Profile of the Dressage Judge

di Enzo Truppa

“To judge means overcoming one’s own personality in favor of truth and justice.”                    (Gustav  Rau)

What is required of an “ideal” dressage judge, who in terms of technical, moral, and professional qualities is held up as an example by colleagues as well as riders, trainers, and stakeholders?

Among all of the various stakeholders, the “designated victims,” i.e. the riders, expect the judge to observe, classify, and at the same time possess a great number of qualities. Among these, the first is that the judge must adapt their personal conception to the  means, and not the contrary.

  • The dressage judge must evaluate with absolute impartiality the hardest classes and must undergo training in advance, possibly working together with more expert judges, in the judgment of each new figure that they have never judged. The less certain they are, the less they should penalize; their inexperience must never harm the rider who is subject to their judgment, always keeping in mind that the penalization represented in the score must in any case be constructive.

The role of the judge is to promote the discipline of dressage with their encouragements and evaluations, that therefore should always be constructive.

The specific ability to efficiently carry out the duties of a dressage judge is recognized by the riders in general and by stakeholders, but the ability to operate in practice depends on multiple factors that we will examine below. It would certainly be desirable for the judge to have developed experience “in the field” as a dressage rider or trainer, but even that may not be sufficient: theoretical knowledge is also needed, based on a solid understanding of the basic principles, that in terms of practical application, can vary only as a function of the degree of difficulty of the class to be judged. Unfortunately, there is a general tendency to underestimate the scope of this technical knowledge, that however represents the essential element in order to become a good dressage judge.

The theoretical study of the subject through the reading of appropriate texts allows for acquiring a higher level of knowledge than what is sufficient to simply enjoy practicing the sport of dressage as an amateur or in any event to simply be a spectator. On the other hand, even many years of routine in dressage riding do not make up for the need to deepen one’s technical knowledge, because despite possessing a certain practical ability, that by itself does not allow for refining the insight necessary to appropriately judge a dressage class. I continue to be personally convinced that the objectivity of a judge essentially depends on the scope of their theoretical and practical knowledge, and on the other hand, we cannot expect riders to stoically accept, time after time, judgments that at first sight seem penalizing or even biased and thus are expressed in conflict with “professional ethics,” but that after a more careful analysis turn out to simply be the result of the relevant “ignorance” of the subject on the part of the judges. Therefore, despite the unquestioned presence of the element of “good faith,” the practical results however end up being unsatisfactory.

In the small world of dressage, riders and judges tend to meet often and thus the judge is able to judge some combinations of horse riders with a certain frequency; despite this, the judge must consider every horse that enters the ring as a new chapter of a book to read, and every rider as an unknown person. To implement this in practical terms, the judge must therefore think that they have never seen them and know nothing about them, even if they are actually judging them for the umpteenth time.

A good judge has no memory. It can happen that the best do poorly, and that unknowns have good rides. If in the same competition a judge has to judge the same horse another time, they must forget having already seen it; in fact, the rankings can change from one class to another.

The ideal judge is one that, in the relatively brief period of time available, is able to grasp the essence of the movement subject to judgment. That ability to conduct a rapid process of technical discernment leads to a fair and efficient evaluation of any class to be judged. This type of judge will automatically earn the respect of the riders

Whoever wants to become a dressage judge must continuously and immediately refer to the theoretical and practical knowledge they have, and preferably, to horse-riding experience; all in a relatively brief period of time.

This indicates the need to continuously improve, and to dedicate as much time as possible to enriching one’s technical and cultural knowledge in dressage. It is evident that such a person needs enthusiasm, zeal, and in a certain sense must enjoy every new acquisition of both theoretical and practical knowledge. There will certainly be people who believe they can become good judges despite not having this sort of fanatical dedication, but such individuals should not expect that the riders subject to their judgment will have an equivalent degree of patience. The most important judges I have met in my career proved to have these qualities without a doubt, so it is good to point out to whoever decides to undertake this career what type, quality, and quantity of responsibility the position entails.

One of the main responsibilities of judges is to ensure that the sport of dressage does not deteriorate into a sterile comparison of “equestrian material,” where the model and power of the subject end up playing the predominant role. It should in fact be recalled that dressage is above all the art of training a horse to move with grace, balance (that is perhaps the most important requirement), and to instantly respond to invisible aids.

The dressage judge must always remember that, among others, they have three types of main obligations:

  1. to be a secure and reliable guide for the rider subject to their judgment;
  2. to be able to perfectly understand the basic principles and concepts of dressage;
  3. to have a great sense of responsibility in order to promote and maintain a high level of equestrian culture in the field of dressage.

A good dressage judge should not limit themself to correctly pointing out the errors that occur during the execution of a class, but should also be able to identify the underlying causes.

The ideal dressage judge should thus combine considerable experience in dressage riding, ideally at the level of the classes they are asked to judge, with superior theoretical knowledge of the subject. This is certainly the optimal situation, but personally, I have also appreciated some dressage judges who did not have significant experience “in the saddle.” In these cases as well, though, deep knowledge of the subject remains essential and unavoidable. It should be further highlighted that considerable horse-riding experience and scholarly knowledge of the dressage principles are not enough to make a good judge if there is not an equal development of the ability to express a rapid judgment, that is necessary, if not even vital, due to the fact that decisions and the relative judgments must be developed and expressed in fractions of a second. The judgment must be prompt, immediate, and since it cannot be changed, must be based on theoretical and practical knowledge that cannot be disputed.

              Whoever is attracted to the “position” of dressage judge simply due to the great prestige and power that is often – although erroneously – thought to be linked to this role, is certainly on the wrong path. That person will never be right for the position. Likewise, the “work” of a judge does not befit people who don’t think they need to dedicate time to enriching their theoretical and practical knowledge of the principles of dressage and having constructive discussions with other judges at the end of classes.

              The ideal judge should try to understand the behavior of the other judges without aprioristic criticism and without ignoring it.

              They should also maintain their own independence, but never forgetting that they are not the only repository of equestrian truth. The greater their knowledge and solid certainties, the more they will doubt possessing the absolute truth.

              The judge must know how to listen, question themself, and thus acquire “good sense.”

Another focal point regards the need to make use of universally accepted terminology for the observations that are recorded on the score sheets. In reality, at the international level, the rules that are published by the FEI ensure this aspect. The judges have very little time to “phrase” their observations. If the judge has an immediate perception of what happens in almost a fraction of a second, they will be able to correctly discern and analyze the various technical aspects inherent in a dressage figure, but they will also have to be able to use an equestrian vocabulary that is appropriate to report those observations in a way that the riders subject to their judgment will understand it. Conventional terms are often used along with neologisms that can be of great assistance in allowing the riders to exactly understand the meaning of the technical observations written on the score sheets, reducing to a minimum the possibility of misunderstandings regarding the meaning of the judge’s observations. 

The judge’s evaluation translates into a score (10 is the best), that is reduced with each imperfection.

            excellent             10                sufficient             5

            very good            9                insufficient          4

            good                    8                fairly bad             3

            fairly good           7                bad                      2

            satisfactory           6                very bad              1

            not performed      0      

The FEI has also introduced “half marks” (e.g. 6.5 – 7.5 – 9.5) in order to refine the judgment.

One of the aims of this publication is precisely to contribute to establishing a common dressage language for riders, judges, and experts for better overall communication.

Lastly, the dressage judge must not allow outside events to influence the quality of their performance, such as adverse weather conditions or poor ability on the part of the jury secretaries. To avoid those negative factors, the necessary measures must be taken well in advance of the start of the class, where necessary requesting the intervention of the organizers to resolve such problems.

In conclusion, the dressage judge:

  • must remain calm and fair in all circumstances
  • must seek to continuously improve their theoretical and practical knowledge of dressage.
  • must not forget that they exercise great power, that is to be used with wisdom and fairness
  • must in any event never abuse that power
  • must never allow their personal views to prevail in expressing judgment
  • must have constructive discussions with other colleagues, in particular the most experienced ones, in order to refine their judgments

For Chapter 1 CLICK HERE

For Chapter 2 CLICK HERE

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