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October 4, 2011

Dressage At Devon: A Look Inside the Scores

Catherine Haddad Staller and Winyamaro won the Grand Prix at the CDI-W Saugerties in September. Photo by Anna Jaffe.

Dear Rita,

The CDI-W at Devon has renewed and confirmed my faith in American horse shows!


If you have not had a chance to attend the Saturday night freestyles at Devon, you have to put it on your Bucket List for next year. Dressage becomes a spectator sport in the Dixon Oval. This show has an atmosphere like no other, and that’s coming from yours truly who has shown at the greatest venues in Europe. Go to Devon for top sport!

Adrienne Lyle was on top of her game last weekend, and I am happy to say that she has come into her own as a competitive rider. She and Wizard are in great form, and they ended up winning both the Grand Prix and the Grand Prix freestyle, much to my chagrin. Her win was unquestionably well deserved in the Grand Prix, but both James Koford and I gave her a real run for the money in the freestyle.

On Friday night, I was unhappy with our Grand Prix test, mostly due to the discomfort of Winyamaro. We had tightened W’s girth just before entering the arena, which turned out to be a mistake. He was groaning and dropping his head on each downward transition (you never have to guess at what W is thinking), which cost us a few precious points. Still, he gave his best in the test and showed many highlights, including an awesome zigzag and super changes. I was elated to see a score of 70 percent from the judge at M and very disappointed to see a score of 63 percent from the judge at H—both on the short side where the view cannot differ so greatly. Irksome. Because of that low score, we had to settle for an average of 67 percent, which should have averaged out more like 68 percent.

This may seem trivial, Rita, but believe me, in an Olympic year every percentage point counts. One rogue 63 percent can alter your final score, cost you money, lower your ranking points and drop you off the Short List. Sadly, as always, any judge can give any score he or she wants to give without any accountability for the marks whatsoever.  And as a competitor, I cannot even request a review of the marks.  Imagine the NFL professional football without instant replay and contested decisions.

Fortunately, due to the new transparency in our sport, nobody has to be afraid to mention such a discrepancy in scores. The FEI publishes all scores, and videos go out on live streaming and YouTube. You should never forget that the final score in dressage is an average of five opinions. The powers that be need to pay more attention to HOW the final score landed where it did.

Which brings me to the freestyle! What a great night of dressage sport at Devon! Soaking rain could not put a damper on the competition. In any sport, the press has a tendency to focus on the winner, but in dressage sport—especially in freestyle—the winner is often not objectively clear.

On Saturday night, James Koford, Adrienne Lyle and I set fire to the rain with super charged riding and fierce competition. I didn’t see James’ test with Pharaoh, but according to the reaction of the crowd, they were the clear winners. In fact, two of the judges had them in first place, which is something you will never hear about unless you study the final results! Two of the judges had Adrienne in first, and one of them put me in the winning spot. It was a well-fought test with a mixed decision!

Happily, as mixed as the decision was between the judges, I did not ride for second place. I achieved my personal goal of riding with risk, focus and skill. The enthusiastic crowd at Devon gave us our greatest reward.  

Winyamaro showed his maturity in Devon this year. He has come into his own! I was freezing and somewhat glued to my tack due to the application of many layers of sticky spray. (It’s the only way to avoid slipping off the saddle or have the reins slip through your hands in that kind of soaking rain.) But my horse was on fire, and he fought hard for our second place.

Last Saturday night was the first time I attempted riding tempi changes with one hand in competition. Adrienne had laid out a winning test with a score just over 74 percent, and I knew that I would have to risk everything for a higher score. That meant trying to pick up a few extra points wherever possible. The FEI “Guideline for Assessing the Degree of Difficulty in Freestyle Tests” specifically states that a competitor can earn a higher mark for Degree of Difficulty if he or she successfully executes a movement with one hand. Read the detailed guideline on

Have a look!

W and I executed 16 one-tempis to nine two-tempis on the half circle to 17 one-tempis on the diagonal with ONE HAND. And we did not make an error. Later in the test, we also performed the extended canter to a flying change one handed.

Sadly, Rita, only four out of five judges were of the impression that our Degree of Difficulty could be awarded a higher mark than the standard 7.0 on Saturday night. We were awarded 8.0-8.5 from four judges while the judge at C felt that 7.0 was high enough. Again, this difference seems trivial, but on a mark that is QUADRUPLED in the artistic scores, the difference between 7.0 and 8.0 can cost the win. Big sigh.

I point this out not because I think the freestyle should have been placed differently, but because I continue in my efforts to point out that the winds of change are upon us in dressage judging. If Dressage At Devon is any indicator, our sport is quickly becoming as commercial and professional (yay!) in America as it is in Europe. Riders spend MILLIONS on horses, coaching, traveling and competing. We now need to spend some time and money on changing our judging system to include a corps of salaried and supervised professionals. Conflicts of interest have to be revisited and controlled. And our point system needs a serious revamp.

