Dressage Judging: National vs. International

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Yes, there is a difference—for both judges and competitors. Here is a potential solution to help close the gap.

By Axel Steiner

It is widely accepted that the United States has one of the most comprehensive training systems for dressage judges in the world. It is also widely known that we are one of the very few countries that allows classes at all levels to be adjudicated by a single judge. The rest of the world almost always has two or more judges. At national-level (US Equestrian-licensed/USDF-recognized) dressage shows in the US, panels of multiple judges are used only at regional and national finals, and in some qualifying classes (more about these later).

Although the US has an outstanding judge-training system, I have come to believe that both judges and competitors would benefit from the adoption of a multiple-judge format. In this article, I’ll explain how dressage judges move up the ladder and how the US might begin to close the gap that leaves many licensed judges unable to progress in their careers and their knowledge.

Up the Ladder in the US National System
In the US system, a prospective dressage judge who graduates “with distinction” from the USDF L Education Program is eligible to apply to our national federation (US Equestrian) to sit for the entry-level judge’s license (called “r,” for “recorded”). After the candidate becomes a licensed judge, the promotion ladder is long and steep for those who wish to advance to the highest levels of judging. From “r” to “R” (Registered) to “S” (Senior) takes around 10 to 12 years. Many will fall by the wayside on the way up. Often-cited reasons for dropping out: failure to pass the riding requirements, the expense, and insufficient judging opportunities to fulfill annual requirements for number of shows judged.

Let me address this last point in more detail. Many “r” and some “R” judges cannot get enough show appointments to fulfill the annual requirements. The problem often has little to do with their abilities, and much more to do with the fact that show managers have little use for “r” judges, as they can only judge limited classes (Training through Second Level). For a similar amount of money, a manager can hire an “R” judge (Training through Fourth Level) or even an “S,” who can judge all levels.

The Jump to FEI
The few dressage judges who make it all the way to “S” level by their mid-fifties can begin the application process to become an international (FEI) judge. Once accepted by the FEI as a three-star (3*) judge, one’s judging world changes dramatically for the better because an FEI judge may judge international events (FEI-recognized dressage competitions, known as CDIs) on a panel—and that is the greatest learning experience there is for a judge!

Here one finds out that after judging for many years, mostly by oneself, that there is still a lot to learn. That learning process is now aided by working with much more experienced colleagues, most of whom are willing to guide by example and through many conversations. Now it is possible for judges to compare individual and total marks, and even compare marks given around the world, for the same test. An FEI judge is in a constant learning and calibration mode in order to maintain long-established standards, and FEI judges also face exams and are required to attend regular seminars.

As you can see, an FEI judge has a huge advantage over a national judge, who might be just as good butfor whatever reason hasn’t made it to the FEI level. Yes, our national judges must also attend regular seminars to stay current. However, based on my more than 40 years of judging experience (more than 30 of which were as an FEI judge), nothing is fairer and more educational to our riders than to routinely be judged by a panel of experts.

Nothing is fairer and more educational to riders than to routinely be judged by a panel of experts.

The Case for Panel Judging
Because our national judges do not have the constant advantage of calibrating their eye and their standards, it is easy for them to drift away and start deviating from those standards. This in turn fosters in some riders unrealistic expectations when they receive undeservedly high or low scores. It also fosters discontent when the next judge, whose standards are more confirmed, scores a similar ride quite differently. This variation in results unfortunately affects qualifications for regional and national finals, as well as our extensive annual awards programs.

Dressage judges are only human, and some deviation in scores is to be expected. But we can greatly improve our judging system by encouraging more classes to be judged by two or more judges. The fact that the US is one of the very few countries that allows a single judge to officiate must change. In panel judging, individua preferences tend to be mitigated, and a more cohesive result usually occurs. The biggest beneficiaries are the riders, who have an extra set of eyes on their performances.

My suggestion is to ask all judges, especially “r” and “R” judges, to make themselves available to show management at reduced rates in order to judge in panels. These judges will not only enjoy a great learning opportunity, but they will also will find it much easier to fulfill the annual judging requirements in order to move up the judging ladder. Panels would be excellent additions to unrecognized (schooling) shows, as well—great practice for the L graduates and the “r” judges who judge most of these shows.

I know that a collective howl just went up from every show manager in the country. And I fully understand. We do not want to overtax our show managers, as they are what keeps competitive dressage going in the country! Perhaps with some reduced judging fees and (please don’t shoot me) a small increase in entry fees— and with increased goodwill from riders and trainers—this might be possible. I realize that some managers are already doing this in a limited way. But we need many more to jump on this bandwagon.

Our sport needs qualified judges at all levels. Our riders deserve the best evaluations, based on worldwide established standards, from multiple judges. Our elite riders and horses have improved greatly over the years, and our FEI dressage judges are on a par with their colleagues around the world. Now it is time to give our national sport a shot in the arm. FEI riders at CDIs have a huge advantage over our national riders by being able to compete in front of multiple, experienced judges. Our national riders should have the same advantage—and excellent judging will help to elevate more riders and horses to the top of the pyramid.

Axel Steiner is a retired FEI 5* dressage judge who judged at Olympic Games, Pan American Games, FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, and numerous other championships. He continues to judge national-level shows as a US Equestrian “S” and is also an active dressage clinician and commentator. A native of Germany, he immigrated to the US in 1961 and joined the US Air Force, from which he retired as a lieutenant colonel. He is a USDF founding member, a longtime faculty member of the USDF L program, and a former member of the USEF Dressage Committee. He lives in southern California with his wife, the equine photographer and artist Terri Miller.

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