Andrew McLean investigates Objective Dressage Judging

1Andrew2At the recent Global Dressage in Denmark, Andrew McLean presented a paper on the need for changes to make dressage judging more objective. It’s a topic that has been on his mind for some years now and he has been working away in developing these ideas. Andrew pointed out that: “Unlike Jumping, where judging is objective and easy to calculate, Dressage is very subjective but unnecessarily so. Much of the problem is that we have inherited a traditional system of training and judging has naturally reflected this. Inside traditional systems are justifications for doing things that may be false or misleading and there are misleading knowledge hierarchies that arise from our efforts in trying to make sense of what we do and see.”

As Andrew sees it, dressage can, and should be, more objectively assessed and pointed out that this assessment would and should always be an ongoing ‘work in progress’.

“Objective judging is a mega-important topic that needs careful thought. Subjective systems don’t need ‘one-off’ revolutions, instead they need constant refining, and even more especially when a sport involves animals. We need an ongoing FEI Judges Working Party continually assessing and refining the process. To be successful, we need original thinkers on it as well as a few outstanding open minded judges who will lead the way.”

“We have a more vocal and knowledgeable audience nowadays and we have high resolution TV and a sport that already lives on the borderline of elitism and Olympic credibility. But I am absolutely convinced that if we did make changes toward a more objective, pragmatic and transparent system, judges would be more accountable and they would have more confidence in precisely how they allocate their marks. Judging drives the direction of the sport of dressage and so I would expect that intelligent judges should welcome the potential for as much objectivity as possible.”

“So as I see it, far from being something we should be afraid of, we should set up a working party to see if we can achieve this and if we can road test it. If it’s worse then we just revert to what we had. But I’m sure it won’t be.”


Objective versus Subjective

Andrew feels that the problem stems from a fuzzy understanding of how the actual training of a dressage horse actually progresses, and judges need to understand that process in order to judge objectively.

“Training animals is about the step-wise shaping of responses. Therefore judging is necessarily about de-constructing these steps, defining the level of achievement for each rider. Judges have to know how these steps follow one another if they are to be able to objectively assess success or otherwise. When you are judging variable criteria with end-goals, four conditions must be met and these are not wholly satisfied by the so-called FEI or Classical Training scale:

Scalarity: A scale of judging steps should be identified. The FEI scale (formerly the German Scale) that is the basis of the judging rules is not sufficiently scalar in that some of the steps of that scale do not lead to the next one.   When first described in the HDV 12 (German military handbook) last century, the elements of the scale weren’t written as a scale then. In fact these elements were briefly rebirthed twice later in the 20th century and then in the 1960’s, the concept of the Training Scale came into modern equestrian literature. Most importantly, because classical ideology pervades the equestrian world (when it’s convenient to voice it), the Training Scale has achieved ‘Ten-Commandments’ status, so it has never been subject to peer review, not even within the equestrian world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the whole scale should be shelved, but I do think some reorganising, addition and deletion is called for.   As it stands now, it is a good ‘set of directives’, but it isn’t a scale.”

“Let’s look at an obvious example – How can ‘straightness’ be positioned after ‘impulsion’? How can a horse be powerful and impulsive if its hindlegs are eccentric to its forelegs i.e. the hindlegs are not following the forelegs on the same line? How can straightness be after contact? If the horse is not straight how can the contact be even – and what use is contact if it is uneven? What it will likely mean for the horse is dullness to the heavy rein (or leg) – it will habituate to the heavy rein – it will have uneven rein responses.”

“If judges are to work objectively, then they have to see straightness as a subset of an even more crucial first step, rhythm. In training, as rhythm develops, the horse becomes straighter which adds weight to the argument that the two should be adjacent on the scale.”

