How To Graduate The “L” Program In Three Easy Steps!

L-prog logos final COLOR RGBGentle Readers,

Oh if only there were a quick and easy way to graduate the USDF “L” Judging Program with no fuss and no muss, let alone graduating with distinction. For the two years that I was enrolled in the “L” I lived and breathed the program – for most of us, it is not something that you can just breeze through effortlessly.


For those of you unfamiliar with the “L” Program, it is an excellent series that is split into two parts –

Part 1 is mostly theory with a bit of practice in the last sessions. It is split into three sessions and everyone is welcome to attend, instructors and amateurs alike. I HIGHLY recommend attending if you are a serious student of dressage. Your instructor will go through judging practices, professionalism, horse and rider biomechanics, USDF and USEF rules and much more. The sessions are a combination of lectures, video, demonstration riders and handouts. There is homework before and after each session that is optional, but very necessary.

Part 2 is also split into three sessions and the focus is almost solely on judging practice. It is assumed that after completing Part 1 that you have basic knowledge in this sphere. I do not recommend attending Part 2 unless you are serious about pursuing judging professionally. There are also limitations on who can attend – with you having to have earned at least three scores of 60% or higher at second level or above from three different judges. The tone of the program shifts dramatically from educating to evaluating, and rightly so, but that tonal shift can be an uncomfortable one, especially for those with less experience in the professional horse world. The patience for questions of methodology varies from instructor to instructor, to put it mildly. The third session of Part 2 is the final exam, one part written and one part judging. My written exam was a combination of multiple choice and true/false questions, but many questions are broken down into subsections so if you miss a part of a subsection the entire question is rendered incorrect.

In between the program sessions it is expected that you will self educate. It is required that you sit in with judges as well as scribe a certain number of hours, but the undertone of that is that you are best served doing much more, as much as possible. On top of attending shows formally, there are other options, such as when at horse shows you should stand on the sidelines of a ring and practice judge to yourself. Get comfortable judging from the long side! This is not something you can practice for the most part sitting in with judges, as in most shows you will be sitting with them at C.

Listen to YOUR instructors. All instructors in the “L” program are “S” judges or greater and have a huge amount of experience. That being said, judging in dressage is subjective, as are each judge’s specific views. When I was sitting in and scribing I spoke with many judges and the bulk were earnest, hardworking people. They also had vastly different opinions on judging practices and methodology, commenting and scoring. You might not agree with certain aspects of your instructor’s system, but it is from that system that they are evaluating you. Chances are you will learn to adopt something from that system anyway. Either way, it will do you no good to stick hard to an idea you heard while sitting in with a judge in Florida, and then failing with your instructor in California. If your judge HATES the word “nice” for god’s sake don’t use it! Whenever they give an opinion on their view of things, write it down, because you might need it later. And chances are there is a reason they have that opinion in the first place.

If you can hold a schooling show day at your home barn, judging your clients, friends or peers is enormously helpful. You will get practice dictating to a scribe and possibly having that scribe make mistakes. This is a good thing. You need to get comfortable correcting mistakes while still watching the movements and cataloging scores and comments simultaneously. In my case, my scribe for my final exam fell through at the last minute and though my organizer found me a replacement in time, she had never scribed before. We met at the grounds an hour early and I dictated my comments to her in my rental car as I watched second level tests on a youtube video to get her into a flow, as well as teaching her abbreviations, rules and protocol. Without my experience teaching other inexperienced scribes I would not have been nearly as prepared (and she was a wonderful person and a very quick learner). That being said, do whatever you can to bring an experienced scribe with whom you are comfortable. But remember, even experienced scribes make mistakes and the more experience you have fixing scribe’s mistakes, the better prepared you will be. Going back to self educating take advantage of the internet! Many “L” Program students live in remote areas and will have to struggle with getting to enough shows to fulfill the required number of hours. This might include plane tickets and hotel stays on top of the cost of the “L” Program itself. I understand so in which case, get thee to a computer! There are many tests available online that you can practice your judging skills. Plus many of these tests are filmed from the long side, which is where you will be sitting for your final exam. If you have no shows in your area, grab your scribe and sit down in front of the computer to judge on youtube. USDF also has excepts on eTRAK of “On the Levels” that are worth watching, over and over again if you must, until you have an idea of the specific movements and entire tests. Finally, when I was going through the “L” Program I recorded the bulk of the USDF rules to help prepare me for my final exam. Soon these will also be available on etrack for audio streaming. What I would do is listen to the dulcet tones of my own voice while commuting back and forth from the barn, so I could study while driving.

Finally, and most importantly, involve yourself with your “L” group members. I cannot emphasize this enough. They don’t tell you this in the books or in the lectures, but the people around you are huge part of your success. My group was very close and we worked together in the weeks before the final exam studying materials, exchanging information and helping one another. We had a group message board on facebook that was posted on multiple times per day with people asking questions, wanting clarification, giving answers and generally helping one another as much as possible. We were all in different parts of the country and have different outlooks on dressage and judging, but these did nothing (in my opinion) but help fill out our education. Many of us then flew into our final exam weekend a day early so we could have a study session. Consistently throughout the process of Part 2 we ate together, talked together and studied together. The feeling made us be less of an individual going into testing alone and more of us being there to support one another. I know that I would not have graduated with distinction without my group and I think there are some others who feel the same. Ask your group out to dinner. Gather their emails and ask them questions. Get to know them and learn from them. In my opinion that is the underlying silver lining of the program anyway, to build a network of dressage professionals that you can grow from, as well as learning from the judges and organizers.


And in that spirit, my fellow “L” group member and now friend Alison Sader Larson has agreed to give her bullet points from her experiences and tips for success. While I tend to be long winded (looking up at the previous paragraphs) she is very concise – and perhaps this method will work better for you. If you have any questions on the “L” program feel free to comment or email. If there was something that really helped you through the “L” program let us all know by commenting. And if there is something you wish your students knew, comment! Hopefully this helped you and good luck.

1.       Find a program that has some of the top judges as the instructors.

2.       Even though you have the BIG BOOK, take side notes—many of my written exam questions came from my side notes.

3.       Know the rules, read the entire rule book before testing.

4.       Don’t just skip the front pages of the Big Book, it has pertinent information for the testing. Specifically says know this … etc.

5.       Become involved with your group. Make friends. You are not going to agree with everyone, but this is an opinion right? Learn to see someone else’s perspective of a rider/movement/rider and decide if it is useful to you.

6.       Sit and scribe as much as possible. It is hard to see the test when you scribe, but writing down comments will help you remember them.

7.       Find people to study with, and don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. After all we are all trying to learn.

8.       Most importantly: Make friends, they are the ones you will connect with for the rest of the judging process and your career. It is a very nice way to have support and just plain fun!!

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy Technology is Necessary To Dressage Team Success

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