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Boost Your Dressage Scores: Part 3

To read the original article, published in the May 2015 issue of Horses & People Magazine, click here.

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

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, 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. Last month, Manuela McLean began explaining how judging relates to horse training against the backdrop of learning theory, or how horses learn.

This month, Manuela continues making sense of the current judging system against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science shaping scale, so you can develop clear training strategies that will improve your next competition performance.

Part 3 – Incorrect responses

Want to score higher than 0-3? Read on…

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

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

The current judging system is based on the FEI training scale, however, as explained in Part 1, the FEI training scale does not aid towards clear and objective judging and training because it is not scalar enough; that is, it does not describe a progression of training steps like a learning theory based shaping scale does.

The equitation science shaping scale (See table on next page), on the other hand, breaks down the features of the horse’s responses into a scale of priorities – from ‘basic attempt’ to ‘harmony’ – and prioritises lightness and self-carriage early in training.

The equitation science training scale can be easily applied to every response and movement and will help you make sense of where you are in your training. When you achieve self-carriage, and the ultimate ‘harmony’, your horse will be showing ‘throughness’ as described by the FEI training scale and will be rewarded with winning marks.

Losses of control, bad behaviours, delayed responses, heaviness to the aids and incorrect responses show a lack of self-carriage and will be penalised by the judges with very low marks. So, let’s start identifying these behaviours and the training issues related, and define strategies to rectify them.

Incorrect Responses

How to score higher marks than 0-3

During a dressage test, incorrect responses (commonly called ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ behaviours) are the behaviours that will receive the harshest marks from the judges.

The comments given by the judges with these marks include:

No movement shown, or
A description of the behaviour, e.g. ‘Buck’.

In this case, the judge’s comments are easy to understand because they are descriptive of a behaviour or lack of prescribed movement, rather than a feeling a rider should have, such as ‘throughness’ or ‘suppleness’.

Judges generally mark according to the degree or amount of incorrect behaviour/movement shown; so that when the required movement is not shown, the mark should be 0. As an example, horses that run backwards when they should be going frontwards would score this mark.

The marks of 1 and 2 may include horses that rear, buck, leap, pigroot, bolt, and those that spin in a movement. Any of these behaviours could be termed disobedient; i.e, the horse does not respond to the aid correctly – he gives an incorrect or wrong response. The size of the disobedience or the frequency of them would also correlate to the mark given.

‘Movement not shown’

A ‘movement not shown’ can also be a rider error, the rider simply forgot and the judge will ring the bell, tell him or her the correct movement, and ask him or her to repeat the movement at the same markers. A penalty of minus two points will incur. Further mistakes will incur greater penalties, with the second mistake incurring four marks and the third incurring elimination.

Preparation in the days before the competition is important and allows greater fluency of the movements in the test. It is worthwhile learning the test early, so that it can be practised often before the day of competition.

Training tip

In a relaxing spot (and not always before sleep as you might not get to the end of the test!), learn and repeat the test in your head, so that it is almost second nature. Ride the test in your mind for perfect movements and try not to dwell over mistakes. If you think of a mistake, such as he is going to leap into canter, acknowledge it and carry on memorising.

The tendency to forget movements in a competition happens because the mind is busy worrying about other things. Memory fails when we get tense, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and practising mindfulness, yoga or other breathing techniques is useful in these situations. So, practise til you don’t forget! Breathe in and out slowly to improve relaxation.

Training tip

Once you are on the horse, breathing techniques, such as mindfulness, are not quite as practical. A technique that works well is counting the number of steps the horse takes, while you breathe in and out.

Start by taking a deep breath in at the walk, then count the number of steps it takes to breathe out and then the number of steps to breathe in. Shallow breathers and tense riders will count somewhere around 4-6 steps; aim to be able to count 10-12 steps in and out, and you will find that breathing is slower, and the body and seat relaxes.

Relaxed riders tend to produce relaxed horses and are able to apply aids more effectively; many of the disobediences we have talked about are a result of tension.

Conflict behaviour

In training, the term ‘conflict behaviour’ is used to describe fight, flight or freeze behaviours, unless related to feed or pain. Conflict behaviours are symptomatic in horses that are confused in some way. The confusion is either about the signals we give them, how we give them or a lack of self-carriage – where the horse gets no release because the aid or pressure is maintained (usually in case the horse changes).

Conflict behaviour is displayed because horses are anxious in some way. They can be fight behaviours, such as bucking, pigrooting or rearing, or flight behaviours, such as bolting, leaping, shying or spinning, or freeze behaviours, such as running backwards and not moving, or becoming dull and confused to the point where they cease to respond.

When there is a problem behaviour or misbehaviour, it is important to check the rider’s aids, as well as the horse’s responses.

Is the horse confused because the same aid is used for different responses or is the horse simply giving an incorrect response?

Is it that there you are applying two aids on at once? One of the most common problems is that riders use their lower legs to turn, as well as using them for the various upward transitions. How does the horse know which response is appropriate – speed-up or turn?

It is easier to think of these behaviours as incorrect responses because we become less emotional about them and treat them as a training issue, rather than blaming ourselves or our horse for giving the wrong answer? Wrong answers are excellent training opportunities; we simply try again and make the aid clearer.

Horses can become anxious and confused as a result of the same aid being used for different responses – it is difficult for them to give two responses at a time. The more sensitive the horse, the more likely it is he will become anxious and exhibit some conflict behaviour until he learns the correct response through the release of pressure. Some re-training will be needed, not just of the horse, but also of the rider. The aids need to be not only clear for the horse, but also easily applied by the rider.

The aids

Making the horse’s responses to the aids and the aids themselves more clear is the first place to start. At the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, Andrew and I have identified and use ten basic aids (signals) and posture cues for gait changes, speed changes, line control and sideways manoeuvrability.

The signals are used to train the horse’s legs which, in turn, gives control of his head, neck and body. Each of these signals and cues needs to be trained individually using pressure/release training. The different postural cues must always be paired with the same aid/response to avoid confusion. Adding a scratch at the wither further rewards the correct response. Using these signals, we can train any movement in any horse discipline.

The table below shows these signals and cues (see PDF).

Timing of the aids and how they are delivered is also critical. There is always a perfect moment to achieve a good response, and this is something that develops with feel and a knowledge of the horse’s biomechanics. You will learn more about this in future articles. Big aids should produce big responses.

Training tip: abrupt upward transition

Big aids should produce big responses so, if your horse leaps into the canter, is it because the aid was applied too strongly?

In this case, try using lighter or softer aids, and preparing for the movement. Your horse may be overreacting to you sitting or placing your leg back in the canter position. If sitting is the cause, sit lighter by leaning forward a little before the canter aid, or if placing the outside leg back causes too much reaction, keep it there or he will learn to make you remove it with his reaction!

Watch for changes of rhythm (tempo and stride length) or line, and apply the appropriate aids for quickening, slowing, shortening, lengthening or turning (he may be falling in or out) until he relaxes back to the original trot.

Repeating the preparation either sitting or the leg back until there is no reaction reduces the behaviour of leaping and then the aid for canter can be applied. The canter itself may be too quick, slow, short or long, and this can be corrected with the appropriate aids.

Once the aid has been given and the horse responds correctly, it is important to leave him alone and relax, soften or release the aid. This is how self-carriage of rhythm, straightness and contact develop.


Once the aid has been given and the horse responds correctly, it is important to leave him alone and relax – soften or release the pressure aid.

This is how self-carriage of rhythm, straightness and contact develop.

When the rider is unable to let go, the horse loses self-carriage and tries to find other ways to make that pressure go away, so he may trial some conflict behaviours in the process. The degree of the behaviour will depend on the amount of anxiety or tension the horse is experiencing.
Conflict behaviours involve losses of gait, line and speed, and lead to a loss of control of the horse’s legs and body. Horses become more influenced by the environment and will often overreact to the smallest thing (they become hyper-reactive).

No matter what, conflict behaviours can be dangerous and affect your safety. The best way to get rid of them is to re-train the aids and to ride with self-carriage. When they do happen, they should be deleted from the horse’s repertoire. Bucking, for example, can lead to more bucking or bigger bucks if not deleted. Mistakes in training do happen – it is a part of life – but they are also an opportunity to train better.

Pressure on both reins should always mean ‘slow down’ in some way to the horse, such as change gait, shorten or slow the tempo. When the rider uses both reins to prevent the horse from leaning on the bit, to hold his head still, to stop him looking around, or to hold him slow in case he speeds up, the horse is enduring unrelenting pressure. In these cases, the rein aid will lose its effect because it means different things and there will be a loss of self-carriage. The horse will try to find a way out and exhibit some form of conflict behaviour.

Training tip: give and re-take

Remember that self-carriage of the rhythm, straightness and contact is what leads to the higher scores that judges define as engagement and, in turn, they lead to true harmony between horse and rider. Testing for self- carriage is, therefore, necessary throughout the horse’s training in all gaits and all movements for continuing progress.

Does the horse stay in the desired gait without reminding him? Can we let go of our reins or legs for 2 to 4 steps and, when we do so, does our horse stay doing what he was doing and going where he was going?

Testing self-carriage of the reins – called ‘give and re- take the contact’ – is asked for in many tests. The rider should open the angle of the elbows (move the elbows forward) making a loop in the reins for 2 to 4 steps and then re-take the contact by bringing the the elbows back. Make sure the hands don’t go back first, as this generally produces a raising of the neck and head. If the horse quickens or lengthens his stride, then you should slow or shorten upon re-taking the contact. If he slows or shortens, then quicken or lengthen the stride when re-taking the contact.

Training tip: proportional use of pressure

Horses become dull to the aids when riders nag with their legs, reins or seat. The leg aids don’t mean ‘go’ or accelerate anymore, the rein aids don’t mean slow and the rider is working too hard. Horses become dull and cease to respond to the aids because of the lack of release and, once again, they are enduring unrelenting pressure.

If the rider finds himself nagging to keep going, try going up a gait every time you feel pressure on the calves. The rider that nags with the leg feels he is working pretty hard! As a rule of training, it is important for horses to know that a stronger aid should produce a bigger response.

