By Liz Halliday-Sharp
The dressage phase in eventing is very tough. Not only does the rider need to be accurate and precise, but teaching a fit horse to be relaxed, trained and rideable in the ring when they are ready to run and jump is no easy task. I also believe that it’s a challenge to be a dressage judge; the ability to remain consistent, objective and accurate from the first rider to the last is a real skill.
We are lucky to have some very good international judges such as Kristina Klingspor, Bobby Stevenson and Andrew Bennie, for example. They are judges who I believe are knowledgeable enough to know what they should be looking for and are also brave enough to be consistent with their marking throughout the competition.
I believe that it’s a continual challenge, however, to find this level of consistency from all eventing judges and it’s something that each judge should be striving for regularly. It is still normal, I think, for every rider to be nervous about going first in a class. Most of us are worried that we might not get the score that we deserve being the first rider to go and that the judges might not reward movements in a way that they would later in the section.
I have personally been that first rider many times and I have had scores that I felt were very fair and have sometimes even put me in the lead, but I have also had tests that I felt were under-marked based on my early draw. More often than not, however, I find that it’s still a detriment to be the first competitor, especially in a big competition, and it’s surprising to me that this continues to be an issue. So the next question is: how do we change it? I am lucky to know many great eventing judges and I know for a fact that they work very hard to to get away from this stigma and to be as consistent as possible. Maybe the riders and organizing bodies should reach out to them directly to discuss how things can be improved?
In the big championships and five-star competitions, I think there should perhaps be a review at the conclusion of dressage and any significant discrepancies of three marks or more should be examined. I know this is the case for flying changes, but I believe that it should happen with other movements as well. At the same time, I think that judges should be asked to analyze tests from the previous day in relation to the second day if their scores across the board have dramatically changed for most riders. Good tests should always be rewarded, but the scores should not simply go up because it’s nearing the end of the section, and mistakes should not be overlooked. I’m sure that no judge intentionally does this, but it appears to still be happening on occasion in our sport, so it might be useful to hold a review session when there are large discrepancies.
I realize that I am being very bold with some of my comments and I do recognize how tough it must be to be a dressage judge in eventing. We would not have a sport at all without them! My hope is that all of our hard-working judges can continue to be cognizant of the position of importance they are in and they can recognize that owners and riders depend on their objectivity and accuracy for the progression of their horses and careers.
The event organizers should feel equally responsible for choosing reputable judges who are known for being accurate and fair. I understand that organizers have their work cut out to keep events running smoothly and a lot of effort goes into putting on some outstanding shows, but getting quality judges who know the sport should be a real priority over having those who are just readily available. I believe this is the only way that riders at all levels can truly understand what to work on and how to improve when they come away from a competition.
I will finish by saying that I’m very grateful for the many hard hours that judges put into our sport and I can only imagine how much time and energy it takes to be one of the best. My hope is that both riders and judges continue to hold themselves accountable and put the work in to keep improving dressage in eventing.
Liz Halliday-Sharp competing in the dressage phase.
Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography