend back to the sacral area. They attach to the vertebrae of the neck, as well as the spinal processes of the wither and back. They are involved in the raising of the wither and appear as part of the thickened ‘sausage-like’ neck muscles at the top of the neck, running from the just behind the poll to the top of the shoulders.

A change in neck posture should also be associated with one in the horse’s back or lumbar area; this area should lift and not drop.

Judge’s comments: ‘Hollow’ or ‘lacks engagement’

Judges may remark that a horse is ‘hollow’ and ‘lacks engagement’. This refers to a lack of connection between the forehand over the back to the hindquarters; the neck may seem to be in the right place, but the back is not.

Testing for self-carriage of the reins (allowing the hands to move forward and softening the rein contact) is the only way to see if your horse is carrying his neck of his own accord.

Training him to keep the same length of neck through all transitions and turns is fundamental. As a general rule, if your horse lengthens his neck, you will need to shorten the stride and raise the poll. If he lengthens it in a downward transition, judges will remark the ‘poll is too low’, so you will need to shorten the stride to raise the poll – not only the last two steps of the transition, but also the first two steps of the next gait.

Horses that are ‘too short in the neck’ tend to go ‘deep’. The poll drops lower than the crest and the nasal plane is behind the vertical. These will also tend to drop their back and appear ‘hollow’. These comments will tell you that your horse has probably shortened his stride.

Training one variable at a time

Training is about being able to train one variable at a time. The variables are the gait, tempo, stride length, straightness, line and frame (neck and back).

When you are changing one variable at a time, any changes to the other qualities (speed, straightness and line, or the frame of the neck and back) are all seen by the judge as losses of engagement. These will all contribute to receiving comments such as ‘not engaged’, ‘hollowing the back’, becoming ‘too deep’ or ‘short in the neck’, as well as, ‘too low in the poll’, etc.

Engagement improves when you train each variable – one at a time – so you can alter one variable without affecting the rest of the qualities.

For example, until a horse is well-trained and developed, when he changes his frame, he is also likely to change speed (stride length and/or tempo), his straightness and his line. This can happen when you go from a longer rein to a shorter rein, or when you change from sitting trot to rising trot or vice versa, it can also occur when preparing for transitions or when riding a movement, such as a circle or lateral work.

Another example is that when horses change their neck posture, they will first try being crooked and lose flexion, then they will try lengthening the neck either lower or higher and, lastly, try dropping the poll too low.

Some exercises:

Here are some exercises designed to change a single variable. The idea is to feel what other variables change, and work on maintaining or correcting them.

1. Change the frame, but maintain the speed:

From a long rein to a short rein: Riding on a long rein, feel the movement (length of stride and tempo) of the gait you are in, then gradually shorten the rein a centimeter or two at a time.

Watch for the moment your horse changes speed – either tempo or stride length (or both), or he changes his straightness and/or line and think about maintaining them or correcting them, one at a time.

Remember, the general rule is to fix tempo before stride length (although there are occasions when the tempo quickens and the stride shortens – the steps feel choppy – in which case you will need to prioritise lengthening the stride).

Aiming to ride at the same speed (km/hr) is a good way to notice when there is a change.

From a short rein to a long rein: Increase the length of rein allowing your horse to stretch, whilst you maintain speed (tempo and stride length), straightness and line. This can be ridden in the same way as above – lengthening the rein a little at a time.

Allowing the horse to take the rein forward is a required movement in many dressage tests and the judge is looking for a stretch without a change in speed or line. Allowing your horse to stretch should be done frequently during your work period because it also promotes relaxation and looseness.

2. Change between sitting and rising, but maintain the speed

Walk to trot: When transitioning from walk to trot, stay in sitting trot rather than rising the trot straight away, and feel the balance and rhythm through the transition.

If you trot and start to rise at the same time, you have two variables and you will not know which one has caused the loss of balance.

Little trot sitting and rising: In the ‘little trot’, alternate between sitting and rising, whilst you keep the same speed. Some horses lose stride length and tempo at this stage, and you will feel as though his back has stopped trotting and no longer supports your rising trot. If this happens, you will need to squeeze a little with your calves to maintain the trot motion without sitting the trot.

Lengthening and shortening in rising trot: Establishing both the rising trot and the trot itself is important before lengthening the stride. If your horse loses his balance and changes the way you rise when lengthening, then keep rising, but shorten the stride before asking him to lengthen again.

The same principles apply for the walk and canter.

3. Change the line, but maintain the speed

The horse should not change his pace and speed (tempo and stride length) either if riding a movement, such as a circle or change of rein. When the horse changes his gait or his speed within the gait, you will need to use the appropriate aid – either going up a gait, quickening or lengthening, etc.

