Dressage with learning theory
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Do you want to score higher than 7 in your next dressage test? In Part 7 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 the last part, Manuela McLean talked about developing rhythm and explained how you can achieve a regular tempo and correct stride length.

Part 7 – Straightness (second of two parts)

Want to score 7 and more? Read on…

Straightness is shaped after rhythm (rhythm being the combination of tempo and stride length) and can also be assessed with self-carriage tests – does your horse keep his own line (when going straight or during a turn) without the need of constant reminders from your aids?

Straightness is also the precursor of bend and, without it, we cannot develop the engagement, self carriage and harmony that leads to the higher levels of training and to the higher marks from dressage judges.

Last month we talked about the basic elements of straightness: that a horse’s hind legs should travel on the same tracks as his forelegs.

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We talked about horses having a tendency to be crooked because one hind leg tends to travel and land on a track between the forelegs. All quadrupeds do this so as not step on themselves and so that they can gallop faster when escaping a predator.

As riders, we also have crookedness issues and, when paired with a horse’s crookedness, it can be quite difficult to make everything straight. This then becomes the chicken or the egg scenario, horses make us crooked and we make horses crooked.

Straightness and flexion: The road to higher marks

Horses can learn to be crooked 

Horses are very good at displacing our position. This can give them relief from effort and they will gradually spiral to become more crooked. The more they displace us by removing a pressure, the more rewarding a behaviour is. As an example, if the horse finds a release to a rein or leg pressure by becoming crooked this can spiral into shying and/or leaping.

Remember that horses learn from a release of pressure so, if he doesn’t like pressure on the right side of his back, he may learn to get you off that side by bending his neck to the left, falling in or out to the right through his shoulders by dropping that shoulder, or through his hindquarters by bulging his ribcage to the right.

As a result of the horse’s crookedness, riders will hang on to one rein more than the other (the bit ends up being pulled more to one side of the mouth) and/or will grip with one leg more than the other (one leg ends up further back than the other).

In order to keep their balance a rider can also become twisted or unlevel in the hips, collapse in the waist or tip in the shoulders. The rider holds on one way or another to try to stay upright which then creates a lack of self-carriage and, to the horse, it feels like unrelenting pressure through one or both reins or legs.

Riders may not always be aware that they are constantly hanging on to one rein or gripping with one leg to hold their crooked horse straight. This unrelentless pressure can lead the horse to develop anxious behaviours.

Anxiety can be expressed as fight (e.g. bucking or kicking out), flight (e.g. shying or running) and freeze (e.g. refusing to go or jibbing), or the horse can habituate and cease to respond by becoming dull to the aids. The horse is then called ‘stubborn’ ‘naughty’ or ‘tense’ but, before labelling him, one needs to make sure that we, as riders, are not creating the problems by applying unrelenting pressures and forgetting to train our horses to be in self-carriage for rhythm (he maintains his own tempo and stride length) and also for straightness (he keeps his line).

Judge’s comment: ‘On two tracks’ 

A horse is crooked when he travels on two tracks; his hind legs are travelling on a different track to the forelegs. The rider should always put the horse’s forelegs in front of his hind legs, rather than the other way around. This can be done using direct or indirect turns with the legs in a neutral position because, at this stage of the training, the rider’s legs should only be used to ask the horse to go faster in some way – by going up a gait, longer in the stride or to quicken the tempo.

The end result should be that, on a straight line, your horse should be straight from his poll to his tail and in self-carriage. When the judge comments that the ‘hindquarters are to the right’ the rider needs to think that the forehand is too much to the left.

Improving the turns 

Timing the turn rein aid to happen during the swing phase of the foreleg that is turning makes a big difference to the quality of the turn.

(The swing phase is the part of the step when the leg is in the air and the stance phase is when the leg is on the ground.)

This is best done using a direct turn aid (see image below) and involves a rider beginning the rein aid as the foreleg is leaving the ground and asking the horse to open (abduct) his foreleg in the turn direction.

The foreleg in the stance phase pushes that shoulder up to allow the turning leg to turn. The hindlegs turn with the forelegs, so if the right fore goes right in the swing phase then the left hind also goes right, or adducts (closes) in the swing phase.

