top of page
  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Obsoletely fabulous

The dressage judging is under attack. So what else is new? Judges are awarding points based on how they expect a combination to perform, instead of awarding points for what they are actually seeing in the test. So say the riders.

This is funny – at least to those of us with an appreciation of the absurd – because when training methods are criticized and judges get flack for giving medals to horses who have been man handled in the warm up, the standard defense is: ”We can only award what we see during the test.”

So what are the judges seeing during the test, we wonder. What part of the horse should one be looking at in order to have no idea at all how that horse was trained? The feet? Oh no – that will never do, because exotic footfall patterns and corner skidding would burn the eyes of any discerning judge. So perhaps looking at the horse's head is a better idea... no, the head contains the mouth, which it's probably best not to look at in any case and especially not if one is hoping not to notice whether the combination has any business near a dressage show. Perhaps the judges could then look at the horse's neck? Ha ha.. we're just joking, of course. It's pretty hard to look at the puny ewe necks of some top dressage horses without guessing what sort of training caused the atrophy and deformation.

Having ruled out the legs, the head and the neck, the judges might like to look at the horse's back. Nope – too easy to spot the telltale sagging caused by camped out, spastic hindlegs and chronic mental tension. Tail? Njet! Haunches? Forget it.

We don't envy the judges. Imagine having to guess whether a croup high, saggy backed, ewe necked, mouth gaping, tail swishing, excessively perspiring, veiny, mentally frayed horse is going to get an 8 or a 9 for his passage from your colleagues. We bet you couldn't do it, and before you criticize the judges, let's see you do better.

Our sympathy for the judges aside, we do have to ask this next question: What is their function really? They can't actually judge collection as described in the rules. We know this because whenever scientists try to prove the existence of collection,they always get one or more international dressage judges to say when they think the horses are collected and then they measure joint angles, rhythm, poll position etc. So far, it has never been the case that a horse said by a judge in such a scenario to be collected... has actually met all the commonly accepted criteria for collection: Flexion of haunches, poll as the highest point, nose in front of the vertical etc. Not really happening as far as the scientists can ascertain (now let's have a fight over why that is) – yet the judges claim to see what the measuring equipment is unable to register.

We know that judges are not very good at judging lightness of the aids – in 2005, a scientific study done by De Cartier, d'Yves and Ödberg revealed that judges couldn't actually tell how hard the rider was pulling on the reins. We know that judges either can't or don't want to judge ”submission” because in her PhD thesis, Australian researcher Dr. Leslie Hawson showed that of all the collective marks at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, the score for ”submission” correlated less with individual movement scores and had less effect on total score than did ”paces” and ”impulsion.”

So judges are expected to score stuff which isn't actually there and they are expected to perform this trick of the imagination in a fair and objective manner. No wonder they get it wrong. How diabolical of the riders to blame their own short comings on the nice judges.

”We want the judging to be more consistent and objective”. Errr.. no, you almost certainly don't want that, guys. You really don't. If you did, you'd be begging the FEI to give judges access to some of all that brilliant technology available which can actually, consistently and objectively quantify your horse training prowess.

Forget about publishing movement by movement scores on a big screen. Let's have the rein tension up there. Let's have graphs showing the divergence from purity of gaits. Let's measure how straight the horses track through corners and put the data up there for the world to see. Let's look at how much (or little) the haunches bend and why not also highlight the position of the croup relative to the withers? Whenever the horse's neck becomes broken at the 3rd vertebra, a siren could sound.

The only problem with all this objectivity and consistency is that the judges will seem somewhat obsolete. But perhaps they have been for many years. After all, the sport of dressage was conceived as a way of testing the preparation of horses as well as the abilities of riders. The judges were supposed to be able to see from the test how the horses had been trained. Not just in the warm up but at home as well. Because that was what the sport was about: the schooling of horses and proving to the judges you knew how to do it by taking your horse through a series of movements designed to reveal where you might have failed to school him well enough.

Leafing through old photo books, it's easy to see that there were always horses who had not been prepared. They just weren't as pretty or talented in the olden days. But there were also horses who just looked the part, even if they had their picture taken during "a moment in time" which was less flattering. Horses who had clearly been prepared. Horses who knew their job and were physically able to perform it.

Reactionary dressage zombies sometimes say that the judges can't be going to visit riders at home to ensure that they're not using whatever incendiary short cut du jour is upsetting the white paper hatted community. The people who make such arguments have missed the point. Any professional dressage trainer – let alone judge - worth his straw fedora should be able to tell in a few seconds of watching a horse in trot whether anyone has bothered to educate that horse according to the scales of training. In other words, it's not necessary for judges to hide in the bushes in order to check on riders at home. All they have to do is look at the horses performing the test and all should be revealed to their expert gaze.

But the judges say they can't do that. They say they can't tell from the way a horse goes during the test how that horse was prepared. For instance:

"If a judge is neither informing himself through the print media nor via the internet one doesn't know which way a horse has been trained. On an international level a judge has no place in the warm-up ring and doesn't know what happens or happened there. He only sees the horse in the arena and compares it with the demands and in relation to the rivals."

I-judge Angelica Fromming, 2012

This is a crystal clear admission of obsoletion. It's the judges saying: ”We don't know how to do the job which we were originally meant to be doing.”

Say what? Judges have no idea from looking at a horse whether he just spent the last five years pulling a plow or whether he was in training with an actual dressage rider? It all comes down to his performance on the day? But we thought the performance was supposed to be proof of the training. If it's not, what is it then? What is dressage about if it's not about showing the judges that you know how to educate a horse?

(Not holding breath for an answer)

So here's an idea which the riders are certain to love, being as they're obviously mad keen on objectivity and consistency: retire the judges and replace them with consistent and objective technology. Only allow the combinations with Grand Prix scores of more than 10% (it may be necessary to adjust this percentage to ensure that anyone makes it at all) to ride the Freestyle. The riders will be pining for the days when there was at least a chance of smooching one's way to a record score, but at least the judging will be fair.

The Freestyle could then be decided by an audience response system like they have on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"  The transformation of dressage from useful survival skill to commercial vulgarity fest would be complete and the riders would be able to sleep at night, knowing that they would be judged exactly by their abilities. As for the judges, they can't be all that into dressage judging anyway - we think they're mostly there for the atmosphere, which they could still enjoy from their VIP seats or perhaps other jobs could be found for them - like selling ice cream and chewing gum out of their huts, which will be freed up for this more useful purpose anyway.

We know it's popular to blame the judges - we love it too. But come on. How are they supposed to "objectively and consistently" score something that isn't even happening? They're treading water trying not to make themselves too unpopular. If they mark down someone to please the anti cruelty crowd, they'll have Hell to pay when facing the riders. And if they do as expected of them and give the medals to the most fashionable riders, that's also wrong.

Don't put judges on the warm up. Put them out to pasture and let technology take over.  It'll be great fun. For as long as the sport lasts. We promise.

143 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page