“The most powerful evidence for straightness being a subset of rhythm comes from biomechanics. The lack of straightness, i.e. crookedness, is largely a function of laterality, and to a smaller extent asymmetry. The effect of laterality is that one diagonal couplet tends to provide more propulsive thrust than the other. The other couplet tends to provide slightly more reverse thrust. The effect of these two different couplets skews the horse. (Crookedness is normal for quadrupeds as it allows them to place the hindlegs deeper so that one leg goes in between the forelegs as in jumping or galloping – a straight horse would over run his own heels in an attempt to escape a predator, so crookedness is therefore typical of quadrupeds). So if a trainer focusses on making the diagonal pairs as even as possible (slowing the running pair a little more than the other one and quickening the stalling pair, then the horse straightens and can come into a perfect rhythm. So rhythm and straightness are actually inseparable. If straightness were moved to be following rhythm then I think this makes sense.”

“Contact would then be in the right place just after straightness. When a horse is in self-carriage in rhythm and straightness, the rein, leg and posture aids achieve a more sophisticated subtlety which assists in the development of Contact. It is at this level where the physical development of the horse can now proceed via the continuum of impulsion through to collection. So as the Training Scale would have it: Rhythm – Suppleness – Contact – Impulsion – Straightness – Collection, most judges are trying to assess the worth of a dressage tests with this somewhat muddle-headed ‘Scale’ as their guide to what is and is not important…”

“This development of the dressage horse through to collection leads me to a further criticism of the Training Scale. Impulsion itself is part of a scale of physical development through to Engagement, Throughness and finally Collection. We should expect a horse at novice level to be developing impulsion, which should further develop into the beginnings of engagement in Elementary/Medium horse, then Throughness (the ‘sitting’ effect and one-hoofprint deeper step of the hindlegs) begins to appear in the Advanced horse and all the while Collection which strictly requires these preceding qualities is slowly emerging. Collection shows its greatest development in the Grand Prix horse. I would place the impulsion through to collection continuum at Contact level because it is the same criterion of increasing physical development and, of course, it would be marked according to the level of the test. They should not be seen as separate entities, but instead as a continuum of the same physical goal.”

“The modern scale is not logical and doesn’t make enough sense to me, yet most judges and most trainers swear by it. That is at least until you point this all out as I did at the Global Dressage Forum. There the opposition evaporated and turned into agreement that yes, the scale is a great set of directives, which it is. But it isn’t a scale.”


Objectivity: “Optimally, criteria should be directly observable with no exceptions. You cannot directly observe submission. In fact the word ought to be rubbed out – it has no place in training. Training is about setting up a behaviour, reinforcing it and repeating it until it becomes a habit. Anything less shows up as the horse trialing an alternative behaviour (because he can) or as confusion and this is mistaken for lack of submission. When you’re riding a dressage test, you are not asking questions but eliciting reflex reactions that you have installed. The horse isn’t obeying you like a slave, but reacting to what you have correctly or incorrectly reinforced in your training. Things happen far too fast in a dressage test for a horse to ponder what he might or mightn’t do (environmental stimuli excepted). The job of trainers of all animals is to turn action into habit, just as we do when we do sports or drive a car.”

“Suppleness (another element of the so-called scale) is another subjective notion. You can’t be sure that ‘suppleness’ is entirely a trained thing, especially nowadays. You can buy at least some amount of suppleness because many modern breeds move so athletically it looks like, well, suppleness. Since dressage is about, or should be about training, a genetic contribution of ‘suppleness’ is a questionable judging criterion in such a sport. We have to be comfortable with losses of judging transparency and elitism if we are happy to place a lot of emphasis on suppleness beyond the training effects that are seen in the throughness of movements such as extended walk, trot and canter, and lateral movements.”

Robust definitions: “Each element on the scale needs a fundamental definition. Take rhythm for example – every trainer and rider has different view of its fundamental definition. My own surveys of judges and trainers say rhythm is about regularity, fluidity, fluency, evenness and many other qualities. But there is a more important definition: “the horse keeps doing whatever it has been asked until asked otherwise.” This definition is old, because even Grisone mentioned it 455 years ago – the trend continued through Baucher, Steinbrecht, and as recently as Decarpentry and Oliveira last century. Today many trainers will stress this point, but it isn’t given enough consideration in judging. If they did, the rankings would change.”

