What Do Dressage Judges Really Think?

THINK INSIDE THE BOX: When riders understand judging methodology and showing in general, dressage competition becomes less mysterious PHOTO CREDIT: Jennifer Bryant

Reprinted from the December 2017/January 2018 issue of USDF Connection

In short: We want you to succeed!

Here’s what judges want competitors to know.

By Marilyn Kulifay

A dressage judge’s task is a complex one. The judge is expected to evaluate a performance critically, yet without being critical. To judge each horse-and-rider pair individually against a defined standard that results in a consistent and final ranking of multiple pairs. And to provide expert and valuable reasoning for the scoring in five words or less, spaced about 10 seconds apart!

Contrary to many riders’ perceptions, the relationship between judge and rider is not meant to be adversarial. The judge is actually on the rider’s side, and the scores and comments are intended to help riders understand what they need to do in order to improve their skills and move up the levels. Judges want riders to know that they understand and recognize many of the dilemmas that riders face.

So what do judges really think as they’re watching your tests? Read on to find out.

A Test Is One Moment in Time

Judges can see and comment only on what is presented during the test. They judge your performance against a standard— the fundamentals of the pyramid of training—and give an opinion of your status based on that particular ride. That’s why, although you may feel you just had the best ride ever, you may still be in the “satisfactory” (6.0) category as compared to the standard.

Riders may not know what they don’t know, especially if they are new to the sport. Therein rests the value of judges’ comments and their raison d’être. The competitor can review the test sheet and immediately apply the feedback to upcoming tests, use it in the training at home, or both.

Equine Partnerships Are Works in Progress

Judges recognize that every horse and rider are a work in progress. Unlike your trainer, though, the judge does not know how much you have improved or what obstacles you have overcome. Although judges are sympathetic to these struggles, they are obligated to submit an objective and dispassionate assessment of the snapshot in time that is your dressage test.

Tests offer judges a window into the rider’s training methodology and where the horse and rider are in the training continuum. Consider the judge’s marks and comments a guideline for potential progress, not as final judgment.

If You Do Your Homework, It Shows

If your horse is tense and worried in the warm-up, it is highly unlikely that he will suddenly become more relaxed in the show ring. Similarly, it is unrealistic for riders to expect to get more from their horses at a show than they can get in practice in familiar surroundings.

Preparation at home and in the warm-up is essential to a successful dressage test, especially because rider tension complicates the attempt to show the horse’s suppleness and throughness. Becoming comfortable and familiar with the fundamentals and basics of the test movements at home will help to produce greater relaxation and success at the show.

Know Thy Rules

The US Equestrian dressage rules describe what’s desired in the various gaits and movements relative to the pyramid of training. Riders who know the purpose of the tests and the directives typically have a better understanding of what the tests require, are more confident, and consequently have a competitive edge. Judges become skeptical when a competitor evidently has no clue as to what is required. Riding the pattern without consideration of the purpose, directives, and collective marks is a recipe for a poor performance.

The rules also cover equipment, attire, warm-up, and how a dressage show is run. Understanding when and where you need to be, being familiar with permitted equipment, and learning what tack and dress are appropriate are basic knowledge that’s easy to acquire simply by taking time to read and understand the rules. Doing so can prevent costly mistakes and unnecessary mishaps—and again, can give you a competitive edge.

Know Your Test

Even if you use a caller, know your test inside and out, backward and forward. That way, you can focus on the flow and fluidity of the test rather than simply going from movement to movement in a disjointed fashion.

Geometry and Accuracy Matter

Accurate figures and movements help in presenting a fluent test. Work out where movements should begin and end. Know where to place circles and how big they should be (for my easy way to learn to ride accurate circles, see the sidebar on page 20). Reminder: Movements and transitions that occur at the letter should happen when your torso is at the letter, except for coming across the diagonal. Going to the wrong letter costs points or can even be scored as an error.

Be aware that some transitions are judged within the movement being demonstrated. For example, the trot lengthening at First Level includes the transitions within the score. However, in Second Level Test 1, the medium trot and the transitions in and out are two separate scores.

The Basics Are the Most Important Part of the Test

Judges want to see correct basics— and the basics relate to the collective marks, which are awarded at the conclusion of the test. In every test movement, the judge is evaluating you in relation to the collective marks:

• The gaits—their rhythm and what they look like

• Impulsion, energy, and “forward thinking”

• Submission, connection, and lightness

• Rider’s position

• Rider effectiveness and aids.

The collective marks constitute a summary of the overall test. The judge is evaluating such factors as:

• Were the walk, trot, and canter performed with pure gaits, or did the horse have “a hitch in his giddy-up”?

• Was the horse forward-thinking with a supple back and elasticity in his steps?

• Was he attentive, confident, elastic in the rein connection, light on his feet, and in balance?

• Did the rider maintain a correct posture without leaning forward, back, or to the side?

• Was the rider effective and kind with the aids without pushing, pulling, or throwing the horse off balance?

Be Fair to Your Horse

Judges like to see riders who enhance their horses’ ability to perform the tests. Kicking, nagging, pulling the reins, disrupting the horse’s balance, and making abrupt movements do not enhance a judge’s opinion of the riding. Getting angry or frustrated with a horse shows a degree of lack of self-awareness. When this happens, looking in the mirror would be a better exercise than taking it out on your horse. To avoid some of these less-flattering moments:

• Prepare your horse before each movement, and find the areas in which preparation will increase his balance and performance. Strive to produce connected, fluid movements.

• Understand that there are no “blank spaces” in the dressage test. You are being evaluated constantly, even when the judge does not have the best vantage point, so don’t get sloppy and think those movements (or lack thereof) go unnoticed.

• If your horse makes a mistake during the test, keep riding every stride and never give up, even if you feel flustered and frustrated. The test is not over until the final salute. Learn to salvage a not-so-great ride by capitalizing on whatever is possible so that you end on a positive note.

Perceived Breed Bias

Dressage judges are trained to evaluate competitors according to the pyramid of training. Therefore, every horse, regardless of breed, is to be judged using the same criteria. Any sound, healthy horse can do dressage because dressage, performed properly, can improve a horse and its way of going. The dilemma is that certain breeds of horses may not be as suited to the sport, or as capable of scoring highly, because of traits involving conformation or way of going, and thus may not be as suspended, supple, or “through” as horses with a natural propensity for this type of movement.

Regardless of breed, all riders must analyze their mounts’ conformation and movement, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and make adjustments in training to compensate for shortcomings and to maximize performance. This process can be difficult for beginning riders, as they themselves are still learning the basics. It may be that a dressage professional can compete a horse with some conformational or gait challenges and score quite well, while a beginning rider may struggle to compete the same horse at its maximum potential— but this holds true for every horse-and-rider combination, regardless of the horse’s breed.

We Wish You the Best

What do judges most want competitors to know? That we want you to have a good ride and a positive experience. We also want the horse to have a positive experience. Contrary to many riders’ perceptions, judges love to reward riders with high scores, but only if they are earned and based on the pyramid of training. We truly want competitors to succeed, and we hope that the observations we provide can help you to attain a higher level of training and a better overall picture.

As a wise judge once said, “We’re rooting for you.”

Marilyn Kulifay is a USEF-licensed dressage judge and a member of the USDF Judges Committee. She chairs the USDF Region 9 Judges and L Graduates Committee. She lives in Texas, where she enjoys riding dressage.

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