Ask the Judge – National Championships

Dear Amy,
I heard you were on the panel of judges at the U.S Dressage National Finals this year at the Kentucky Horse Park. Congratulations! I’m hoping someday to be able to participate as a competitor in the finals. I was wondering, how does riding a test in the Nationals differ from riding a test at a regular rated USEF/USDF show? Is it also different from riding a test at a Regional Championship?  


Dear Ambitious,
It was certainly an honor and very exciting to be one of the 13 judges selected for the Nationals, which is a Level Five Competition, the highest level under USEF rules. To answer your question, you will find many differences between riding in a regular show and competing in a Regionals or a Nationals. Let’s take a look. 

At the Nationals you will be competing against the country’s best horse and rider teams at each level, from Training through Grand Prix. There are also Freestyles at all the levels except Training, Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire II, and these have become very popular. Championship classes at all levels are divided into Open and Adult Amateur divisions. The Championship test will be the highest test of each level. For instance, if you compete at the First Level, your test will be First Level Three. In addition to the Championships, the Nationals also offer non-championship classes at most levels. These non-championship classes are run according to the same rules as a regular recognized dressage show. 

Here are some differences between the three types of competition:

• For a US Finals class, your ride time is done by a draw, and you will not know the exact schedule of the class until the draw is complete. However, you will know, for instance, that the First Level Championship starts at 8 am and runs until 12. At a recognized show and a Regionals you will have an assigned ride time that you will know it well in advance. 

• If you are riding in a US Finals class, you the only one allowed to ride your horse during the show, except to walk on a long rein. This rule is strictly enforced: if someone else rides your horse, you will be eliminated. At a Regionals, the same rule applies, but at a regular recognized show, anyone can ride your horse with no penalty.

• For a US Finals class, all tests must be ridden by memory. This rule also applies at Regionals. At a regular recognized show, a caller is allowed with no penalty. 

• For a US Finals test, carrying a riding whip is forbidden and will entail elimination. The same applies for Regionals. At a recognized show, a riding whip is allowed with no penalty. 

•For a US Finals class, you will have three judges: at C, at M or H, and at B or E. All the judges will have S or FEI status. At a Regionals, you will have two judges: at C and at B or E. At a regular recognized show, you will only have one judge most of the time, stationed at C, although there are some qualifying classes that do require two judges. (The second judge will be at B or E.) When there is more than one judge for any class, the judges’scores are averaged to arrive at your final percentage. After your test, you will be able to have copies of all the individual score sheets from each judge.  

• All US Finals classes are scored electronically. Most arenas do have an electronic scoreboard, where you will be able to see your name in lights and all the judge’s scores when your test is complete. At some Regionals, you might have electronic scoring and a scoreboard. At most recognized shows, you are not likely to see one.

• For a US Finals class, there is a mandatory awards ceremony with ribbons to tenth place. Your judge at C will be one of the award presenters. At a Regionals, the awards ceremony is also mandatory and there are ribbons to eighth place. For a regular dressage class, there are ribbons through sixth place, and there is often no awards ceremony. 

• Any horse competing in a US Finals class must be stabled at the showgrounds. At a Regionals, the same rule applies. At a regular recognized show, you can trailer in and out with no penalty. 

The US National Finals has an electric atmosphere and beautifully decorated arenas. It feels very special and it may be as exciting to be a judge at this competition as it is to be a competitor. Riding in the finals is a great goal. If you don’t qualify next year, I recommend going as a spectator, or, better yet as a volunteer – no dressage show can succeed without dedicated volunteers, and you will have the opportunity to participate in one of our most important and impressive events!

Wishing you luck in your journey! Ride forward.

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