“I think this ‘self-maintenance’ definition should be paramount in determining rhythm where the judge can see that the horse is not held in its speed by rider but is trained to remain in gait, tempo and stride length/height.   The notion that the horse should ‘continue to keep going’, means that if the horse is seen to be held by the reins or rider’s leg in speed, straightness or outline, then it isn’t going ‘on its own’ – it isn’t in self-carriage and it’s bad for the horse’s mental well-being. Elements such as regularity are subsets of this notion. This has to be the fundamental definition of rhythm, for many reasons especially the horse’s mental welfare. It seems a relatively easy task to see whether or not a horse is going ‘on his own’. Also many issues that are seen as ‘contact’ issues are in fact rhythm issues (i.e. the open mouthed horse would run if you let go of the reins). Precisely sticking to a definition of rhythm as self-maintenance of speed would be a huge step in improving the welfare of dressage horses. It would significantly alter the positions of many riders at all levels of competition. It would make dressage riders better trainers.”

“Straightness also is misunderstood in terms of its causation. Crookedness is only a symptom, the cause is that the horse is drifting or attempting to drift. The reason why a horse may be crooked but not drifting is that the rider is holding one rein stronger or one leg on stronger to prevent it. Horses learn to profit from drifting and not going to where they are pointed. In fact it is true to say that controlling speed AND line and training them to be self-maintained is the fundamental art.”

“The origin of the drifting is the laterality I described earlier. This sets up the dominant direction of drift. Most horses have a running right foreleg (and left hind) and so are heavier on the right rein (notwithstanding the laterality of riders!). When the running leg is held in the hand, the horse typically falls out to that side, so the tendency to drift right is pre-wired and then, through the actions of the rider, installed.”


Firewalls: “A firewall is where the judge can ‘freeze’ a mark at a particular level if any step is not present in a scale (say of A, B or C), then the mark is ‘frozen’ at the step before. Rhythm should be firewalled. If the horse isn’t in self-carriage then no matter how flash it is, it can’t go higher than, say 6.”

“Straightness should also be firewalled because the lack of it may mean the horse is subject to ongoing pressures on one side or the other. So if the horse isn’t straight the marks can’t go higher than 7. These should be seen as fundamental ceilings for welfare reasons. I firmly believe that these things will have a positive impact on the sustainability of dressage. I must admit, I’m not enamored by the unworldliness of equestrian folk. As I see it, most live in a narrow world and never question what they do or what is done. Unintelligent and totally indefensible arguments are used such as “He gets fed and housed like a king” and so other aspects of welfare may not be considered. When something is done habitually in an industry or culture, it becomes normalised.”

“So very few individuals really do look at what they do from the perspective of the onlooker. But they should and we have to be ahead of the game and improve welfare as much as we can. The eventers led the way with such huge changes to the cross-country that it’s quite a different sport from my day. They saw the writing on the wall. The problems in dressage are far more subtle, but no less pressing. Judging and welfare should be synonymous, because judges are the housekeepers of welfare. The system should be transparent for all. An objective and transparent system will make judging tenfold easier and will mitigate the 4 current biases that Wayne Channon pointed out: Conformity bias (where some judges may feel the need to be in line with other judges), National bias where judges of one country score their own riders higher), Order bias (where riders in the afternoon get better marks than in the morning) and Memory bias where riders past performances infect judging of their current ones.”

“Also we need to be very cautious in rushing in and thinking its ok to breed even fancier horses. Horse people need some education in genetics to recognise that there are huge consequences for the animals themselves when selecting for narrow traits like movement. Judging should be about training, not breeding. With all other domestic species we know that when you breed true for narrow traits, the wheels fall off other elements of the animal’s life. There is no breed of dog without congenital defects, some of which are life threatening, some painful and some of which are subtly deleterious. Every animal carries a certain number of lethal genes that remain concealed from expression, yet when we selectively bred for narrow traits, these surface and we see some very bad examples. Eyesight is one where wheels can easily fall off because the anatomical, physical and physiological constraints are so precise. In fact it was one of the creationist arguments Charles Darwin faced when he proposed the Theory of Evolution, where it was claimed that eyes could not possibly have evolved because they are far too complex. We need to be cautious. At a dog genetics conference, I suggested that if pure breeds were out crossed every 4th generation, then the masking genes may reoccur, however the dog people either didn’t understand or chose to bury the idea because the idea would naturally reintroduce more variation in offspring, which is after all a breeders nemesis.”

“So we need to step back and reflect on the recent dominance of only a few stallion lines. And we need to ensure that Judging isn’t a meat market for expensive horses, because the IOC will see that the sport is too elite and questions logically arise such as how can poorer countries afford to participate or be competitive? If we want to see dressage go into the future it must be sustainable and it must move away from its cultural prison and be informed by the greatest possible objectivity.”

Christopher Hector comments:

I was with Andrew all the way until his last paragraph about not breeding fancy horses. Andrew had hinted at something like this in his comments on suppleness. So unless we clone a ‘standard issue dressage horse’ and hand them out to prospective dressage riders, I am not sure how we can eliminate the effects of breeding, good or otherwise, to create a level playing field of horse flesh. Maybe we can’t eliminate them but we can drastically mitigate them by making judging more focused on objectivity and actual training criteria.

Interestingly Carl Hester recently suggested that somehow dressage judging could be modified to take into account the peculiarities of different breeds – his example was Rubi, the Lusitano stallion, who found it difficult to elevate his poll to the highest part of his neck. Should we then, take into account that Thoroughbreds are allegedly lacking in a calm temperament, so that the final score should be mathematically adjusted in terms of the proportion of Thoroughbred, Arab or Trakehner blood?

Absolutely not. Tbs are no more reactive then some modern warmbloods. At any rate in an objective approach, the playing field is level. Perhaps only at the determination of whether a movement is a 9 or 10 would subjectivity rear its ugly head. – A. McLean

Or what about individual stallions, the Rubinsteins find it hard to show a big extended trot, should the score for extended trot by modified according to the percentage of Rubinstein blood?

No, baroque horses also have trouble with covering ground. They may make it up by easier collection. They will get a lower score. Every horse will still have its strong points. – A. McLean

Just as the role of the rider / trainer is to eliminate idiosyncracies of movement, making the horse equally supple to both sides, equal on both diagonal pairs, etc, so the task of the breeder is to breed out weaknesses and improve the individual. In many ways the nature of the Grand Prix test is weeding out the super modern individuals because the results of the last few years prove that they may look wonderful at stallion licensings and young horse classes, but the true stars of Grand Prix dressage tend to be shorter, less modern individuals like Totilas, Valegro, or Breitling and his tribe of Grand Prix progeny. Breeding quibbles aside, Andrew has once again, lifted the shroud of ignorance and pointed us in the direction of clearer, more horse friendly thought and practice.

For more articles with Andrew McLean, go to the directory on his Who’s Who entry:

McLean, Andrew


15 thoughts on “Andrew McLean investigates Objective Dressage Judging

  1. The observations about the “Training Scale” could not be more spot on! I have never understood how anyone could expect to obtain rhythm, relaxation and balance without straightness, much less lightness without degrees of self carriage. With the exception of collection, all of the elements of the accepted Classical Training Scale are necessary to achieve all of the other parts and not in the order in which they have been presented. This obviously affects judging. While I understand the desire of the Dressage world to produce rides which are impressive and enjoyable to the less trained eye, in order to support the sport, the subjectivity of the judging seems to have become an acceptance of holes in the foundation in favor of flash. So glad to see someone taking all of these points into the public forum. Thank you.