As well as the leg aids, the horse should also learn to respond to your seat action. The seat action will determine the gait (e.g. walking action, troting action or cantering action). The seat action can be faster or slower and bigger or smaller, depending on the tempo and stride length. In the same way as the seat can be used to elicit transitions, and changes of tempo and stride length, it can also help you to maintain the gait or speed:

  • Maintaining the seat action maintains the gait,
  • Maintaining the seat speed maintains the tempo, and
  • Maintaining the size of the action of the seat helps maintain the length of stride.
  • Maintaining straightness and line

In any of the above situations, horses will also become crooked. The shoulders become unlevel, one will feel lower than the other and will drift one way or the other. It is like driving a car on a flat tyre.

To correct any loss of straightness, remember to put the shoulders in front of the hind legs. Slow down the speed of the gait until they feel level and the horse feels square before re-establishing the speed.

Training Tip: 

Maintaining the position of your seat and shoulders level so that you do not get displaced when your horse becomes crooked is also critical; think of the precise spot of your seat, maintaining your straightness.

When you are changing one variable at a time, any changes to rhythm and speed, straightness and line, or the frame of the neck and back are all seen as losses of engagement. These will all contribute to receiving judge’s remarks such as, ‘hollowing the back’, becoming ‘too deep’ or ‘short in the neck’, as well as ‘too low in the poll’.

Improving engagement

Engagement can be improved further by training the horse to shorten the stride and then to bring the hind legs more forward, under his body.

Creating more engagement and developing collection is also seen as ‘raising the forehand’. This brings the wither up and can be associated with a higher poll and shorter frame. This is because the front legs primarily push the shoulders upwards, whilst the hind legs are mostly associated with forward propulsion.

The forelegs can only create that uphill feeling if they leave the ground earlier or closer to the horse’s center of gravity, which is just behind the girth. You will be able to see this clearly in the most collected of gaits, such as piaffe, passage and the canter pirouette. When you look at the position of the foreleg as it leaves the ground, it does so closer to the rider’s toe, rather than behind their heel.

When the forelegs leave the ground closer to the girth, a horse will naturally begin to lift his knees. In this position, the foreleg has maximum tension in its tendons. These tendons ping like a bungee cord and allow the elevation of the horse’s forearm as it leaves the ground. A rider will feel this elevation through the front of their thighs and pelvis, and more cadence develops. It is most obvious when the trot is shortened to a jog and becomes passage-like.

Horses that forge (clip their front feet with their back feet), ones that wear the front of their shoes. and those that go ‘wide behind’ have a tendency to pull themselves along with their forelegs and are often downhill. Their forelegs leave the ground too far back, leaving inadequate room for the hind legs to come forward.

As the shoulders become more elevated, the horse will start to lower his hindquarters and bend in the lumbar area, and the hind legs will appear tucked under. It is important at this stage that he does not stop moving his back and lose tempo or the hindquarters will appear to be trailing or out behind, causing him to lose engagement.

Once the shoulders are elevated and the tempo is maintained, then the hind legs have room to step more forward and under because the forelegs are out of their road. Now, the forward propulsion of the hind legs can be targeted by lengthening the stride, so that he now travels uphill with greater cadence, while covering more ground. The horse’s hind leg should land under the rider’s heel to be truly engaged. A rider will feel the horse’s back lift more as the hindquarters push forward through the back of the pelvis or gluteal muscles. The whole horse feels more elevated, softer, smoother and more connected.

Horses that are not engaged and are on the forehand, do not push upwards with their forelegs; they tend to pull themselves along with their shoulders. Take a look at some horses walking, trotting or cantering. Look at the take-off point of the forelegs – if it is behind the rider’s heel, then it is likely to be on the forehand. Movements that require collection or extension will be difficult for these horses, they need to be trained to push upwards and elevate the forehand.

Extension in the gaits is preceded by collection. The horse is uphill in the collection and, when asked to extend, does so by increasing the elevation of the forehand. The hind legs will then over track in the extension, but can only do so completely if the poll is at the highest point and the gullet angle is open. Horses that are too low in the poll, and have a closed gullet and are tight under neck muscle will appear to extend by having flashy front legs, but will not be over-tracking sufficiently.

Lengthening the stride at the lower levels involves almost no collection, whereas the medium paces develop from a small amount of collection.

Although we are not horses, and have a different shoulder position and a collarbone (horses do not have a collarbone), we can feel engagement by crawling on our hands and knees.

