Back to Basics: Teaching to the Test

Dressage should test the quality of training — not how well you practiced the manuever.

Back in the day, I took this biology class with a bit of an unusual format. There were three exams, each with a prescribed set of questions. I know teachers will often recycle exams to save time, but this class was unique in that we got access to the content of all three exams at the very beginning of the term. There were recommended homework assignments, but in the end, your final grade was determined upon your ability to answer those questions you were given at the beginning of the term. I found that most of the students memorized the exams and regurgitated answers when it was time to take the test. There were a few students, however, that did all of the recommend homework and really took the time to develop a deep understanding of the material. While they did not necessarily perform better than the other students in this particular class, they were much more prepared to tackle the challenges of the upper-level classes that lay ahead of them.

All right. I confess — I’m not really talking about biology. I’m talking about competitive dressage.

My mother, before she retired, made a living as a teacher — and she was excellent. When the No Child Left Behind policy was introduced, I remember her concern that teachers would teach to the test in order to receive high scores, instead of focusing on the fundamental skills kids require to be well-rounded learners. I think with the format of competitive dressage being what it is, it’s easy to do the same thing to our horses when our goals are centered around achieving a particular score at a horse show. We worry about movements X, Y, and Z without necessarily addressing the underlying principles that make our horses well-rounded equine citizens. The tests should be just that: tests that indicate the quality of our training, not the training itself.


Now some people decide not to show because of this and that is a completely acceptable decision — but I think horse shows are fun, and I’m pretty sure if I remain a thoughtful, analytical rider, I can avoid the pitfalls of teaching to the test. Recently the date for the first Oregon league show of 2016 was released (February 27-28), and I plan on bringing Helix. While it’s really easy to get caught up in horse show fever (who doesn’t love a beautiful ribbon?!), I’m going to try my best to keep my horse in a training program that makes him a better, stronger, healthier horse, and not necessarily just a better competitor.


Ribbons are nice, but good training is better. In a perfect world (an sometimes in an imperfect one) you can have both.

So here’s the plan. Helix will be showing training level, and each week between now and the show, we’ll be breaking down the movements in training level test 1, discussing the underlying principles and suggesting exercises (other than riding the movement over and over and over) that will improve your horse’s ability to perform that movement successfully. In other words, we will be doing the “recommended homework” in hopes that we will prepare ourselves well for the test in our near future, equip ourselves with the skills we’ll need to move up the levels, and most importantly, make well-rounded learners out of our horses and ourselves.

Next week, centerlines!

Be sure to check out the Back to Basics Facebook page to get updates on Helix’s daily antics.

Go riding!

Biz is the author of Horse Nation’s “Back to Basics” series, which follow the journey of a “somewhat ordinary” horse and rider pair as they strive for greatness. Catch up on her past columns by clicking the #BACK TO BASICS at the top of the page.

Biz Stamm is a part-time seed scientist and full-time trainer/riding instructor specializing in starting young horses for sport horse disciplines. She brings the analytical mind she developed while working in a lab to her riding and teaching, emphasizing a thorough understanding of how the horse’s body works. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), a 9-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 4-year-old Kiger mustang gelding. While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

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