Before going to judge the Blue Hors FEI Dressage World Championship in Denmark this summer, I spent a week in my native country, Sweden. I was chatting with my sister, who is a college professor, and she was discussing the school system and salaries in Swedish schools.
She turned to me and casually asked, “How much do you get for judging this show?”
When I told her 120 euros a day, her eyes got big, and then she burst out laughing. She then pointed at her head in a telling gesture, indicating this was crazy, and wanted to know about the enormous side benefits and perks I must have failed to mention. When I told her that many overseas shows are reluctant to pay the actual price of your ticket and will bargain or make it clear they are not amused about the expense, her mouth fell open. She then decided that, by comparison, she was sitting pretty in her classroom.
Looking at what judges do from her point of view, I realized, not for the first time, that judging is a weird way to spend your time. The downsides are many, and they could surely outnumber the reasons to be enthusiastic about the job. Unless you are prepared to expose yourself to (especially these days) torturous air travel to go somewhere where you can be boxed in beside a rectangle and sit in interesting but unpredictable weather conditions for hours on end while disappointing people on horses with your comments and scores, this may not be for you. Especially since in your position as judge you cannot really please anybody, nevermind how much you try. Everybody except the winner will feel mistreated by your scores, and the one who won will tell you his winning score was too low.
Management will consider you an expensive, albeit a necessary evil, and the spectators think you are a dimwit. In this, they have the support of the press. You will be put through various yearly seminars, tests and financial outlays in order to keep your license to officiate. At the end of a long day, you should not be surprised if your inner self asks you the question: “What was I thinking when I signed up for this?”
Nevertheless, the judges forge on, and more enthusiastic candidates show up to go through the training. There must be something that motivates and keeps them fascinated and committed to this job year in and out. Few judges start their judging career because they chose that line of activity early in life. This job evolves from longtime experience as a rider, trainer and competitor. After years of involvement with horses and the sport, you may want to look into judging to add another dimension to your equine spectrum.
In the United States we have the very informative L Program run by the U.S. Dressage Federation to introduce people to the intricacies of being a judge. Going through that experience is sometimes enough for a person to realize that the task of judging offers too many challenges and requires a lot of responsibility. You now become the evaluator of each detail in a performance, and you have to put your knowledge to the test in every movement shown in front of you—plus assign an immediate and definite number to the exercise and be able to back up your opinion in case it is challenged.
Hopefully your trainer’s eye and your “feel” as a rider will assist you in finding that correct number, but what you give for a score stands. You cannot fix it or “do it over” until you get it right as we can when working with a horse and rider. In this respect you, the judge, have to be as much in the moment as the horse and rider before you. If you cannot get into the feeling of being there with the rider, almost on the horse, judging will probably never appeal to you. Just like we say about a competent rider, you have to have a natural feel for judging, or you will probably never be very good at it.
I have had students who showed interest in judging, and I will sometimes encourage them, but on occasion I have tried to dissuade the ones I know perceive of judging as a position of power, where you can make arbitrary decisions and have riders put up with them. Perhaps the most important aspect of judging is having the ability to show absolute fairness in each assessment. Judges make honest mistakes on occasion, and we have to admit to those and still carry on. It is sometimes almost impossible to be on top of your game for every moment of a long and intense day, but as long as the competitors trust that you never gave a lesser score for any other reason than making a human mistake, they can tolerate it.
Having a suitable judicial temperament means most of all that you are able to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed by never favoring any horse or rider, or punishing them, for any personal reasons. You, as the judge, have to offer an even playing field.
Over the years, I have been judged by, learned from, and worked along with some of the best judges in the world. I admire their tireless commitment, honesty and intellect, but most of all I appreciate and share their passion for the job. To work with a team of judges is, to me, the only way to stay on top of the game. You learn to become sharper, quicker and more correct by the checks and balances provided by your colleagues. When discussing some ride after a class or in the breaks, you often get an insight into how the horse appeared from a different angle and can go into the more subtle details of the collection, self-carriage, contact and so on, which are usually the determining factors between two equally mistake-free rides.
Although we have many dressage shows in this country, it is fairly rare at regular recognized shows to have more than one judge. A lone judge at a ring is hardly ever seen in Europe. When I judged at Compiègne (France) and Aachen (Germany) recently we discussed the need for a couple of more five-star judges on this continent. I was told that one important reason for us not having more of our officials promoted by the Fédération Equestre Internationale for a long time is that our judges mostly work solo. Even our FEI judges have too few opportunities to judge on a jury.
I agree that this is a weakness in our system. The competitors would also be better guided along their journey to the top if they had multiple judges evaluating them on a regular basis. Our riders would become more aware at an earlier stage of what is needed to improve their performance in order to make them better prepared for championships or the FEI ring. And our judges would become more comfortable working together as a team on a regular basis.
I do realize that having several judges per ring becomes a financial headache for show management, since travel and housing is expensive, and admittedly our American judges are better paid than judges are overseas. We surely do not want to discourage our national show managers and have them give up and leave us without a place to show our horses! However, with the help of USDF and the U.S. Equestrian Federation there could maybe be some incentive in higher show ratings and lesser fees created for shows that are willing to put at least two judges in each ring. Showing is expensive as it is, but as competitors we pay extra for drug fees, office fees and so on, which we really do not directly benefit from, so perhaps we could swallow paying a small extra amount at shows that offer multiple judges. In the long run, this could promote better riding at an earlier point of time and earn us more international judges on the world stage.
Judging is truly a labor of love—love for the horse, the sport, the art of dressage and the game. I always get inspired by my colleagues when they get passionate about one judging issue or another, and I like to see how much they care. Sure there are times when we disagree, and the discussions can be heated, but that is how it should be as long as we come to an agreement and learn from each other. At times we even have to agree to disagree, and it may show in the scores. There is nothing wrong with standing your ground as long as you have good reasons. After all, a judge’s task is to swiftly and clearly give their own opinion of every movement in a smooth and continuous flow.
When it comes to championships, there is zero time to hesitate, and your brain has to stay on full alert for long hours. My scribe in Denmark was a math whiz, and when she told me how many thousands of scores we all gave in one day, it was quite impressive. The beauty of a jury is that even in a case when all scores do not sing in tune, the average fixes it, and in the end we almost always have the correct final results. After all, the riders strive to be victorious, and the jury system gives them a fair shot to win and place where they belong.
My answer to my sister’s question was that judges consider it an honor to be allowed to comment on and criticize dressage rides while trying to help and improve the sport. The “benefits” are the thrill of teamwork and the experience of being that closely involved in the development and status of our sport. Watching a fabulous horse and rider turning on a performance that lifts your spirits, quickens your heartbeat, and makes you wish you could give scores higher than a 10—those are the real perks of judging dressage!
Anne Gribbons was the U.S. Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has traveled and shown 15 of her own horses to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships and in Europe, including the Aachen CDIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games (Argentina) silver medal-winning team for the United States. Gribbons is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Gribbons started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book “Collective Remarks.”
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Oct. 24 & 31, 2022, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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