I’d like to kick off this article by telling you the story of my first dressage competition. At the age of twelve I had entered to ride an Intro test at a local show centre with my new five year old chestnut mare, Maddie. Although my parents were not horsey in the slightest, they had rented a trailer and supported us all the way. The nerves were immense, such that I couldn’t even eat and was almost shaking by the time I got on board to warm up. Maddie was on her toes to say the least with her eyes on stalks, so when the steward called my number, I was relieved that it was almost over – just the test to get out of the way! Mustering up all the courage I could, I trotted into the indoor arena and began my test. I had spent hours learning the movements and, as the test went on, I started to relax – it was actually going better than expected! And then the judge rang the bell. I halted, utterly confused and having no idea what was meant by the bell. I assumed that I had made a mistake in the test and been eliminated! Mortified, I walked out of the arena and began hopelessly sobbing whilst still on board with my parents, equally confused, trying their best to console me. Within minutes, the judge had left the judge’s box and run to find me in the car park. She jogged over and started to explain how the test situation worked and that the bell signified time to start, rather than elimination… She invited me back in to ride my test again which, considering it would have disrupted the times for the rest of the section, showed serious empathy and compassion. Without the care and kindness from the judge that day, I’m certain I would have put dressage in the ‘no thank you’ pile and I would not have reached where I am today.
This just goes to show the huge weight of responsibility that sits on a judges’ shoulders, not only to provide informed critique to competitors but also to nurture and encourage those starting out in the sport. Competitors are willing to put in months of practice, pay to enter the classes and travel their horses to the show all for a qualified judge to, quite literally, pass judgement on their hard work. Opening you and your horse up to the critique of a stranger is putting a huge amount of trust in that person to be fair, constructive and encouraging. We, as judges, must take on that trust and strive always to couple our critique with an awareness of the impact of our feedback on the competitor. This is directly referenced in our official Code of Conduct in which we are instructed to be ‘supportive and encouraging’ at all times.
Before I was a judge myself, I have to admit I knew nothing about the process of becoming a judge or how the judging system worked. One of the more common misconceptions from competitors is that the judges are there to earn money rather than to help the riders. It’s important to understand that judges will make little, if any, net profit for their efforts. In affiliated competition up to Advanced level, judges are paid £1 per horse plus travel costs and £2 per horse at PSG and above. When you then factor in the substantial costs associated with the compulsory training, multiple examinations at each level as well as the nationwide travel required for said training, there is little potential for much overall monetary gain. The upshot of this is that there has to be some other drive for the judges to do what they do, which is invariably a desire to help riders and their horses achieve their goals within the sport. It might be helpful for some of us riders to bear this in mind when reading the comments that we have been given by the judge – that this feedback, though sometimes a little tough to read, comes from a desire to aid the development of the competitor.
The sole communication between judge and competitor is the test sheet - a one-way feedback channel operating within the standardised format of the sheet itself, namely a short comment and a mark for each movement. It’s worth remembering that all judges will have a writer who sits with them and notes down their comments and scores for each movement (the only part that the judge writes themselves are the collective marks and the overall comment). The rationale behind this is to allow the judge to keep their eyes on the competitor at all times, ensuring they don’t miss any part of the test and can develop a real sense of the partnership as a whole. Movements vary in length but often there will be a period of less than 10 seconds for the judge to dictate the comment and mark and the writer to scribe the notes. This inevitably leads to contracted versions of the comments and the use of shorthand, an unavoidable consequence of the situation but something that can build barriers for the competitor in their understanding of the critique. Explaining some of this shorthand language will be covered in a future article as I think it is essential to the development of competitors that the feedback is as clear and transparent as possible.
In my opinion, the relationship between judges and competitors could benefit from a slightly deeper level of understanding from both about the other. As judges, it is essential to remind ourselves from time to time that the 5 or so minutes of work that we see in the arena is the culmination of months of hard work and dedication, and that the comments we give should always be constructive and encouraging – it is so sad to hear competitors say that they are on the verge of giving up dressage due to demoralising feedback received from judges. On the flip side, the competitors need to remember that dressage is a totally subjective entity. No two judges, riders or horses are the same! British Dressage puts a huge amount of time and effort into our training in the hope of educating the judge to recognise certain aspects of different movements and to mark these accordingly. Despite this, however, there are always going to be differences in how you and your horse are judged – it’s human nature!
The aim of this blog is to open a dialogue between riders and judges, allowing both groups engage in this discussion and providing a platform from which we can all learn from each other in order to get the most out of our love of dressage.
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