By Katie Rocco
Editor’s Note: While a USDF L Graduate cannot refer to themselves as judges, since they are not licensed by US Equestrian, for the purposes of this article, they will be referenced as a judge such for explanation.
It has been almost 25 years since my graduation from the USDF L Education Program and, in that time, I have re-audited the program twice, each time more impressed with how it has developed over the years. I have judged hundreds of dressage schooling shows, through which I have learned that my expectations were drastically different from the reality of what is entailed in the world of schooling shows. There really is no greater teacher than that of experience. I want to share my insights from a long career of judging, as a USDF L Graduate, to help you get a glimpse into what you may have in store as you embark on your own judging career, or if you are considering entering the program.
1.Expect the unexpected. When I say this, I sincerely mean it. One of my first judging experiences was a D Pony Club rally. Upon arrival, the District Commissioner announced to me that the show venue had been overbooked, and we were to share the location with the National Guard, who would be simultaneously running war games. Yes, you read that correctly. So, some improvisation was required during the day, to assist the children as they dismounted from their ponies before the cannons were shot off during lunch! Fortunately, the day ended successfully, albeit very strange.
While the program may have only prepared you to judge through Second Level, often you will be required to judge above Second Level, likely even through FEI. Show managers may ask you to judge eventing tests, western dressage, equitation, musical freestyles, pas de deux, quadrille, and the list can go on!
Sometimes, you may be asked to judge things you have never heard of before, which requires a bit of thinking on your feet. If you are truly uncomfortable judging certain levels or disciplines, you must let management know as soon as possible.
You may be expected to judge well-known professionals, and will need to remind yourself that, in judging, there are no names and no faces. Once, I had a very famous rider ride multiple horses in front of me, each one with serious issues, including bolting, bucking, airs above ground, you name it. During each disobedience, I would cringe and tell my scribe in a very tentative voice, “four?” “three??” “two??” At the end of the day, the rider came marching across the arena to me and, while I braced for the worst, she congratulated me on my honest scoring. I nearly passed out.
Maintaining consistency and objectivity with your judging is no easy task, but in the end, you will be respected for judging honestly.
2. Create your own judging agreement. Many times, show management will have their own judging agreement for you to sign, but developing your own contract is crucial, to ensure that all parties are clear on each others’ requirements. Include all the obvious items in your agreement; contract information, date of the show, level of rides, agreed upon number of rides, additional fees for extra rides, etc.
Often, you may be working with new shows or new management, in which case, you can offer guidelines in your agreement.
If you are not prepared or paying attention, you could find yourself getting behind schedule, before the day even begins, and morning and lunch breaks will go by the wayside, in order to catch up. Providing guidelines in your judging agreement may be helpful to management, and a lifesaver for you.
3. Get to the show early. I recommend getting to the show at least one half hour before the show is set to begin. Ensure that your tests are in order, that you have extra tests in case, and CHECK YOUR RING! This spring, I showed up to find that the arena’s letters were incorrectly set up, and then set up incorrectly again, in a second attempt.
4. Offer ride-critique-rides. Ride-critique-rides are popular formats, in which a test is ridden, the judge provides comments and critiques for improvements, and the test is then ridden again. This format is similar to a clinic, in that you are teaching more than simply noting what happened during the test. Make sure that the organizer gives you at least 30 minutes per ride, and that they do not overbook the amount of rides during the day. This format may require you to adjust your pricing for the day.
5. Give verbal comments. Since you are judging schooling shows, many times, show management will want you to give verbal comments after each ride. Make doubly sure that there has been enough time built into the schedule to accommodate comments. I recommend seven to eight minutes per ride, to provide adequate comments.
In many rural areas, your comments after the test might be the only feedback that riders receive, so sometimes, you may want to recommend pointers to assist them. This is where you have to decide to go off script, to help a rider improve their test and gain understanding and confidence for their next ride.
6. Stick to the rules as closely as you can. All judges have harrowing stories of their judging ordeals over the years, but when you are a USEF-licensed dressage judge, judging at USEF-licensed competitions, you have recourse to issues that come up while you are judging. You have show management that must follow the US Equestrian rules and a USEF Technical Delegate to assist you, if you need clarification with these rules.
I make clear, in my judging agreement, that my judging will follow as closely as possible to the US Equestrian and USEA rules. While it may be necessary to deviate slightly from the rules at a schooling show, things can quickly get too helter-skelter, and if you don’t maintain clear rules, you may end up with a nightmare on your hands. This will do a disservice to the competitor, as well as to the show itself. For example, if someone is told that their horse can wear boots or other illegal equipment, they may misunderstand, since you let it slide, do the same at a sanctioned event, and subsequently be eliminated. This can be a slippery slope, and if you allow one horse and rider to bend the rules, everyone will have to be allowed to, or you will inevitably end up as the bad guy.
7. Get your name out there. I hear more and more from new USDF L Graduates that they have difficulty finding judging opportunities. There are numerous L Graduates in the field today, so, you must find a way to get your name out there and develop your own unique reputation for judging. You may want to consider contacting local dressage and eventing farms, equine colleges, Pony Clubs, or new show managers to introduce yourself, by offering an educational day of judging, such as a ride-critique-ride. You may also want to consider volunteering your services, as an introduction.
8. Help others to remember what dressage stands for. Dressage is about correct training to achieve harmony between horse and rider, and just because we engage in competition, we must not lose sight of that.
Explain to riders the importance of reading the purpose and directive idea in the test. You would be surprised how many only look at the movement of the test, and where they need to be going. After reading, many riders will have a big “ah-ha” moment, when they realize that the test itself had such great guidelines.
9. Ensure that the horse always comes first. Your ring is a platform to emphasize how the horse should always come first. You will come across circumstances where you will witness various forms of borderline, or even blatant, lameness or abuse, and will need to take action.
Remember, rather than wanting to rip them off their horse, you can kindly assist them on ways to ride their horse in a kinder, more productive way. Combating anger with anger accomplishes nothing, but more frustration. As hard as it is, sometimes, you have a responsibility to do the right thing.
10. Take your continued education seriously. In the time that I have been a USDF L Graduate, I have taken my continued education very seriously. I have attended symposia, re-audited the USDF L Education Program twice, volunteered to scribe for others, attended judges forums, and sat with more advanced judges, to learn from their experience. There is always something new to learn, a new way to approach judging, and ways to look at things differently. Scribing for other judges will provide you with new perspectives, as well as an opportunity to diversify your vocabulary, which can become stagnant over time. I can’t stress how important it is to stay involved with the community, and to continue to learn as much as you can. Starting in 2017, USDF L Graduates are required to complete eight hours of judging-specific education per year.
Some may say that it is only a schooling show, but unlike sanctioned show judges, we have the ability to connect with riders who may be new to the sport, or have had bad experiences showing in the past, to help them in their riding journey. My advice is to empower riders, and in doing so, you will empower the sport. Be kind and fair, but not a pushover. Remember to breathe, smile, and do not let unexpected events intimidate you. Everything that happens, along the way, makes you more consistent and confident, as a judge. Over time, you will develop your own tools and preparation techniques that will help you become a better judge, and you will develop your own tales of experiences. If you have recently become a USDF L Graduate, or if you are pursuing the opportunity, get ready for a great ride!