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Thursday, 10 October 2019

OPINION: Dressage Judging

Over the last few months, I've seen more and more comments & posts in the various equestrian groups on Facebook showing videos of dressage test and asking opinion about the score, or making comments about being 'harshly marked', or that 'the judge just didn't like my horse'. Most recently in light of the Area Festival Finals, where competitors are seeing large differences between the three judges.

As I say, I've seen comments about dressage judging in many different groups across Facebook, but for the purpose of sharing my opinion on the topic, I'm only going to consider those made from affiliated competition. Not because this is more "important" but purely because are processes in place to standardise judging across the country from the grassroots levels, right up through to the top.

All I will say on unaffiliated dressage judging is that during the couple of years with Louie doing unaffiliated dressage, there was a huge variation of judging, both across different venue & classes, but also within classes. For example, I saw someone post recently that they were delighted to score 87% at their first ever prelim. Well done, seriously, it's great that you made the achievement and that within that class you achieved such a great score, but scores of this nature rarely exist during British Dressage affiliated competition.

Equally, on the flip side looking at unaffiliated eventing, I rarely see anyone post that they scored sub-20 scores unaffiliated, yet there are some brilliant competitors out there doing affiliated British Eventing, that are scoring below 20. Instantly, you can see the discrepancy between being affiliated and not, and for me that showcases both sporting governing bodies efforts to standardise their dressage judging.

Just to say, I would never "complain" about any unaffiliated judging as usually judges are volunteers who have given up their personal time to help an organiser to make a competition happen.

First up to remember, ANY dressage is subjective. It is one, or three, people's opinion of how you & your horse perform on during those 3-7 minutes on that particular day. In my opinion, so many people forget this...

They put out the best test they ever have, and score 60%. They are disgruntled because it was the best they have ever done. But that doesn't mean it wasn't worth any more marks simply because it was better than your average day. And who is to say that the judge who gave you 65% for a test you feel was far worse, was the right one out of the two?

Across the affiliated sports, judges undertake training by each governing body to understand the standards that are expected of them, with both sports having grading systems. It takes a lot of experience to become a judge at the very top of the sport.

Of course, if we look lower down the levels, there will be some competitors with more experience than a newly qualified judge. However, they are the judge. You decided to compete in a subjectively measured sport. You out yourself forward to have someone else give opinion on you and your horse. You don't have to agree with that opinion, but it is the opinion of a well governed and standardised system.

Just to add, I've has plenty of scores that I've been very disappointed with, but I've also had scored where I've been incredibly surprised. I've also had results where a judge has given me a surprisingly good score in a test I've felt was mediocre, but the next time we see them out, I've been disappointed with their score and felt it's been a good test.

I've seen many people posting their competition results with wording around being 'harshly marked'. OK, so in YOUR opinion you were. But you voluntarily paid the judge to give THEIR opinion. What were their comments because no one seems to share that part? Usually these are the key to understanding why you were given the individual marks that you were.

I also think (remember, it's my opinion, not fact!) that so many competitors think that because they've always score 67-70%, they have been harshly marked if their score is below that. That's just not the case. Firstly, compare to the rest of the class. Secondly, there are some fundamentals that will turn scores into higher scoring movements, such as the quality of at least the first five scales of dressage training are more likely to get you a stronger score than the shape you make. Sounds obvious, but a horse above the bit can easily score much better marks under this principle.

I actually learnt this principle with Thomas when I changed trainers and made him go much more forward. We lost some of the overall 'picture' with often him being visibly above the bit, but because he was forward, stepping under and engaged, our scores reflected that. The jump was from mid 30's down to low 30's. We had the odd blip, especially when we stepped up a level (which I also think people forget!), but understanding the difference that things like this can make would aid understanding on what is considered a harsh mark.

Many judges are members on two of the big Facebook groups across British Dressage & British Eventing. If you post on their about your score at an event they were judging at, they can very simply look your name up to see if it was them that judged you. Maybe consider that next time?

Of course, that won't alter your score, but be prepared to be called out on it. And in a public way too.

I must have written the word 'judge' 20 times already, but actually, doesn't this whole post come down to just that? Someone is judging you.

How many motivational quotes and memes do you see about not judging each other, yet in our sport that's exactly what we do. We put ourselves in front of mostly strangers to be judged. If you don't like that idea, dressage isn't for you.

Rest assured, both equestrian sporting governing bodies are doing everything they can to standardise dressage judging, but in my opinion, they are doing a great job. There is all sorts of training available for anyone who wishes to become a judge, as well as training pathways along the way to ensure standards are maintained and it isn't simply once your approved as a judge, there's no more CPD along the way.

It's frustrating as anything when you've entered a series of classes and you don't get the scores you need. I've been there. It feels rubbish. But unless all of our tests go to a judging committee to be marked and then checked, before we discover how we've done, then the sport will always remain subjective. Any competitor entering should remember that.


  1. So true, if you're paying to be judged you must be prepared that sometimes you might not like the judgement!

    1. It's so true! And I'm amazed that competitors can be so critical of judges when it was their decision to ride in front of them in the first place!

  2. It's so true! And I'm amazed that competitors can be so critical of judges when it was their decision to ride in front of them in the first place!


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