The sport of ice skating reached this point two decades ago. Now it’s time for the same kind of overhaul in dressage judging.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin’ it like it is from Gladstone, N.J.

Training Tip of the Day: When the chips are down and you need a good score, take a deep breath and ride like nobody is watching.

caddym (not verified)
3 years 20 weeks ago
How'd I miss that! And I did
How'd I miss that! And I did read it.   Some people go home from work, cook dinner an watch tv.  I go home from work, ride my 2 horses and watch dressage.  Clip my horse almost always... Read More
Catherine Haddad
3 years 20 weeks ago
It is the last bullet point
It is the last bullet point in the Directive. About half way through. Read More


3 years 20 weeks ago

Look Ma, one handed tempis

That was SWEET! If that line of tempis isn't an ideal demonstration of what dressage is, nothin' is. I was wondering and couldn't find it in the rules, is there a limit to the number of movements in the freestyle that you can ride one handed? By the way, those trot half passes were fabulous! I would have to give them a 9.
3 years 20 weeks ago

Directives for Assessing the

Directives for Assessing the Degree of Difficulty in a Freestyle Test 2009


I read through this and didn't see anything about one - handed execution?

Catherine Haddad
3 years 20 weeks ago

It is the last bullet point

It is the last bullet point in the Directive. About half way through.
Catherine Haddad
3 years 20 weeks ago

I highlighted with all CAPS

Directives for Assessing the Degree of Difficulty in a Freestyle Test 2009 1. Initial Comments The assessment of the degree of difficulty in a Freestyle test cannot be made separately from the other technical and artistic scores. There is a close connection between the degree of difficulty and the technical execution. Lack of quality in the execution of the movement is considered a deficit in the performance ability of rider and/or horse. These must be taken into consideration as deductions in the degree of difficulty scoring. The basic requirements of the Freestyle are achieved when the rider shows all compulsory movements listed in the test sheets for each level. The rider can increase the degree of difficulty and raise the score for his performance (when executed with technical correctness) by: • Appropriate repetition of single exercises, especially the exercises with a coefficient. • Exceeding the minimum requirements of the exercises, such as number of simple and flying tempi changes or piaffe steps, but without exaggeration. • Showing a steeper angle than requested in half passes possibly combined with changes of direction • Executing the movements on lines without the support of arena rails, such as on the inner track, the quarter or centre line, or on angled or curved lines, (e.g. circle or serpentine). • Well-chosen placing of movements in positions that make their execution more difficult: for example directly in front of the arena rails, as well as pirouettes directed outwards, possibly towards the spectators. • Well-presented clearly defined combinations of movements (e.g. half-passes in trot followed by half-passes in passage, flying changes every second stride immediately followed by changes every stride and vice versa). • Showing demanding and difficult transitions (e.g. piaffe or passage derived from the halt without prior development of impulsion; transition from walk or halt directly into a series of flying changes; significant but still harmonious transitions out of an extended pace to a highly collected exercise: e.g. extended trot to piaffe or extended canter to (half) canter pirouette or piaffe. • PERFORMING MOVEMENTS OR TRANSITIONS WITH THE REINS IN ONE HAND BUT WITHOUT EXAGGERATION. A WELL-CALCULATED RISK IS DEMONSTRATED WHEN THE DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY CORRESPONDS TO THE POTENTIAL AND THE LEVEL OF TRAINING OF RIDER AND HORSE. A challenging, technically correct performance is a significant testimony of a high standard of riding ability and the training of the horse. On the other hand, obvious mistakes in the execution of the movements may reflect an over-asking by the rider of the horse, which means a badly calculated risk, and the score for the Degree of Difficulty has to be reduced. If the classical dressage cannot be presented as stated in the rules, it is absolutely necessary to react by reducing the mark for the Degree of Difficulty. 2. Guidelines for Scoring With special attention to the initial comments and the clarifications in the Guidelines for Judges, the recommended directives for points awarded for degree of difficulty are as follows: • When only the minimum requirements for the basis level are fulfilled, approximately 6.0. • When there is a rise in the degree of difficulty according to the level of the respective standard tests minimum of 7.0. • For each movement with increased degree of difficulty (calculated risk) the score should rise accordingly. Additional Piaffe pirouettes and passage half passes are not considered as a higher degree of difficulty, although they are to be rated positively in the choreography.
3 years 20 weeks ago

How'd I miss that! And I did

How'd I miss that! And I did read it.  

Some people go home from work, cook dinner an watch tv.  I go home from work, ride my 2 horses and watch dressage.  Clip my horse almost always has a commentator and there is discussion about one-handed riding.....But regrdless. To go from one tempes to two tempes on a circle line back to one tempes is very very difficult I don't care how many hands are holding the reins.

I first saw you do this (via video) maybe 2 years ago - you were wearing a brown shad, brown hat and carrying a whip and I was amazed then and was amazed when I watched the devon live stream.  I agree a 7 for difficulty seems too low.