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Dressage - The Judge's Job
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Dressage - The Judge's Job

Have you ever completed what you thought was a great dressage test only to find that you're bottom of the heap when the scores come out? Most people have been there and it can be soul destroying. After all, you've taken months training your horse for this day, invested a fortune on lessons and scraped together the entry fee and the diesel money to get there – what planet was that flippin' judge on for goodness sakes?!

First of all; don't despair and don't give up! There's always next time. Before you do anything else, check the addition on your score sheet. No-one's infallible and scorers do make mistakes especially if yours is toward the tail end of a hundred sheets at the end of a busy day. Judges should always check the score board before they leave the show ground. As a judge you don't know everyone's exact score but you have a pretty good idea who should have come where in your class and you will know if you gave any really low (or high) marks. I recall being approached by an irate competitor following a class I had judged. His score had come out and he couldn't believe how low it was. He called me all kinds of interesting names whilst brandishing his score sheet in my face. Ever the professional, I asked to have a look at his sheet and low and behold the collective marks at the bottom had not been multiplied out. This meant that his score was about 20 per cent short! So, always check before you leave as mistakes cannot be rectified afterwards. Also make sure that the percentage score has been calculated correctly from the marks allocated. If you find an error, inform the scorers or show secretary immediately.

If you can recruit a spare pair of hands, it's a really useful exercise to have your dressage test videoed. Try to do this from as close to the judge's position at C as you practically can, without getting in the way obviously! You can then sit down with your score sheet (and a large glass of wine!) when you get home and watch your test through, movement by movement, whilst comparing the marks and digesting the judge's comments. Nine times out of ten you'll find that what actually felt great when you rode it was in fact just average from the observer's point of view and the centre line you thought was dead straight was actually as crooked as a dog's hind leg – hence the 5 you were given for it!

Judges are trained to assess each horse and rider's performance movement by movement as they perform their test, regardless of what happened either side of that movement. A mark is awarded and a comment made if appropriate. Comments are generally not required if a mark is above 6 and sometimes it's not always practical to comment on every single movement particularly in a test where movements are short and happen in quick succession. After all, even good dressage writers can only scribble so quickly! At the bottom of the score sheet are the collective marks adjacent to which is a space for the judge's comments. The collective marks are based on the horse's way of going throughout the test and the comments opposite them should be a summary of this together with brief, helpful comments.

Contrary to popular belief, the judge's job is not to destroy riders' confidence, make sarcastic remarks or give unkind, harsh criticism! It's a tricky task to pick out faults which justify the marks allocated while balancing this with positivity and encouragement, but that's what a good judge should be able to do. After all, there's always something nice you can say; "A lovely horse showing great potential ..." and then you move on to the "but"!

You can save yourself marks and give a more professional impression by making full use of the arena. Ride into the corners (as best you can for your horse's stage of training), and make transitions at the marker prescribed in the test plan rather than three strides before or after it. Make sure you are exactly on the centre line, not two feet either side of it, and teach your horse to stand square and straight in halt. It's strange how the dressage arena always seems to have shrunk to the size of a postage stamp when you come to ride your test. Always make the most of the space available and don't allow your horse to fall two feet in away from the boards. Adopting a slightly shoulder-fore position as you leave each corner will help to make him straight and allow you to keep him out on the track.

Judges are generally very approachable people – human beings and not at all scary in fact – and are quite happy to answer questions from competitors. Do allow them time to visit the loo before you collar them though as they may have spent the last three hours without a break sitting judging with their legs crossed! Always bear in mind that they may have judged 50 horses that day and may not remember your horse's transition to walk at C so do make sure you have your score sheet to hand so that they can refer to their comments and answer your questions.

I hope you enjoyed my article. Please do ask if you have any questions about dressage judging and don't forget to vote if you enjoyed this piece!

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  1. PonyGirl
    I enjoyed your article. The only dressage tests I completed were the ones at school Since my judges were my teachers, they were especially helpful with their comments. :D Plus the students were all riding the school's horses so they were able to really pick out the riders' strengths and weaknesses in relation to the horse. As I've said before, basic dressage helped me more with all my riding than anything else I've picked up over the years.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you. x
  2. Rene Wright
    Rene Wright
    Voted. I have never ridden dressage, but it looks interesting and sounds like you need to be pretty precise. I might give it a go once I get back to riding again.
    1. autumnap
      Thank you! Yes, it would help get Cookie's figure back after the baby arrives!! x
  3. jst4horses
    Friday I had an old, old friend who was needing help. I called the vet, knowing what he was going to say. We all said good-bye. After more than six decades with horses, I knew he was OK with the decision. He had been off his feed for some days, eating enough to make me say "its not an emergency" but when the vet called and said, I am in the area, how about in an hour. I felt really sad, bad, and like running away. How does this fit with a dressage article? Because this horse was not just an awesome dressage horse, he was in the Rose Parade for many years, and he had been donated to a church youth program where he taught many a young person how to ride, how to start dressage. Yet here he was, one of the very few, out of thousands and thousands who was ending his life in peace, with his horsey friends, and his human servants. Our vet knew that horse since he was a baby at the race track for the first time, on to the mounted police, the parade group, the church group and on his last day. Dressage, or any other "sport" is not going to be "won" by you. It is going to take a partnership with an animal. I was asked recently why I will not separate a mare and her foal when the foal is old enough to be weaned. I said, you know what, her Mother knows when she is ready to be weaned. And when that happens, they will remain in stalls next to each other, and be turned out in round pen together. The Mother survived a broken leg and will never be ridden again, but she loves young women, the perfect grooming and braiding horse for women veterans who have been sexually assaulted by their own unit brothers at arms, in a foreign country usually, often at a base far from anywhere with no support. The reason this all relates to dressage is, first in class, or last in class, or the judge wipes his eyes, shakes his head and out of complete character says get out. ................that horse is not a bicycle to win you anything. The best riders really are those who are partners with their animals. Many of my friends have riding schools, and autism support therapeutic riding programs or veteran and high risk youth riding programs. They keep their horses for life. It makes a lot of good feeling in a person to see where that horse has been before, and know, it is not just some old flea bag no one wanted so it got stuck in a therapy program until they decide to sell it for the $300 they can get from the hackers. Dressage to me is that awesome feeling of horse and human, dancing in a way, like an ice skating exercise routine. Everything timed, and done together in perfection. Whether in an exhibition, a tournament, or a show, this to me is the whole reason for doing dressage.

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