Call for revamp of dressage judging scale

Dr Andrew Mclean is calling for a revamp of dressage judging to an evidence-based scale.
Dr Andrew Mclean is calling for a revamp of dressage judging to an evidence-based scale.

An animal behaviourist with a doctorate in equine cognition proposes a revamped evidence-based scale for judging dressage, which he believes would be more accurate and fairer than the current FEI judging scale.

The director of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, Dr Andrew Mclean, said many people agreed that dressage was rife with subjectivity and that there was a large degree of disenchantment amongst both participants and audiences with the FEI judging scale, also known as the German Training Scale. It was created in 1912 and is based on a mixture of subjective and objective elements.

McLean, presenting at the 10th International Equitation Science Conference in Denmark, said elements of a training scale should be objective and directly observable. It should allow judges to distinguish training successes and errors in a systematic way, he said.

The fundamental objective of dressage was to develop through a standardised progression of training methods, a horse’s physique and ability, he said. The aim was to produce a horse that was 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.

McLean evaluated the German Training Scales, taking into account various scientific viewpoints, including an appraisal of shaping (reinforcing successive incremental approximations of a target behaviour), identifying subjective as opposed to objective elements of each scale, and highlighting subjective, ambiguous and scientifically flawed terminology that interfered with the judging process.

Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW.
German dressage rider Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW. © FEI/Dirk Caremans

McLean, who is senior vice-president of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES),  proposes enhancing the existing FEI training scale with the Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation, as outlined by ISES, 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 will allow judging to become more accurate and fair, he suggests, and has the potential to 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 would ultimately improve the longevity of equestrian sports, currently threatened by the inconsistent use of potentially vague criteria for assessing performance, he said.

McLean holds a PhD in equine cognition and learning, a Bachelor of Science in zoology, and a Diploma of Education.

He has been an accredited riding coach for more than 30 years and has written five books and authored 35 peer-reviewed journal articles.

He has lectured at the University of Tasmania for 11 years in animal behaviour, cell biology, genetics, anatomy, ecology and Tasmanian fauna.

He has won the highest Australian Science award, the Eureka Prize for Science.

McLean developed and manages the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre, the most internationally recognised horse training and behaviour modification centre in Australia.

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