Helpful Hint

Try crawling on the ground and experiment with the different position of where your hands leave the ground. If they go too far back, you tip forward and cannot lift your wrists. These are the horse’s knees and your knees will not be able to step more forwards. Your back will also drop and you will find it difficult to engage your core. The highest point of the base of your neck (your ‘wither’) is achieved when your hand pushes upwards as it takes off the ground when it is vertical.

When you crawl uphill, you will feel your pectoral or armpit muscles engage and will then be able to crawl faster by bringing your knees further forward. Our knees are the horse’s stifles. In a horse, they come closer to their abdomen as they step under, and the joints of the hind legs articulate more and the hind feet lift off the ground higher.

Elevation of the forehand

At the walk, check where your horse’s forelegs leave the ground. Horses that are not uphill or ‘connected’ have forelegs that leave the ground behind the rider’s heels. These are forelegs that tend to pull the horse along with a little less pushing from the hind legs. If you can see this in the walk, then look at the take-off point of the forelegs in the trot and canter.

Training our horses to do a very small walk, a jog trot or a short canter – where the forelegs leave the ground more at the rider’s toe – teaches him to push upwards with the forelegs and elevate the wither.

The shoulder muscles are of the greatest support in this position for the forehand and he will learn to engage the appropriate pectoral muscles. As a consequence, a rider will feel the elevated knee action.

Training Tip

Training the very small walk involves using the shortening aids or the beginnings of the ‘half halt’. Halt transitions need to be in two steps of the forelegs to be able to do a half halt. Half of a halt is a half of the rein aid to stop. This brings about a shortening of the stride. This walk is very slow and very short in the beginning, like walking on hot coals, and there is very little neck movement in the horse and he will be under tracking; the hind legs will land behind the hoof print of the forelegs.

Start in medium walk and shorten the stride to feel that you may come to a halt. Keeping the movement of your seat will prevent the halt occurring. If he does halt, just ask him to move forward a little from your leg. Aim to feel that he lifts higher in the shoulders by feeling more of an upward lift of the front of your pelvis. This may take many half halts or shortening aids every three steps of the forelegs.

The maximum shortening of the stride, however, needs to be achieved within three seconds for the horse to learn this degree of shortening. With practice, you will be able to shorten the stride with one half halt. In the beginning, take care that he does not lengthen the neck during the shortening aid before focusing on elevating the poll position.

Begin by shortening four (foreleg) steps, softening the rein and leg contact for 2-3 steps, and then asking for longer strides for eight steps. Raising your hands can raise the poll to the highest point during the shortening strides. Look to see the ears at the highest point or the top of the headpiece of the bridle. Remember not to pull back or your horse will go hollow. Raise them directly upwards, and keep your elbows from going backwards and above your hips. Your forearms will change from an ‘L’ shape position to a ‘V’ shape during the shortening and can be lowered during the softening or release of the aid.

Horses find this exercise difficult, and tend to want to swing their hindquarters in or out or lean/drift their shoulders. Keep his shoulders in front of his hindquarters before tackling the hindquarters. You will need to guard against this by preventing him from twisting your pelvis and displacing your leg contact. Prevent him from doing this and push back against him. Take it all gradually.

This exercise can be repeated in the trot and canter. Aim to slow and shorten the trot to the speed of a medium walk; this is the jog and will gradually become more passage-like. Slow and shorten the canter to the speed of the trot and later to the speed of the walk.

When your horse will shorten 4-6 steps with one half halt, he is at the beginning of collection or ‘raising of the forehand’. He will have begun to lower his sacrum or croup. His whole body will appear shorter and further engagement can occur from the hindquarters. The tempo of the gait needs to be maintained during the shortening for him to be able to easily engage from the hindquarters when you ask for longer strides.

Maintaining the tempo when shortening the stride

In the beginning of the shortening, there will be a loss of tempo, but the lengthening aid can still be applied. You can shorten for four steps and lengthen for eight steps in the beginning, and then start to target/correct the slowing of tempo when shortening. The shorter strides must be in self-carriage to be able to quicken the tempo.

When shortening, if there is too much slowing of tempo, the horse’s back stops moving in the gait; he does not maintain the tempo from your seat movement only. He may have become hollow and come above the bit in the process. If this is the case and he shortens from a single rein aid, then the aid to quicken can be used straight after the shortening rein aid. This will bring his back up and his hind legs engaged, and also bring his head or nose down in the process. Pulling more on the reins to bring the head down will shorten him too much, make him stiffen and shorten his neck by closing the gullet angle.

The aid used to quicken will depend on the sensitivity of the horse. Some will require two little quick taps of the whip, some will need small nudges of the lower calves or taps of the spurs, others will respond to quicken from a light squeeze of the lower calves. Your gluteals need to also quicken the action of your seat.