Our aim is to be able to turn our horses with minimal rein aids so that they respond and change direction mostly from changes of our body position. To do this your shoulders need to match the position of his shoulders, and your hips and thighs should match his hindquarters.

Applying the rein aids to turn during the swing phase of the forelegs is important in developing this. Minimise your rein aids to be able to turn in either direction by placing both your hands in one direction or the other. Ride with your hands as if holding a joystick; put them to the right to turn right!

Training tip 

A good way to see how well your horse has learnt the turn aids is to ride a turn on the haunches. This is a good preliminary exercise for turns around the haunches and later walk pirouettes. 

Begin at the halt aiming to turn right, look and position your shoulders and thighs to the right. Apply a direct turn aid; open the rein to the right. Your horse should then abduct his right foreleg first; you will feel him push up with his left fore and left hind to do so. Begin with 2 steps of the forelegs and aim for 4 steps of the forelegs. Ride a square with a turn on the haunches at each corner. 

If your horse does not perform this movement well, he may cross the left foreleg first or he may swing his hindquarters to the left to turn right. With practice this will improve, take the time to perfect this movement even if you have to start in-hand. 

You can also improve your turns by riding squares; shortening the strides for the corners and completing a corner in 4 steps in the walk, 6 steps in the trot and 3 strides in the canter. This is good exercise for horses going into Elementary level. 

Judge’s comment: ‘Uneven’ or ‘unlevel’ strides 

Horses habitually push off in the stance phase from the same hindleg or foreleg in the same way as we do. Try walking off from a standing position, check which leg goes first, now try the other way round, it feels quite different and novel for most people. Comments, such as, that the horse is ‘uneven’ will relate to stride length being not even, one pair of legs do not push enough in the stance phase to create sufficient lengthening of the other pair in the swing phase.

As mentioned last month, horses have a tendency to have a ‘running’ diagonal pair of legs and a ‘stalling’ diagonal pair.

A horse can appear uneven or unlevel particularly when lengthening but also when turning. If your horse runs with his right fore he is likely to stall with his right hind. Train the running pair to shorten and the shortening pair to lengthen to make your horse ambidextrous. Applying lengthening and shortening aids during the swing phase of the legs improves the horse’s response, as he is able to lengthen and shorten at that moment.

The other pair of legs has problems in the stance phase of the stride, they do not push forward when lengthening or brake and push upwards when shortening. It is impossible to make them better during the stance phase as they are on the ground, which is why we work on the other pair in the swing phase; they are able to respond by moving more or less.

Shaping flexion

Lateral and vertical flexion 

In the beginning and to avoid confusing the horse, flexion should be trained in conjunction with a turn aid, and lateral flexion should be trained before vertical flexion (what we sometimes called roundness).

As discussed in last month’s article, flexion and bend can be trained with ‘spiralling in’ circles and through indirect turns from the centre line out, or from the long side in.

Spiralling in circles trains your horse to bend more in the spine. As a rider aim to feel that your horses hind legs begin to feel more under as they turn more in during the spiral, the outside hindleg should turn as much (adduct) as the inside foreleg abducts.

By this time you will be able to ride corners and circles with some degree of bend. Remember also that horses tend to stall as they leave the wall and also as they return to the wall. This will enable you to keep the impulsion on your circles and corners and your horse will start to use his inside hindleg and bend more in the joints. He will become more supple, particularly in the shoulders and be ready to begin lateral work.

Counter bend 

The suppleness of horses can also be improved using counter bend, this involves flexing him to the outside and turning him to the inside with an indirect outside rein aid. Bending and flexing a horse to the outside improves straightness and suppleness.

Horses that are stiff in the neck and body, or those that have ‘too much neck bend’ need further straightening. The outside indirect turn with outside flexion ‘counter flexion’ can be used to straighten horses and produce ‘counter bend’.

Counter bend with counter flexion on a circle also improves the horse’s turn from the outside rein. This is a more advanced movement than an indirect outside rein turn from the long side to the centre line and should only be ridden when the latter is easy.

