Ask the Judge – Wondering About Judging

Dear Amy, 

I compete regularly at local schooling shows in dressage and combined tests, as well as recognized shows in both disciplines. I am wondering about the judges. Could you explain what the qualifications are to judge at schooling and recognized shows? I am also curious about a score I received for a Beginner Novice dressage test at a schooling show. My test was perfect, accurate, and obedient, my best ever, so I was surprised to see my score was not reflective of this. What could I be missing? 

Wondering about Judging

Dear Wondering,

Thank you for asking for clarification on what qualifies a person to judge at different types of shows. It is a little complicated but good to know. Aiken is very fortunate to offer so many opportunities to compete at dressage and combined training events. Qualifications for judges do have many variables, so let’s take a look.                                                   

A schooling show that does not have any ratings from a local or national organization may hire anyone to be their judge. This officiator is not required to have any specific judge training or licensing.  

Schooling shows that are recognized have some requirements for judges, for example, the SCDCTA (South Carolina Dressage and Combined Training Association), requires the judge to be a USDF L graduate or hold a USEA (United States Eventing Association) or USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) judging license with a minimum of an ‘r’ distinction.

An eventing competition with a USEA/USEF rating requires the organizers to hire a licensed USEA eventing or USEF dressage judge to officiate. The level of divisions being offered and the judges’ individual qualifications would determine what classes they would be allowed to judge.

A dressage show with USDF/ USEF recognition requires a licensed USEF dressage judge to officiate. Once again, the levels being offered and the judges’ qualifications would determine what classes they would be allowed to judge.

Therefore, a rated USEF dressage judge in good standing may officiate at a schooling show, USEA event, and USDF/ USEF dressage show. A USEA eventing judge may officiate only at schooling shows and rated USEA/USEF events: this license will not permit them to judge at a USDF/ USEF dressage show. Unrecognized schooling shows are not required to have a certified judge.

As for your second question, I am glad to hear you had such a nice Beginner Novice dressage test. Accuracy and obedience certainly go a long way but this alone will not earn you a good score. Let’s take a look at the purpose of this level dressage test. On the front page of all tests, the purpose is clearly stated. For all Beginner Novice tests, this is: “to show an understanding of riding the horse forward in a steady tempo and a clear rhythm. To confirm that the horse’s muscles are supple and loose and that it moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit. To show proper geometry and bend in both directions at all gaits. All trot may be done rising or sitting. Halt may be done through the walk.” 

So what does this all mean? Riders should keep in mind when trotting you will not earn higher points just because you sit to the trot. At this level sitting is optional. This means a “10” is a possibility even if you are rising. Often at this level, horses can move more freely when you are rising in the trot work, even if you have a beautiful secure seat. Remember to think about swinging back with ground-covering strides. Your horse should have forward intent and be tracking up (stepping in the tracks of their front hooves with their hind hooves). Do what is best to show off your horse’s gait.

In your trot and canter tours, it is important to keep your horse’s frame at least level while accepting contact. Be careful not to let the frame become too long, short, low, curled, or behind the bit to name a few. Focus on keeping the horse’s poll the highest point. Your judge will also take into account how your horse accepts the bit. Ideally, you want a quiet mouth and connection. Mouths that open and get too busy, or a tongue coming out will have a negative effect on your score. It is also important to have your horse bending to the inside in all turns, corners, and circles as well as going straight on the long sides, diagonals, and centerlines.

In these tests, you are asked to show a medium walk and a free walk. You want to show a clear difference between the two. What they both require are a clear, four-beat rhythm and forward energy. In the medium walk, the frame and stride should be more open than in a working walk, with marching energy. In the free walk, you should let your reins out and allow your horse to stretch the stride and frame in a relaxed manner. If your horse over-tracks in the free walk it is even better. Keeping the forward intent is key. 

When it comes to the halt, remember that a few walk steps (two to three) are permitted between the trot and the halt. This means you could get a 10 whether you have walk steps or not. Do whatever will set your horse up to be straight, square, or close to square, and, most important, immobile. The tests require three seconds of immobility.

Finally, the new eventing tests now have just one final mark for the collective. This mark takes everything into account. So you can see that there are a lot of different factors that go into your final score. Obedience and accuracy are important, but the training scale and purpose of the test have a big influence.  

Whatever type of shows you ride in and whatever the judges’ qualifications, they are there to share their knowledge and to report on how each scoring box was presented. The best way to understand a disappointing score is to look over your test sheet carefully and read all your marks and comments. Hopefully, your judge has shared the highlights of your ride: in your recent case this may have been an obedient horse and accurately ridden test. But your judge should also have shared the places where you and your horse have room for improvement. Maybe your horse needs to move more freely forward or stay in a better-balanced frame; maybe you need to work on straightness on the long side or bending on your circles. 

Keep enjoying your dressage work and try to learn from all your scores. A main goal of showing is to obtain an objective opinion of how you and your horse are progressing in your dressage journey and to learn what you need to do to advance. Judges want to help you do that: their feedback is intended to help bring out the best in you and your horse.

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