Dressage At Devon: A Look Inside the Scores

Oct 4, 2011 - 12:08 PM
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 FEI.org.

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.



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