An enormous burden rests upon the shoulders of the dressage judge. If the worlds of competition and commerce merge with living creatures, the creatures will be the ones to be thrown under the bus. Millions of dollars are invested in the machine of the sport horse, whose gears churn to spit out its product at X. Whether that product be you and your appendix quarter horse or Edward Gal and Totilas (dated I know), they are both part of the same mechanism. You have two choices in this context, one is to get out of it and never compete again or change the way you compete. What we as cogs have is an obligation to the baseline of quality within our sport.
Scenario One: “Starlight and I had a SUPER ride and the judge only gave us a 55 percent. I hate that judge! I am never riding with her again.”
Believe me – I understand. You want to win. No one spends the time and money on a show to rock tenth place. There has been much talk about placing a different standard of testing for the adult amateur versus the professional and I am against this. While my sympathies lie with the AA who gets slammed at a show THERE IS A REASON. It is not as though your judge sees you enter the ring all doe-eyed and adorable and grins with malice. Here is an equation of cause and effect: Riders avoid or even boycott judges who score them lower = that judge not being asked to return = a judge who will score you better for a lesser product = an overall lesser product = your horse not being ridden as well = a less happy horse = you feeding the competition end of the machine. To ask a judge to adjust their mindset from one standard to another is unrealistic. Judges are human beings after all (I have heard). The best we can do is support a standard of testing that trickles up to the highest levels with our actions.
Scenario Two: “It is not fair how Jenny can go in the ring with her fancy warmblood and clean up when me and my appendix quarter horse rode just as well.”
Here are the hard knocks: some people are wealthier than others and so can purchase a head start. There is no use in resenting the emphasis on gaits etcetera because those gaits create better movement and a more pleasing picture that might act as the frosting in judging that cake which is the class with twenty-five horses. This issue would not occur in a jumping class because the person who had a horse without that level of ability would not be ABLE to safely enter. That is why I love dressage – it offers sport and possibilities no matter your mount. But for the judge to separate the quality of horse and the movements of the test is impossible. In default the quality of horse INFORMS the movements and so the score. Yes, it is a bitter pill to swallow when that six figure horse tramples everyone else in the class even but it is an evil that money allows. My advise in this context is to turn that focus inward and begin competing against yourself. Do not think in terms of ribbon color but scores and beating your last. Do not worry about where you placed in the class but how your scores and comments are trending. Your horse is working to please you and it taints the experience wishing he had abilities that he does not.
Secondly, you may also focus your training on scores that are not informed by gait quality, for example, the rein back, turn on the haunches and halts. With proper training there is no reason why any horse and rider pair cannot gather points in those areas.
And finally take solace in the fact that there are many dressage riders who have purchased high level horses and face frustrations of their own, when they are not receiving the scores because of a lack of knowledge and training on how to ride an upper level horse.
But no matter what you ride, you will trot or canter up centerline and face someone’s subjective opinion is sitting at C. You now have a choice as to how you are representing your sport as an athlete and participant. Of course there are going to be times that you disagree with the judge’s assessment but read over the test and then think back on your ride. Was there tension? Were there issues? Was your extended canter more of a lazy lope? Were you frozen, all over the place, panicked? Try to push your ego to the back burner and really look back as to what could be improved.
That being said, the same should be expected of the judges themselves. Many judges are passionate, committed professionals who are constantly striving to further educate themselves and others. And then there are some who are more ‘comfortable’ with the minimum requirements. It is a reflection of human nature, that in a group of individuals there will be those who are more committed, more talented and those who are less so. But what we need is a standard that supports the judges who are dedicated to fairness and sometimes tough scores. Going back to my equation at the beginning of the post on the falling standards of dressage that are possible, that trend is a reality that decreases the standard of dressage, promotes ‘quick fixes’ and apathetic judges who will dole out what is necessary to get them asked back.
A fair standard of judging in our current system relies on the competitors displaying good sportsmanship, sometimes taking knocks to the ego, and understanding that we go down the centerline to ask the question – how am I doing?
Don’t begrudge the judge for giving you their honest answer.
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