Training tip 

The outside rein is used to decrease the size of the circle again spiralling in, so that the horse’s inside foreleg opens inwards more (abducts) and the outside hind steps more to the inside of the circle (adducts). The inside hindleg and outside foreleg bend (knee, stifle and hock) and elevate more in the process. The horse appears more upright or level in the shoulders as well as becoming more even. 

In this exercise you are still in the position of the circle, the outside shoulder forward and inside one back, looking to the inside and the outside thigh helps to push the horse’s shoulder to the inside. The outside indirect rein pushes towards his neck. 

Horses find this exercise quite difficult in the beginning and you may need to use a guiding inside direct turn to help give your horse the idea of turning in with counter flexion. Open the inside rein away from his shoulder during the swing phase of the inside foreleg. The rein can be opened more towards your knee if needed. 

The feeling you are aiming for is that he turns the forelegs in and changes the feel of his body as the inside hind engages, he should also relax at the poll and look down. In the walk it feels as though he is beginning a pirouette but flexing the wrong way. 

Once he has turned or yielded his shoulder you need to go back to true flexion and ask him to lengthen his stride, this brings the hindlegs more under and produces a new level of engagement. Engagement can then be further improved by training leg yield.

Yielding

Leg yielding is a sideways movement where the horse’s forelegs and hindlegs cross over each other as the horse travels forwards and sideways. The horse is flexing at the poll away from the direction of the yield, but his body is straight.

In a leg yield, there should be a clear opening (abduction) and closing (adduction) of the forelegs and hindlegs at mid canon to hock level.

Yielding trains the horse’s hindlegs and improves the lateral suppleness and mobility of the horse’s sacrum. Leg yield also begins to train the rotation of the pelvis and lowering of the hindquarters. It is necessary to train the hindquarters to yield for the lateral movements of travers, renvers, half pass and pirouettes.

The rider’s position for yield 

To yield your horse’s hindquarters to the left, begin at the halt. Remember to start with an engaged core, this is for stability and effective delivery of the aid. Flex him to the right first; position your right leg back 3-4 cm from its neutral position.

The aid to yield is a squeeze of the right calf for the 2 steps of yield, the right hind steps towards the left hind, which then steps left, the aid is then relaxed before being repeated.

In the beginning, the wrong leg may step first, but at a basic attempt this is fine.

The horse can be motivated to move over from whip-taps on the hindquarters but first you will need to ensure he has been trained to move over from two light taps by operant conditioning (pressure-release). You can start this from the ground first, then practice it under saddle from the halt. Once the horse understands that two light whip-taps mean yield the hindquarters you will be able to enforce the leg aid with the whip-tap.

With practice, timing and targeting the correct leg action, a rider will get the hind legs in the correct sequence. First you target two steps of yield and gradually progress towards a complete turn on the forehand which involves 8 steps of yield (each hind leg represents one step).

When leg yielding away from the right leg towards the left, your left shoulder should be forward, pointing to the direction of travel of the horse’s shoulders, keep your left thigh close to the saddle to prevent falling out of the shoulders to the left.

Apart from engaging the core you can also clench the right gluteal muscles to the left as part of your position and aid. The ideal time to apply the leg aid is as the right hindleg is in the swing phase.

When riding a leg yield, sit evenly on both seat bones, aim to feel the movement of the left side of his body as well as the yielding right side. If you end up crooked, the shoulders will either lead too much or the hindquarters will appear to be ‘trailing’.

Turn on the forehand 

Yielding is best trained and shaped progressively from a turn on the forehand, which is basically yielding the back legs only while the forelegs remain in the same spot. The right foreleg should step up and down more or less on the same spot, and the left foreleg steps around it without stepping forward. This movement is a required movement in western dressage but not required in english dressage tests. It is a very useful movement and improves suppleness of the hindquarters.

Training tip 

Ride a square halting at each corner and asking for 4 steps of a turn on the forehand at each corner. Turn this movement into a ‘turn around the forehand’ by yielding the hindquarters whilst in a short walk. You will need to turn the shoulders a little before the yield aid can be applied. 

