By George Williams
Whether they like it or not, today’s dressage judges are truly the keepers of our sport. This is true perhaps now more than ever before. The reason I believe this, is that as our sport grows and matures, it’s becoming more competitive than ever—and, if I dare say, even more sport-like. When I was growing up and fell in love with dressage, people spoke of the art of dressage. Some even wrote about the art of dressage versus competitive dressage. We fervently discussed principles and argued over theory. I might be exaggerating slightly when I say we each believed that our mentors, our heroes and the revered “old masters” (and, of course, ourselves) were the right and the true keepers of the art of dressage. I’m not sure that happens so much anymore, and that may not be a bad thing. However, our sport is based on principles developed over centuries of classical horsemanship. The USEF and FEI rule books contain definitions and descriptions of the correct gaits, movements, ring figures, aids, carriage, etc., directly taken from those principles.
We still hear people say, “I compete for myself” or “to see how my horse and I are progressing” or “I’m not so much interested in winning as I am in seeing that I am getting better.” This is very good and admirable. Thankfully, we still have many who do compete for those reasons. But as the sport of dressage grows, especially at the global level, it’s more and more about winning. The scores attained are higher than ever. Every time I read about the results from a major competition, it seems I always see at least one “personal best” achieved by some combination. This whole fixation on personal best and its impact on the sport is another story altogether. Let me just say that it adds to my belief that our sport is becoming more sport-like, meaning that winning has become the main motivation and ultimate goal. This means that those individuals sitting in the box at C and the other letters hold an important position as they determine which combination best displays the principles of dressage and wins the class.
Basically, by default they become the keepers of the standards. Once, while in a discussion on judging, I heard a top international competitor express what many may be thinking: “The judges should tell us what they want to see and we will train to show it. One hopes that if we train correctly, in accordance with the principles established, the judges will score us well; or depending on the quality of our horse, very well.” That puts a lot of responsibility on our judges. It means that they must be well trained, adhering to established principles with an educated eye and using a universal methodology in determining marks for each box. It is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the unprepared or poorly trained.
How often have we quietly (or loudly) complained about a bleacher full of judges in an education session along the side of the arena while riding a test? As competitors, it can be a little disconcerting having a group of judges watching. In fact, some show managers will not allow them to be there for fear of exactly that. After all, competitors are the customers of the show manager. However, it’s in all of our best interests to have the best-educated and most-qualified judges possible. And, we competitors, show managers, owners and trainers should be willing to play a part in the process of preparing judges for the important and difficult task of judging.
Through their marks and comments, they ultimately are the keepers of our sport. As competitors, we want to keep them happy and therefore will train and ride to earn high marks according to their standards. For the sake of the integrity of our sport, let’s ensure that their judging continues to merge the art of dressage with competitive dressage so that in the future the fundamental principles of dressage—pure and correct gaits, suppleness, engagement of the hindquarters, etc.—are still recognizable in our top combinations. Along with developing the next generation of riders, trainers and instructors, the education of our future judges should be a top priority. Our sport has come a long way over the 2000-plus years since Xenophon and even moreso in the last 30 years. The positive changes in the care, breeding and training methods of dressage horses have been immense in my lifetime. I hope that we will continue to have knowledgeable judges who can shape our sport for years to come.
Dressage rider Nick Wagman rides past the judge’s booth at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida.
Photo by Melissa Fuller