  2. I couldn’t agree with Andrew Mclaen more. As a person who rides dressage for the pleasure (and rewards) of training the horse – but a horse that is not one of the big movement types, to constant get comments of ‘nice entry, square halt’ and yet receive a 6 or 7 score at most demonstrates the pure subjectivity of the judging. How can that comment receive that score? Objectively it should be 10.
    Hooray for someone who views the scoring of dressage tests in an objective, more understandable way.
    Well done!

  3. Interesting reading , i have to say i agree. please continue with your ongoing research “Andrew”.

  4. Well done Andrew!! Always a mover and a shaker for the benefit of our for legged companions!!

  5. Thank you Dr. McLean . As an educated adult I began on a quest of learning dressage . I was soon to recognize that it be training scale does not make sense and forced riders trying to follow it into poor riding . Clearly changes need to be made for the welfare of the horse . Dressage is increasingly being seen as a cruel sport.

  6. The last commentator eluded to dressage becoming a cruel sport. Rolkur, strapping mouths shut and actual wounds on the horses side made from overuse and to much pressure from spurs give indications of this. Do individuals who do dressage love their horses,want to give them the best etc. and yet publically treat them as above. I know this is not all dressage riders but what the FEI allows everyday horse livers will follow. riders attempt to train their horses according to The Scales of Training but honestly how many truly knowledgeable re meaning, how it applys to the horses biomechanics and what exactly needs to be done to improve things. ordinary horse owners take their ques from the highest professionals in their sport yet just how much damage are they putting their beloved horse through because there is no understandable clarity of what is required and how to attain said standard. Thank you Dr for comments on submission, our horses,are not.slaves but an equal member of our team. Without them we have no dressage as a sport or discipline so why do we not free them from being strapped down and completely outlaw anyone who uses cruel and physically damaging exercises to obtain something that can be taught to them in a fairer and much more effective manner. They deserve our utmost respect as it is they who complement us with their intelligence and beauty.

  7. A.McLean heeft de beste en intelligentste bijdrage geleverd betreft de beoordeling van de dressuur welke ik in een lange reeks van jaren voorbij heb zien komen. Vooral ook zijn visie op rechtgerichtheid en de plaats daarvan in het skala kan ik volledig onderschrijven en benadrukken. Mijn ervaring is ook dat takt ( rythm) niet te verkrijgen is zonder rechtgerichtheid. Evenals ontspanning(suppleness) en aanleuning(contact) niet mogelijk is zonder rechtgerichtheid. Omgekeerd kan rechtgerichtheid(straightness) niet verkregen worden zonder aanleuning en ontspanning en is takt weer een gevolg van rechtgerichtheid. Het lijkt me dus onmogelijk om straightness een juiste plek te geven in het skala. En toch zou het de meest prominente plek moeten hebben, omdat het enorme gebrek aan rechtgerichtheid (zonder continue ruitercompensaties slechts ter camouflage van), de aller grootste oorzaak is van de gemiddeld bedroevend korte inzetbaarheid in de sport. De overbelasting van het paard door noodzakelijk compenseren van de onbalans ontstaan door ongelijke aandrijving door de achterbenen, leidt tot enorme verzuring en slijtage en overbelasting van de psyche van het paard . Er moet dus gezocht worden naar een prominente inkadering in het hele skala voor specifiek rechtgerichtheid, zonder !! dat het op gaat in andere begrippen en er een ondoorzichtige vermenging plaats vindt.
    .Ook in het verdere betoog van McLean zitten buitengewoon goede aanzetten voor een meer functionele en objectieve beoordeling van de dressuur. Ik zou er nog veel meer over willen zeggen , maar in het kader van een reactie op , voert dat te ver.
    Hulde voor A.Mc Lean!!..

