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May 16, 2011

We Must Trust Our Judges

Human judges may be fallible, but only humans can appreciate qualities like elasticity, suppleness, presence or expression—the x-factors that make dressage an art form. Photo by Sara Lieser.

This columnist believes that more and more regulation of dressage judging will only have a negative effect on the sport.

It was a long time ago, it seems, when people respected dressage judges for their knowledge and the extensive time they’d spent educating themselves. People thought judges had earned the right to evaluate and comment on riders performing a test.

But over the last few years, the grumbling and complaints have grown. The higher the prize money and the more expensive the horses, the more pressure the competitors, the media and the organizers put on the judges to make their judging flawless.

Ever since the Fédération Equestre Internationale dismissed the FEI Dressage Committee in 2008, there has been, in effect, an “open season” on judges. The competitors can make degrading comments, the media can write anything they like, and the judges are basically defenseless because their position is a Catch-22. Whatever they say to explain their marks sounds defensive and evasive to the non-judge who generally does not understand how the system works or how the information is processed by the judge.

Changes In The Works

Not that the FEI has been very supportive of their officials in the past. At the International Dressage Officials Club forum in Vienna in the fall of 2008, the FEI representative informed judges that their judging was being retroactively researched and evaluated by statistics, that their overall performance was under par, and that there would be a cleaning up in the ranks. This came from an FEI that, up to that point, had shown little interest in holding enough seminars to supply the judges world wide, had no organized educational system, and had traditionally paid their judges nothing compared to the going rate for any other official function performed at an international show.

Now the FEI has created a new judges’ educational system that has been in place since July 2010. It features a number of requirements for continuing education, exams and a system for promotion. It will definitely weed out judges who are not active and keep the rest current, as well as point out the path to follow for those looking to advance up the ranks.

In the FEI Dressage Committee, we are encouraging the national federations to look into a reasonable way to fast track successful competitors to become FEI judges before they are too old to be promoted to five-star status. At all major championships there will be a Judges’ Supervisory Committee present to correct obvious mistakes, evaluate the quality of the judging and report back to the FEI. In addition a new post has been created for a “Dressage Judge General” who will be the spokesman and leading light for the judges.

At the January 2011 five-star judges forum in Warendorf, Germany, 24 of the 26 existing “O” judges were present. Wayne Shannon represented the International Dressage Riders’ Club in place of chairman Kyra Kyrklund. Also in attendance were Frank Kempermann, chair of the FEI Dressage Committee, and sports psychologist Dr. Inga Wolframm, who had previously given her talk at the Global Dressage Forum, Oct. 25-26, 2010.

The Judges Are Aware

Lately, due to the lectures by Dr. Wolframm, the ire of the trainers and riders has somewhat changed its focus from pronouncing all judges corrupt imbeciles to saying that the system is useless, and that it’s impossible for any human to successfully process the information available and come up with the correct score. Instead, according to Dr. Wolframm, the judges invent “shortcuts” which exclude some of the details of the movement and focus on specific features.

I think I agree with that assessment, except that in America in our judges’ forum, we call these extra ingredients of the movement “modifiers,” which we absorb and are aware of, but do not focus on, while we concentrate instead on the essence of each movement. Nothing new there.

Dr. Wolframm then went on to suggest that we ought to work with a system of deductions instead of bonus or plus points. I believe just about every judge already does exactly that. As Jaap Pot always said in his wonderful seminars: Remember that every rider comes in with a 10 in their pocket!

From there, he advised, you deduct the points from the movement that do not live up to a 10. And, be ready to tell the rider why he or she did not gain a full score for their effort!

This has been carefully taught to us through the years, and it surely is not a new concept. What was new about Dr. Wolframm’s information was that she thinks the complexity of judging aesthetic sports exceeds human capacity. Therefore, to cope, the judges grab on to all kinds of crutches to simplify their decision, such as relying on previous experience of a rider/horse combination, the reputation of said combination, or even the order in which they appear in the starting order.

I agree that the starting order in the Grand Prix should never be according to the FEI World Ranking list, because it makes the riders feel “pre-judged” and gives them the impression that their test will be placed in accordance with their starting position.

This system is not in effect due to the recommendation of the judges, but because the media does not care to be on watch for the entire Grand Prix. The members of the press prefer to show up for the finale when they can concentrate exclusively on the best ranked in the world. It’s all about money and time, not about being fair.

However, all experienced judges are intensely aware of these pitfalls, and they fight against any such prejudices with eyes wide open. In reality, I think the judges are way ahead of Dr. Wolframm in most of her discoveries: We have known long before being told by science that our task is overwhelming, and in the face of this challenge we constantly work on improving our skills, our techniques and our system.

It’s An Art Form, Not A Science

Perhaps the time has arrived to replace judges with computers. They sure will pick up on all the technical snafus. And nothing else. There will be horses winning with not a speck of elasticity, suppleness, presence or expression. It will all be very correct and devoid of art, charm, impact or beauty.

Only humans can appreciate and put into scores those qualities, and since the interpretation of art differs from one human to another, there will always be some margin of difference between scores, which has to be allowed, even with the most rigid rules for judging.

When open scoring was proposed to involve the spectators and make the judging more “transparent,” many in the sport expected opposition from the judges. They never hiccupped, and the system of showing each judge’s score for every movement was introduced.

For several years now we have lived with the open scoring, and gradually it has turned into a negative rather than positive influence on the sport. As the criticism of judges has intensified, the game of following every judge’s score has turned into a blood sport. Whenever one judge deviates, there is a buzz in the audience and a wave of discontent going through the arena and out from the media.

In reality, when huge differences appear, they are often the result of a malfunction of the technology or a human error made by the computer operator in the judge’s box. The snafu later gets corrected and doesn’t hurt the competitor’s score, but this isn’t properly communicated to the spectators.

But the most negative thing that has evolved since the open scoring arrived is that nobody watches the rides anymore because they are too busy watching the scoreboards. Is that what we want to do to dressage, turn it into Bingo?

The running score, which shows the comparison between the horse in the ring and the leading combination, is easy to glance at without losing contact with the performance in the ring, and it should be placed out of sight of the judges. With the new seven-judge system in the championships, a running score is a much better solution than having a long row of individual scores in front of everyone to distract them from the actual event.

As soon as the competition is over every score is available to the public and press anyway, and some of it can even be followed on the computers in case anyone prefers the numbers to the horses.

Judges are not gods. But we must be honest enough to admit that what looks like bias and corruption to us might just be a fallible human being doing his or her job. If we create too many systems to monitor the process, we are really saying that we trust their judgment only when they agree with us. In the end, we must trust the judges to judge, or do away with the institution altogether.

Anne Gribbons is the U.S. Equestrian Federation Technical Advisor for dressage. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is an Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she’s been a member of the FEI Dressage Committee since 2010. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "We Must Trust Our Judges" ran in the May 16, 2011 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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