I recently served as a licensed dressage judge at a USDF/USEF show, a goal that has been years in the making.
Although I began this path to become a better competitor, I gained so much more. As my “judge’s eye” developed, my students benefited. And, while I initially found judging quite challenging, as I put more time into developing my judging skills, I developed more confidence and began to enjoy helping riders from the judge’s booth.
Judging is a very different skill than riding or teaching. I found shifting gears hard. Going between the objective process of assigning a numerical score and the analytical process of finding words to describe what I was seeing was challenging. The focus required to make that shift 15-32 times every 8.5 minutes was exhausting.
But I stuck with it. Not for a love of judging but because the view from the judge’s box made me a much better trainer, competitor and teacher.
Dressage training is a continuum. Each level builds on the level below it. Sitting ringside at a show, watching horses perform each level’s skills, the full panorama of dressage unfolds. Judges have the prime seat to see how tough movements at one level are clear building blocks for the next level. For example, the 20-meter circles at training level allow the horse to go freely forward, whereas the balance needed for a horse to create a 15-meter circle at first level is the same balance the horse needs to be able to lengthen the trot across the diagonal. When that circle size shrinks to 10 meters at second level, the balance needed to make that happen allows for a medium trot.
One thing that struck me early on was the importance of accuracy. For example, a horse can execute a wonderful, free-flowing leg-yield that is performed well enough to deserve a score of 7 on its quality alone. But if that leg yield starts and ends early, the score could be taken down by 0.5. If that same leg yield leaves the center line at the correct place and the front leg lands at the rail right on cue, that 7 leg yield becomes a 7.5 or 8. That 0.5 modification doesn’t seem like much on one movement, but by the end of the test, that can add up to a 5 percent difference. Five percent can mean being in the ribbons or not.
At first glance, accuracy seems pretty simple—just do what the test says at a specific place. But the ability to be accurate comes from strength and balance. If the horse isn’t strong enough, and his balance isn’t prepared enough, then being accurate is hard.
I shifted my show-prep focus to ensure my horses were strong enough and prepared enough to be consistently accurate. I started keeping my eyes on the circle points more, which made me more aware of when my horses were drifting. I trained to control that drift.
I became much more aware of my corners. I thought about how I rode into them, the amount of bend I asked for, and the control of the outside shoulder as I left the corner. I started to see corners before lateral work differently than corners before lengthens and mediums.
My students reaped these benefits as well. As I broke down how I needed to prepare movements for my horses, I shared this with my students. Cones showed up in every corner. To keep it fun, I charged my students in chocolate for every cone they knocked down. We talked about what feel we were trying to create while keeping those cones upright. I watched my students’ scores slowly begin to climb along with mine.
L Is For Learning
I enrolled in the two-part L program in 2007. My business was changing, and it made sense to invest the time and money into attaining the L. After 12 years of backing and selling young horses, my clientele had shifted from breeders to the new owners of those young horses. The horses were progressing, the owners were progressing, it was time for me to be educated enough to help them.
Part 1 of the U.S. Dressage Federation L program is held over three weekends and open to both candidates and auditors. It introduces judging and judging criteria, and it covers topics including equitation and biomechanics of horse and rider through a combination of classroom lectures and arena sessions with demonstration riders.
Part 2 is limited to judge candidates and also spans three weekends, but it takes place at U.S. Equestrian Federation-recognized shows where the candidates practice and refine skills learned in Part 1 in a real-world setting. At the end, they take a final exam that involves written and oral tests and judging several classes. Along with their test scores, their judging sheets are tallied and theirs scores and class ranking compared to an evaluator’s scores and placings.
I passed the exam to become an L graduate, which meant my name was added to the USDF’s roster of recommended judges for schooling shows. I did not score highly enough to pass with distinction, which would have allowed me to begin the process of becoming an ‘r’ judge, who are allowed to judge training, first and second level classes at USEF-recognized shows.
I knew I was not ready to move on to the ‘r’ program. All of my time on youngsters meant I was the queen of the lower levels, and dressage is much more than first level. But my L status meant I could begin to use my new skills at schooling shows.
Time passed. I continued my dressage education. I had horses consistently climbing the levels. I started dipping my toe into the waters of FEI arena. I wanted to know more about how that level was evaluated. The L program gives candidates the training to evaluate tests through second level. I needed more.
Fortunately, my L status gave me access to judge’s clinics; if seats were still open after licensed judges had time to sign up, those seats were made available to us hanging on to the bottom rung of the ladder. I attended my first USEF Dressage Judges Mini-Clinic in Saugerties, New York, in 2015. The mini-clinics are held at horse shows and are similar to Part 2 of the L program except all levels are covered and there isn’t an exam at the end. In these clinics, judges discuss what scores they think should be given and why.
That first day, as I walked through the showgrounds, fully embracing imposter syndrome, a show volunteer offered me a ride in a golf cart. I took it as a positive. At least I had what I jokingly referred to as “the judge’s costume” worked out.