For example, if to ask the horse to walk on from the halt we use, let’s say, a pressure of 4 out of 10, then to ask the horse to go from halt to trot, the pressure of the leg aid should be more like a pressure of 6 out of 10.

A leg aid pressure of 4 out of 10 should, therefore, always produce an upward transition of one gait.

A lighter pressure of 2 out of 10 should always mean go quicker within the gait.

Riders that nag will often be asking for quicker steps with a 4 out of 10 pressure. This is why re-training by going up a gait makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, we feel the horse won’t go up a gait with that pressure but, with persistence, some clucking noises and taps of the whip, it does not take too long to get a horse forward from a lighter leg aid. A change of gait is easier for the rider to feel than a sensation of going faster and he will be able to reward the response more clearly.
These exercises produce good results in a very short space of time if transitions are made often. Remember, if he is very heavy go up or down 2 gaits. With repetitions, the horse learns to respond to lighter pressure and postural cues, and self-carriage will be achieved.

Deleting unwanted behaviours

Changes of gait, speed or line should be corrected immediately when they occur, especially if they are associated with conflict behaviours.

An unwanted behaviour, such as bucking, which could throw a rider off, needs to be deleted with a downward transition back to the initial or previous gait – as soon as possible – so the horse does not practise it. Not everyone can sit on a horse that bucks and buck it out! The amount of pressure used to achieve the downward transition may need to increase to be quite strong to stop the horse, but safety is critical. A horse that leaps or bucks needs to be slowed or stopped because these behaviours are associated with the horse quickening his legs in some way.

Training tip: conflict behaviours

A small buck should take less pressure to stop than a big one. This is done by going down 1 or 2 gaits, depending on the size of the buck. Once stopped, the aid can be repeated and the desired response targeted, taking care with the delivery of the aid. Transitions from trot to halt and halt to trot are an excellent way to tune up the brakes. When a horse bucks, he pulls the reins forward and a pull of any description on both reins should always mean either stop, slow down or shorten. If we stop him each time he bucks, the horse will – very quickly – learn that bucking is not an appropriate response and will, in turn, learn the correct response to the aid. Improving the transitions trot-halt and halt-trot is excellent for all conflict behaviours.

Conflict behaviours can be grouped into those that are associated with a loss of brakes (self-carriage of reins) – i.e, the horse that runs and pulls on the bit – and those that are associated with a loss of accelerator (self-carriage of legs) – i.e, the horse that stalls, refuses or lays his ears back, as well as the conflict behaviours associated with a bit of both – i.e, the horse that does not keep the same speed and stays on the same line.

Conflict behaviours can be resolved by working on improving various responses. The percentage in the table below refers to the amount of time (repetitions) that should be spent on re- training each response. (Refer to the 10 basic signals table in PDF).

‘Stop response’ refers to the aids for ‘down one gait or more’, as well as the aids to slow the tempo or shorten the stride. Stronger aids should reflect the bigger response.
’Go response’ refers to the aids for ‘up a gait or more’, as well as the aids for quickening the tempo and lengthening the stride. Stronger aids should result in a bigger response.
’Turn response’, i.e, the aids to turn are the reins and position of the rider. The lower leg should only be used to accelerate in some way and, if positioned back, to yield.

Unfortunately, resolving these issues is not always done ethically. Some attitudes can lead to riders and trainers doing such things as lungeing a horse for hours to make him calm, hobbling, tying the horse’s head down to ‘teach him so’, withholding food and/or water to ‘teach him a lesson’ or even punishing him with the whip behind the truck. Of course, this is not alright. There needs to be another way and it is important to understand the behaviour from a training point of view. In these situations, we may need to spend some time re-training the aids, improve the horse’s responses to the aids and develop good self-carriage of rhythm, straightness and contact.

Next month

The next article will deal with the correct timing and application of the aids. But, for the present, if you have a horse that is exhibiting some conflict behaviour, ask yourself what aids you use to signal each of the responses; whether the aids are clear and simple enough for the horse to understand (i.e, could he be making mistakes because the same aid means different things?), whether you are rewarding the correct response with a release of pressure and praising him, as well as continually testing for self-carriage. You have to be consistent – if he pulls on the reins, you should always slow him down or, if he pushes on the leg, always ask him to speed up.

About the Author: Manuela McLean, NCAS Level 2 (Dressage Specialist), BSc (Biology), Dip Ed. Manuela co-developed the AEBC training system and co-authored ‘Academic Horse Training’ with her husband, Andrew Mclean. One of her most recent achievements is coaching and training Joann Formosa and her stallion, Worldwide PB, to gold medal success at the London 2012 Paralympics. In just six months, Manuela trained Worldwide PB to be a competitive Paralympic mount, to be responsive to verbal and postural cues, and to the lightest of aids. A national coach of dressage, Manuela’s focus is on teaching riders how to train and maintain the basics in their horses; creating a true foundation for higher level dressage. Manuela has ridden and competed at FEI level in Dressage and advanced Three Day Eventing. In great demand as a clinician, she travels to teach riders of all ages throughout Australia and to New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom.