My friend and I have been spectators at several big dressage championships this year, and she was rather surprised by the apparent lack of consistency in the judging. Sometimes, there is quite a wide variation in the marks awarded and this can be very influential in the final placings. My friend asked me why this should be and I did my best to explain.
There is a very strict system of training, examination and testing of judges in the UK in order to ensure that there is consistency across all judges at all levels. Judges are trained to look for the same basic qualities in the way of going of the horses, the correctness of the training as combinations progress through the levels and the application of the scales of training. A few years ago a rule was brought in which states that no judge may officiate or apply to officiate at a level above that at which they have previously successfully competed. In other words, in order to judge at medium level, you must have at least six results in affiliated competition at medium level at which you scored over 60% before you can apply to judge at medium.
This gives judges the credibility factor which was perhaps previously lacking in many cases. I personally would not have appreciated having my advanced horse criticised by a judge who had never ridden above novice level nor would I presume to judge a grand prix rider when I have never ridden at that level myself. It’s all very well being able to point out faults but an entirely separate skill being able to say why things are going wrong and offering advice on how to fix them.
As to the discrepancies between judges; this is due to the view obtained from the different judges’ positions. Clearly, the judge at ‘B’ will not be able to see if the centre line is accurate and straight whereas the judge at ‘C’ clearly can. When judging, you can only judge what you see; you can’t guess at what might or might not be happening.
The judges positioned at ‘H’ and ‘M’ will have a good view of the long side of the arena directly in front of them but they couldn’t tell anything about a movement ridden across the diagonal straight towards them other than the horse’s straightness and rhythm.
Judging from ‘B’ or ‘E’ enables you to see the degree of engagement clearly in most movements but you can’t see how well a horse is crossing in half-pass.
Judging dressage is always slightly subjective no matter how well trained the judges are. Show-jumping by comparison is easy; the fences are either left standing or knocked down! There will always be some who will unduly influenced by the name on the running order or the Union flag on the rider’s coat and there will be occasions when controversy arises, but in general, dressage judges try to make a fair and correct assessment of each horse and rider and to stay true to the scales of training. I guess you just can’t please everyone all the time!