American Dressage Legends: Maj. Gen. Jonathan R. Burton


Reprinted from the May 2017 USDF Connection magazine.

Go through the list of early Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame inductees (online at and you’ll see a large number of names preceded by military titles. That’s because international equestrian competi­tion was a military officer’s sport until the cavalry was mechanized in the 1950s; not until 1956 were civilians permitted to participate in the Olympic equestrian events. And when they did, they relied on the guidance of the expe­rienced Army officers to show them the way.

One who played an instru­mental role in getting dressage launched in the US—in getting lots of things launched, actu­ally—was Maj. Gen. Jonathan “Jack” Burton.

Burton, who got his early equestrian education by gallop­ing racehorses as a boy, joined the cavalry division of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while at the Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University). After graduation in 1942 and commissioning as a second lieutenant, he was posted at Fort Riley, KS, and the US Cavalry School. There he studied weapons administration, riding, shoeing, veterinary procedures, conditioning, mounted drills, maneuvers, tracking, and stable management, among others.

During World War II, Burton was stationed on the Mexican border with the cavalry, then sent to the Pacific Theater, this time without horses. After the war, he was assigned to the constabulary in the American zone of Germany, where he rode at the stables of the father of the future noted German dressage trainer Conrad Schum­acher. A neighbor and frequent visitor to the Schumacher farm was the legendary German trainer and rider Josef Neckermann, who provided Burton with more exposure to classical dressage.

Burton in 2007, the year he was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame

Back in the US, Burton taught advanced horsemanship at Fort Riley. He rode on the US Army Olympic eventing teams in 1948 and 1956. All the while, he as­cended the Army ranks, serving at the Pentagon in between tours in Vietnam. He would eventually be promoted to major general, the rank at which he retired, and sent to command the Third Armored Division in Frankfurt, Germany.

It is for his contributions to the civilian equestrian world, however, that Burton is most remembered. From 1975 to 1985, he served as executive vice president of the United States Equestrian Team. In 1988, he was chef d’équipe of the US Olympic dressage squad in Seoul, Korea. He held FEI and US Equestrian judges’ licenses, and many dres­sage competitors and judges had his 1985 book, How to Ride a Winning Dressage Test, on their bookshelves. It was followed by the 1990 volume The Judge’s Guide to Step by Step Improve­ment. Burton was also an FEI chief steward and a US Eques­trian technical delegate.

A strong supporter of dressage and equestrian sport for youth, Burton is one of the founders of the FEI North American Young Riders Championships (now the NAJYRC), at which he also served as FEI chief steward for many years. He served as the inaugu­ral chair of the USDF Advanced Young Rider Council for ten years, from 1988 to 1998. And he is an emeritus board member (and former chair) of The Dressage Foundation.

The Roemer Foundation/ USDF Hall of Fame inducted Burton in 2007. With Burton’s multi-discipline contributions, the USDF was far from the only equestrian organization to honor him. The United States Eventing Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame, and he was named a US Pony Clubs National Legend.

Now in his late nineties, Burton is reported to be in failing health. USDF Connection salutes this living American dressage legend by letting Burton do the talking. Besides his books, Bur­ton wrote a column for Dressage & CT magazine in the late 1980s entitled, fittingly, “As I See It.” He discussed the controversies surrounding Olympic dressage judging from 1932 to 1976 and also shared insights about judg­ing. Read on for his thoughts on using the full scale of marks in judging.

Aboard the appropriately named Air Mail in Aachen, Germany in 1949

As I See It: Using the Full Deck

By Jonathan R. Burton
Published in Dressage & CT, June 1990

I once was judging dressage finals and was intrigued by the scores given by one of the judges. If the movement was good, the rider got a six. If it was ordinary, the score was five. If the move­ment was bad in any way, the score was four. No other scores were used.

Unfortunately, there are judges who follow this system. They are a bit insecure in what they are doing and tend to be cautious. I think the very essence of judging is to use the full range of scores avail­able: zero to ten. I admit I haven’t given too many tens or seen too many other judges with an exces­sive number of tens, However, they should be used. You can usually see one on a final movement where everything goes well; the horse is straight, is balanced, makes a relaxed transition to a square halt, and stands there immobile, exud­ing confidence and exuberance and deserving a ten.

The same can be said of using nines. You watch all day, and the walks are constrained, irregular, pacing, jigging, inaccurate, and with heads too high; then you see a long, low, regular, striding walk with a 16″ overstride, and you can easily give a nine. This score should also be reflected in the General Impressions under regularity of the gaits.

Now for the other end of the spectrum. The horse is supposed to take the canter in the corner at the training level. The rider kicks, pulls, and drives. The horse trots faster and doesn’t take the canter until the start of the circle, which is the next move­ment. The point of the movement was to take the canter; the horse didn’t do it at all. He omitted the required movement. Zero.

During his 2007 Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with then USDF Historical Recognition Committee chair Anne Moss (left) and then USDF president Sam Barish (right)

The horse should come to a halt at X. He never really halts but fidgets around, head not still, merely pausing. The horse didn’t really halt. One.

The horse is irregular at the walk, showing more pacing than regular walk The horse jigs at X, crossing the centerline. There is no overstep to speak of. The head is not in a free walk frame. Two.

The horse is attempting an extended trot. He starts late, after a shallow corner, and is a bit irregular in the transition, then breaks to the canter at X. Three.

I’m sure the scores would be more indicative of merit if judges used all the scores in their deck. Appropriate remarks and comments will help riders correct the difficulties. More experienced judges have a greater tendency to use all the points available than less expe­rienced judges do. It is inter­esting to note that in Europe, one usually becomes a judge after retiring from competition; you don’t have the problem of current competitors judging current competitors, as we do on this continent. This obvious conflict of interest is most pro­nounced when competitors are judged by their peers in selec­tion trials.

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