In very short order, my imposter syndrome was confirmed. I felt overwhelmed by the expanse of how much I didn’t know. As we watched a fourth level class, the topic of being behind the vertical came up.
I could clearly see the horse in front of us was a bit short in the neck with its nose tucked a bit too far back. But seeing that wasn’t good enough. Our instructor pushed us to look for why. Was the rider too restrictive in the contact? Was the horse built really upright in the neck? Was the horse not pushing enough through is back to carry his nose further out? Because being able to see the “why” was how we would help the riders.
That bottom ladder rung felt like a trapeze. I would swing from being woefully aware of how untrained I was, to occasional hints of confidence as I started to gain a few skills. Then back to feeling completely inept, as a vastly more experienced S judge could quickly get to the “why.” I often felt tongue-tied trying to explain what I was seeing as concisely as possible.
But like a trapeze artist addicted to flying through the air, by the end of that weekend, I was convinced I wanted to learn more. Since my first trip through the L program, I had earned enough qualifying scores riding at fourth level—a prerequisite for beginning the ‘r’ judge training—to consider putting the ‘r’ training on my goal list. I decided to look into options for retesting for the L with hopes of passing with distinction.
The following year, the Virginia Dressage Association offered a Part 2 of the L program. My instructors helped me learn to put what I was seeing more clearly into words. I learned that a horse that nods with every canter stride needs engagement, that a horse who hurries his tempo in the medium trot needs swing through its back and better uphill balance.
I learned to guide my comments to the rider in front of me. When a kid comes in with their U.S. Pony Club pin freshly shined on their lapel, my comments can discuss the accuracy of the test. When a professional with an educated seat shows up in the open second level class, I can talk about uphill balance and increased swing through the back.
With all of the time I spent learning to be a better judge, I found I was starting to enjoy it. I was falling in love with these horses who were doing their absolute best to understand what their riders wanted. I found myself cheering for the riders who gave me a chance to tell my scribe to write down a 9. I found myself really disappointed when a rider’s horse was too distracted by the water truck to show his best.
Ready For More
This time, I passed my L exam with distinction. I added my name to the list for an upcoming small ‘r’ program.
Then I waited. And waited.
As I waited, I worried my hard-earned skills would get rusty. So I judged at every schooling show that I could. I audited Part 1 of the L program again. I attended judges’ training sessions. My instructor, an FEI judge herself, helped in nearly every lesson by pointing out references she used when judging to help her. For example, when a horse moves off from the halt at X, if the judge catches a glimpse of the girth under the horse’s belly, that horse is lifting his shoulders in the depart. That halt should score higher than a halt without that shoulder lift.
When I got a call about a last-minute opening in the New England Dressage Association’s ‘r’ program, I scrambled to make it happen.
The ‘r’ candidate training requires apprentice sessions at dressage shows outside of your home region, so I took advantage of the travel opportunity by putting my name in for sessions in parts of the country I wanted to see. I tacked an extra day on my Colorado trip to check out Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods, and go zip-lining.
I studied hard, and I passed.
Then COVID-19 hit, and I found myself waiting again.
Once the show season resumed, I began sending what I hoped were not-too-desperate-sounding emails, offering my services to show organizers. Finally, a judging request for a real, honest-to-goodness recognized show arrived in my inbox.
The Judge I Want To Be
Last week, a few days before my judging debut, I contemplated not only what I have gone through to get here but what kind of judge I want to grow into.
I want to be a judge who shows clear empathy for the stress a rider and horse are under in performing a test. When things fall apart, as they sometimes do, can I find words to describe what happened without adding to the already emotional process of competing?
I want to be a judge who shows clear admiration for every horse that is willing to make circles in a sandbox just because a human asked him to. It seems like a lot of work for a carrot.
I want to be a judge that is committed to getting better at seeing and articulating the real issue, not just the result of that issue.
I want to be a judge that can be assertive enough to help riders understand their role in what happens in the arena while being understanding enough to leave the rider’s feeling empowered to, as Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, do better.”
I want to be a judge who helps to create as stress-free an environment as she can, for both the show management and the competitors.
My debut is just the beginning. In order to add my name to the waiting list for the next level, the ‘R’ program, I need to hold my ‘r’ license for a minimum of two years, earn five scores of 65% or higher riding at Prix St George or higher, judge at 10 licensed shows and judge at least 40 second level, test 3, rides.
I am on my way.
Ange Bean trains from her Straight Forward Dressage in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and travels throughout the U.S. as a clinician. She is the founding training for Straight Forward Dressage Trainer Talks, a web-based discussion on the highs and lows of dressage horse training, and maintains a personal blog. Her credentials include USEF ‘r’ dressage judge, ARIA Level 3 certified in Dressage and Stable Management, USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medal, and USDF Bronze and Silver Freestyle bars.