The Shaping Scale- The 6 steps to training a new movement.  

There are many approaches to how we introduce and teach our horses new things, and everyone has their own individual take. However, one thing that we perhaps can all agree on, that for human and horse alike, learning something new is easiest when the steps are broken down- we take what is complex, and make it as simple as possible, building up as we gain confidence. In training this gradual, step by step approach is called “Shaping”.  

Shaping can be used for all varieties of training activities. It may be applied for teaching a standalone action, such as moving forward, or used to put a number of actions together in a new sequence, such as pirouette. Shaping can be described via a 6-point scale- one that you have probably applied without even knowing!  

Step 1. Basic Attempt 

These are our first ever introductions to the new movement. They may be the messiest part of the training program, as we take a new cue and attempt to achieve some small form of the desired response. The cue is often exaggerated to make it clear. It is important to use rewards quickly and efficiently in this section, as it will encourage repeat behaviour. We must also remember that all steps towards the goal are to be rewarded- we are not going to achieve the perfect pirouette from the first ask! As much as taking a step in the right direction, in response to your applied cue is consider a successful attempt!  

Step 2. Obedience 

After what may be very many attempts, likely over numerous sessions, we may begin to progress basic attempts to the obedience stage. In this stage, we look to progress our horse from learning the cue, to responding to it being given in a less exaggerated, more subtle manner. Our horse should also respond to this cue with an immediate response, to show they have learned the cue accurately.  

Step 3. Rhythm 

Our horse has learnt the new movement and the cue that initiates it, now it is time to focus on performing the movement with the correct rhythm, and even at different tempos (e.g. Walk/Trot/Canter) if applicable.  

Step 4. Straightness 

Now straightness isn’t always “straight forward”! Straightness in some movements, such as going down a centre line, or riding strides between a combination, will be its literal definition- can I keep my horse straight as they respond to my cue. However, straightness also refers to our horses strength to maintain the movement on any chosen line. For example, lateral movements in dressage, such as shoulder in or travers, may be practiced on a circle- in this case, we would be looking for straightness not through the horse traveling in a straight line, but rather, the chosen line of the circle- can it maintain the lateral movement whilst on the circle line? Or does it become a little wonky, drifting either off the chosen line, or out of the position of the movement? The more complex the movement, the greater the strength required to maintain “straightness”!  

Step 5. Contact 

Can our horse perform the movement whilst maintaining a consistent, steady and soft contact? Does it have a correct outline when performing the movement? Contact of course does not always mean being rounded like a show horse, as our jumping horses cannot jump from such a frame- rather contact is referring to our riders communication through the reins and bit. If we can perform the movement with a good contact, it will allow us to make small adjustments as needed, communicated via slight rein pressures. 

Step 6. Proof 

At this stage, you have gotten all of the pieces together and your new movement is developing really strongly! However, it is very likely that you have only ever performed it at home or in a lesson! Establishing proof to your new movement means that you can execute it in different environments and conditions, such as on a rainy day, or at a competition, grass paddock, or sand arena- if you can get the same desired response from you newly trained movement where ever you try it, you have proof that you and your horse have executed learning the new action – Well done!  

Next time you think about teaching your horse a new movement, think about how to shape it and what each of these 6 steps would look like for achieving your desired response!  


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