Exercise: 

While in the short walk, ask your horse to quicken the tempo aiming to keep the same stride length and frame. As you apply the quickening aids, your horse will try to go longer and you will have to keep sufficient contact with the reins, while maintaining your core and seat movement to prevent him from doing so. He may try raising his head further or shortening his neck, widening your hands will help to keep the rein contact.

When the tempo stays the same in the shortening, then the lengthening aid can be used to bring the hind legs closer to the horse’s centre of gravity, near the rider’s heels.

Lowering the hindquarters

From the shortening half halt, the horse learns to lower his croup through the raising of the forehand. The longer aids will then bring the horses hindquarters more under, and allow a certain degree of upward and forward propulsion from the hind legs.

The horse has to have room behind the forelegs to be able to step under with his hind legs. This is a gradual shaping process establishing obedience, rhythm, straightness and contact in the shortening before asking for lengthening.

The aim is to keep the horse’s uphill posture when lengthening. If your horse lengthens his neck and pulls downwards, he has gone on the forehand, he may have also rolled under with his neck and become too round or have his nose behind the vertical. Repeat the shortening aid when he loses balance, until he maintains poll position in both the longer and super short walk, and later in the trot and canter.

Lengthening a short distance of eight steps or four strides is easier in the beginning and, when your horse does this well, you will find that he will maintain his balance for a longer distance. If he goes downhill, no amount of pushing from behind will bring him uphill; you will just find that he becomes heavier and more rigid.

Riding the trot from a longer stride back to a trot at walk speed, or the canter to trot speed, and later walk speed is a good way to think about achieving shorter strides. These shortening, quickening and lengthening aids are the prerequisite for developing the elusive half halt.

The half halt

A half halt is described as an almost simultaneous use of the seat, rein and leg.

It is used to improve collection and engagement, as well as to rebalance a horse that is lengthening and going on the forehand or becoming crooked. It can also be used as a preparation for transitions and to shorten from a lengthened stride.

The half halt is only effective if the horse responds to single aids from the reins (slow and shorten), and legs (quicken and lengthen), and the horse is in self-carriage from the rider’s legs and reins.

These stopping and forward or driving aids cannot be used at the same time for horses to clearly respond to them individually, let alone understand what you are trying to achieve. Each aid should be separated. The shortening and seat aids need to be released to a neutral contact before the quickening aid or lengthening aid can be applied. In the beginning, a half halt can take 4-6 steps to achieve.

A half halt can become so refined that it occurs in two steps – one to shorten and the next to quicken or lengthen. Both the shortening and lengthening aids need to be applied during the swing phase of the legs, the shortening in the swing phase of the foreleg and the quickening/lengthening in the swing phase of the hindlegs.

Riding a half halt

You have now been riding shortening and quickening aids, as well as longer aids to produce the feeling of engagement. Your horse needs to be forward and straight to be able to ride an effective half halt.

From a forward and self-maintained gait, ride a shortening aid. Feel the forward movement of the foreleg and, using your core, rhomboids and lats (armpit muscles), close your fingers to shorten the stride, aiming to increase the elevation of the forehand. In the next step, feel the forward movement of the hindleg, activate your core and rhomboids, and clench your gluteal muscles, while using the closing lower leg aid for quickening or a nudge for lengthening.

This takes some practice, but you can start by shortening for 2-3 steps before applying the quickening aids. You will need to lengthen again before restarting your half halt, gradually making your aids closer together until they are almost simultaneous.

A rider and horse needing constant half halts is one that is not in self-carriage from the first half halt. Remember, we are aiming to have our horses in self-carriage from a single aid (in this case two aids). Constant reminders lead to anxiety, which can be displayed as fight, flight, dullness or freezing. Check the self-carriage of rhythm (tempo and stride length), straightness and contact if your horse needs constant half halts.

When all goes well and your horse maintains the engagement appropriate to his level of education, the dressage mark of 9 is achievable.

A mark of 10 is given when the picture of the horse and rider is harmonious, they look as one, and the movements and gait changes flow from one to another effortlessly.

Next time…

Riding an accurate test, using your corners and achieving the required criteria for the movement or paces will certainly help to achieve better marks. More about this in Part 10.

Download the illustrated version of this article which includes helpful diagrams and images as a pdf file – scroll down and click the download link below.

  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.
  4. To read Part 4 of this series click here
  5. To read Part 5 of this series click here
  6. To read Part 6 of this series click here
  7. To read Part 7 of this series click here
  8. To read Part 8 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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