Brian Ross has judged and officiated at the biggest events on nearly every continent for the last 35 years, but on Nov. 17 he judged his last ride at the Full Moon Farm Horse Trials in Finksburg, Md.
And while that last rider may have forgotten her final salute during her Introductory test, the eventing community certainly won’t forget the contributions Ross has made as a judge, course designer and official.
Ross, who estimated he travels between 30 and 35 weeks per year, is hoping to spend more time at his farm in Fairfield, Va., with his wife of 32 years, Penny.
“I felt sort of homeless some of the time,” he said. “There’s just so much I missed out on. I just want to be involved and have a normal life. It gets very lonely out on the road. The time was just right.”
Brian, who’s originally from England, began his judging career in the United States in 1978 after he was encouraged by several of his mentors to look towards the future in case he wasn’t able to make a living as a rider.
“I was never a good enough rider to be an Olympic-caliber rider, by any means,” he said. “[Col. Bengt Ljungquist] thought I had a good eye for teaching and judging, and he encouraged me. Initially it was just dressage because there was no such thing as an eventing license. When the eventing license came along, it was Roger Haller who encouraged me to do that. My very first FEI competition, I was invited to officiate at the Essex Three-Day in 1988. The Federation had put my name forward and thought I had the ability to do that.”
In total, Brian earned his U.S. Equestrian Federation [then the American Horse Shows Association] ‘S’ dressage license, ‘R’ eventing license, ‘r’ eventing course designer license and ‘R’ eventing Technical Delegate license. He also earned a Fédération Equestre Internationale three- and four-star eventing judging license and a one-star stewarding license, which allowed him to judge and officiate at the world’s top competitions.
Brian, 65, judged the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials CCI**** (Great Britain) and the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials CCI**** (Great Britain) twice each. He remembered judging at Badminton for the first time in 1995, the year Bruce Davidson won with Eagle Lion.
“Badminton was probably the most exciting,” he said. “It was the most nervous I’d ever been. It was the first time I’d seen the screens and the crowds. All of a sudden you have 12,000 people watching. To judge Bruce and have him end up winning was a very emotional time. I always admired him for what he had done.”
Brian also judged the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany. He’s judged the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** several times and has officiated or judged at many of the United States’ most prestigious three-days.
“[Sydney] was one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “I used to babysit [individual gold medalist David O’Connor]. To have him ride the test of his life at the Sydney Olympics with me as one of the judges was really neat. I was holding onto my seat thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I hope the other two judges are feeling the same as I am as far as the scores,’ because he was getting 8s and 9s. When the scores all flashed up at the end of the ride, I was the middle judge of the three, so I was quite relieved.”
Brian relived another moment at the 2006 WEG when he had a close call. “It’s just such as amazing venue,” he said. “It’s right in the middle of town. I got to watch all the other disciplines. The musical freestyle ran late one night, and I overslept and almost missed the horse inspection. I went without shaving!”
When asked which venue was his favorite, he paused, but decided on the Kentucky Horse Park.
“They’re just all so different,” he said. “There’s an aura about [Rolex]. Familiar faces, some of them are younger riders that have come up through the ranks and now they’re riding at Rolex. It’s the pinnacle for so many people in this country.”
As a judge, Brian said he always hoped that he came across as fair and helpful, whether he was judging an Introductory test or a four-star test.
“Riders didn’t have halos,” he said. “I once gave David [O’Connor] 106 penalty points for a ride at Middleburg [Horse Trials, Va., under the previous scoring system]. I tried not to discourage. Sometimes it was a little hard. I enjoyed filling out the sheets and writing as much as I could at the bottom to give them some pointers. Phillip Dutton once said to me early on, when he’d been over here a year or two, about the only lessons he got were reading the tests. He thought my comments were insightful and useful.”
Although Brian will be out of the judges’ box, he’ll be keeping busy with Penny at home. They have 54 acres of farmland that they’re hoping to cultivate, and they’ll also stay busy gardening, beekeeping, wreath-making and organizing schooling shows and the Virginia Horse Trials, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.
Brian also enjoys hunting and competitive trails rides and is looking forward to traveling to Honduras next spring for a mission trip.
“I won’t miss the travel, but I will miss meeting the people—the organizers and the volunteers that work tirelessly,” he said. “There are so many great people in the sport. I don’t think the sport is what it used to be, and that’s a little disappointing. There’s some entitlement out there, but the camaraderie is still there most of the time between riders and officials.
“It’s been a great ride,” he continued. “I’ve been to places I never thought I would go—Japan, Australia, Brazil, Germany, France. I had so many people that encouraged me along the way, and it’s time to give some of these others an opportunity. There are a lot of good, young judges coming up. I’ll encourage them as much as I can.”