Could Learning Theory Lead to Objective Dressage Judging?

Could Learning Theory Lead to Objective Dressage Judging?

The fundamental objective of dressage is to develop, through a standardized progression of training methods, a horse's physique and ability.

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Some people believe dressage is more subjective than objective, and that the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) judging scale (also known as the German training scale) is largely based on a mixture of subjective and objective elements. But, at the 10th International Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Denmark, one researcher shared his thoughts on how learning theory could be used to produce more objective dressage scoring.

The fundamental objective of dressage is to develop, through a standardized progression of training methods, a horse's physique and ability. The aim is to produce a horse that is calm, supple, and flexible, and confident and willing to perform to its full potential. Under FEI rules, dressage is judged on eight elements: precision, rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, collection, and submission.

At the conference, Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed, director of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre and senior vice president of the International Society for Equitation Science, took a closer look at the German Training Scales. In particular, he evaluated various scientific viewpoints, including shaping (reinforcing successive incremental approximations of a target behavior): subjective vs. opposed to objective elements of each scale; and "subjective, ambiguous, and scientifically flawed terminology" that could interfere with the judging process.

McLean states that “the elements of a training scale should be objective and directly observable” and “should allow judges to distinguish training successes and errors in a systematic way.”

As such, he wants to enhance the existing FEI training scale with the principles of learning theory (the body of research that has led to a better understanding of how horses learn, behave, and react) by integrating an objective and justifiable judging scale that will allow the analysis/marking of a horse’s trained responses. A revised evidence-based scale, McLean believes, will allow judging to become more accurate and fair, and could be used in all equestrian sports.

McLean believes that judging and horse welfare should go hand-in-hand and that the proposed judging scale will improve the welfare of horses. The use of a more horse facing judging scale, he opines, could ultimately improve the longevity of equestrian sports which are currently threatened by the inconsistent use of potentially vague criteria for assessing performance.

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