  8. My humble opinion is that the training scale has stood the test of time it is for guidance and not set in stone. It INTERMINGLES within the levels. The rhythm/regularity is fair starting point. Yes “straighten your horse and ride forward” but how……SUPPLENESS both laterally and longitudinally will help make the horse equal both sides and through the back and straighter. The horse needs to work equally into both reins to become straight. (suppleness) My experience is that horses are not born straight and it is a continually ongoing process. The CONTACT is continually developing too. Horses need to seek the contact and riders find or offer a point of contact within the rhythm and the suppleness. This is continually changing too as the horse becomes mature in body and mind and as it progresses towards the carrying power of the hind end. It makes sense to me that then the horse can continually develop the impulsion and continuing the straightness towards the ultimate highest degree of COLLECTION. The collection comes in early on in the dressage tests but it just that which enable the horse to carry out the movements of the test with ease. I won’t get into the debate of the different breeds but as a judge I do use the training scale as a guide to assess what I see before me and the level of the test being ridden and I do it as objectively and as honestly as I can.

  9. I have returned to riding after many decades of not being in the saddle. Through Dr McLean’s wife Manu and through Jody Hartstone in New Zealand where I live I have been introduced to Academic Horsemanship. The title appealed to me since I am an academic! But seriously what has been told to me (and I am only at the beginning) and what I have read makes so much sense it staggers me to think it has not been thought of before. Yet, this very thing happens in my own field, art history. I will give a brief example. A well-known work of Raphael in the Vatican has numerous philosophers depicted and the main protagonists’ identification has been largely the same for 500 years. Then in the late 1990’s a young researcher looked into the identification of the philosophers depicted and made a stunning, and yet obvious, case for one of the most prominent characters to be identified as Socrates. Once he had put forward his argument you then began to wonder why such an identification had not been made before. It had only taken 500 years! I applaud Dr McLeanfor what he is saying and teaching and only hope that the powers that be have enough nous and graciousness to accept and promote his arguments for the betterment of both dressage and the treatment of our beloved dressage horses.

  10. Thank goodness for the intelligence and bravery of men like Dr. McLean! As a student of Philippe Karl’s School of Légèreté Instructor’s course I have the immense privilege to be able to share this kind of wisdom for the well being of our horses. Mr. Karl has also been a long time proponent that the Training Scale is not a scale at all, but a list of directives “Examining the scale in dressage manuals reveals fundamental omissions and serious inconsistencies.” – p. 144 “Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage” (Philippe Karl)

  11. I actually never saw the German scale as a logical scale for exactly the reasons Andrew McLean describes. I love that a influential person raises his voice about this. Must read for every dressage person so that many more people understand this. I would love to see how this evolves to not only a better way of judging but also into the rider’s and instructor’s minds, for it this them who touch the horses. Does someone know how this is proceeding?

  12. Reinventing the wheel is a fashionable thing nowadays. The lack of understanding of what “losgelassenheit” stands for, and what also “contact” stands for, means there always be people trying to move things around. The horses do not change their functional anatomy for centuries and will break down anyhow, go lame and stiff, whatever is done to the scales to adapt to bad riding.

  13. Fantastic stuff, thank you Andrew. I have had many years of dressage lessons and found it difficult to get very far. A lot of lessons have been focused on – just use the reins to pull the horse into a particular frame and the horse will soon work out that it needs to give to the pressure. This way of riding hasn’t worked very well for me so I have been on my own journey, reading as much as I can including Andrews books, trying to find a way that works better. One of my discoveries along the way is realising that you can not do much with a horse that is crooked. All horses need straightness training. I think that should be number one on the training directives scale, straightening the horse. Once a horse is straight a lot of other things will more easily fall into place such as contact. It is much easier for a horse to go to the bit, so to speak, when it is straight, that is working from the back to the front instead of pulling the head in first.

  14. Relaxation should always come first. Tight muscles working will cause pain and build resistance as training progresses. Resistance sets in and the sour dressage horse is created.

  15. This seems to be a good time to add that the dressage scores do not follow the mathematical rules for the number of significant digits. In other words – if each movement is scored to a single or double digit integer (1,2,3,…10) then you really cannot give a final score that is carried out to more significant digits than the movements scored. It is scientifically absurd to decide a class rank based upon a score that is calculated to hundredths of a point, when the measuring system based upon the human eye is not that accurate. Then consider that the movement’s scores are currently “subjective’ more than “objective” .

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