Later, a turn around the forehand can also be ridden in the trot and canter aiming for 2 strides of yield on each corner, the trot and canter need to be shortened first. 

From this movement (in walk first), leg yield develops easily as the horse clearly understands the yield aid in isolation. We need to keep it simple and ask for one thing at a time. 

Leg yield 

Leg yielding can then be introduced along a diagonal line and in novice test is performed from the centre line to the outside track or from the long side to the centre line. The horse should be parallel to the wall and flexing away from the direction of travel. The 2 sets of tracks of the forelegs and hindlegs should be at a 40 degree angle to the line of travel.

Training tip 

Start with a turn around the haunches but then look to the outside, position your outside shoulder in that direction and begin your leg yield. Draw an imaginary line in the sand to the letter you want to yield to e.g., X to H. Always begin in the walk aiming for the correctness of the yield before improving stride length and before beginning yielding in the trot. 

Once yielding aim to relax your leg pressure (self-carriage) but keep the leg in the yield position. Re-apply the leg pressure only if the horse ceases to yield. Check for self-carriage of rhythm by giving with both reins, slowing or shortening your horse if the forelegs go over the line. 

Horses lose their balance when yielding so the tempo (the speed of the steps) must always be attended to first. If he quickens you will need to slow the inside foreleg more as it will be crossing too quickly in the swing phase – time your slowing aid with the swing of that inside foreleg. 

Remember to relax the leg’s yield aid when applying the slowing rein aid so that you avoid applying two opposing aids at the same time. Once he has slowed, the inside hind leg will then be able to cross more when the yield aid is re-applied. 

Once tempo is established the stride length can be attended to. A horse that falls out through the shoulder will be too long in the stride on the outside fore and inside hind will not appear to be crossing at mid canon level. Shortening the stride will allow the horse to cross more behind. 

If you end up behind the imaginary line, then the outside leg can be used to ask him to go longer in the stride up to the line. You will find it easier to use your outside leg to achieve this, remember your inside leg is busy in the yield position. 

Once the leg yield is in a rhythm you can then begin to target straightness. 

Leading with the shoulders 

Crooked leg yields can be straightened using direct and indirect turn aids to straighten the horse’s shoulders and put them in line with the hindquarters. They can also help to keep the neck straight. When horses are ‘leading with the shoulders’, put the shoulders in front of the hindlegs using the reins, a combination of direct and indirect rein aids – ‘joystick turns’. This will allow the hindquarters to catch up.

The rein aids should not be used at the same time as the leg aid. Checking self-carriage of straightness by giving on one rein will help you identify which rein or shoulder is the problem.

When the hindlegs are unable to catch up to the forelegs, the horse can also appear to be ‘trailing with the hindquarters’. Riders will often exaggerate their pushing yielding aids when trying to get the hindlegs more over and are likely to have lost the feel of their outside thigh and seat bone. If the shoulders are rebalanced, then the hindlegs can be asked to be quicker or longer with the yielding leg aid or from whip-taps.

Quick whip-taps on the hindquarters will improve the tempo and make the hindlegs quicker. Quick nudges of the yielding leg can also be used. Remember to keep the aid on and increase the pressure until the horse gives the correct response.

Single taps on the hindquarters every time the yielding leg steps forward will improve stride length once the tempo is self-maintained.

Leading with the hindquarters 

Conversely, if the hindquarters are leading too much left in a leg yield to the left (for example), then place the horse’s shoulders more left with your rein aids. If the stride length is too short you will arrive at the track too early – ask for longer strides. This commonly occurs if before the yield the length of stride is too short.

Remember to test for self-carriage of straightness by giving with one rein for 2-4 steps frequently to see which foreleg or shoulder is running or taking longer steps causing the problem. Testing with your legs is equally important, judges want to see self-carriage from the yield aid too.

Next part…

These last two articles have dealt with straightness of the shoulders and of the hindquarters. Your horse should be starting to feel connected from front to back. You have control of the forehand and control of the hindquarters, as well as control of his neck with some flexion. We can now deal with elevating the forehand and creating more impulsion to produce a higher frame and the beginning of collection.

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 read Part 6 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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