From The Magazine: What Does It Mean To Be A "Tough" Judge?

May 7, 2019 - 2:14 PM

It’s not uncommon for competitors to label a judge tough. Sometimes they’re frustrated by low scores, or they’re upset about comments that feel discouraging. Riders may even seek out shows where those judges aren’t officiating. But is it the judge’s job to be encouraging? Why do so-called “tough” judges feel it’s valuable to give realistic and honest scores and feedback? Do their comments vary depending on the experience level and ability of the pair in the ring? We chatted with three experienced judges to get their takes.

We’ve reprinted Axel Steiner’s response below. For the other two perspectives, check out the May 6 & 13, 2019 Dressage Issue.

It all boils down to “there’s no such thing as a tough judge.” There are only judges who judge to the standard. And if you have an established standard over many years of judging, then you judge to that standard, and that standard goes for everybody—it’s for professionals; it’s for amateurs; it’s for kids, whoever—there’s only one standard, and it’s worldwide.

The issue is that sometimes people stray a little bit from the established standard, and those are loved because the high score is always right. That’s unfortunately not doing the rider or the sport any good.

I’ve heard many times, “Oh, we should have a standard for amateurs; we should have a standard for Morgans; we should have a standard for spotted ponies named Susie.” It’s tough enough to just have one standard, and we’re working very hard to try to maintain that standard and establish that standard and be as precise as possible. Do we make mistakes? Absolutely we make mistakes, but hopefully now the mistakes are a point or a half a point per movement.

Most of the time if you look around at the judging, the scores are getting really nice and close together. Sometimes when you have only one judge officiating then things go a little bit haywire. I’m a big advocate for panel judging. I’ve been saying for years and years that the only way  the rider can get a fair shake is to have a panel of judges.

I definitely change my comments a little bit between judging a pro and an obvious person that needs some help. I’m not going to pretend to tell Steffen Peters how to ride a half-pass, but I might say in this particular half-pass maybe the flexion to the left was better than the right or something like that. Otherwise we don’t have to make a whole lot of comments to that level.

But to a less experienced rider, I’ll try to make helpful hints without “teaching.” As judges we’re not supposed to teach. Some of us, and I’m included in that, cheat a little bit on that. Sometimes in the collective marks at the bottom of the test, I make some suggestions. Sometimes it’s fairly direct: “Learn to sit; practice your seat,” “Become less reliant on your reins in a half-halt; not only pull, but give.”

The rider has to be able to read a little bit between the lines because we cannot write the great American novel because time does not permit that. I know it works because over the years I’ve had many, many riders come back to me and say, “Thanks for the comment; it was very helpful. It really worked. I did better in the next class.” So we try to be helpful.

Sometimes we have to be a little more forceful, and sometimes it’s a little tricky. If somebody hurts the horse, sometimes you have to speak up. I know I do, and maybe somebody doesn’t like that, but if you start mistreating a horse, then you probably have to be a bit firmer in the collective marks and say, “Hey, you need to stop that.” But it’s meant as a constructive criticism. As judges we have to speak for the horse, and if the horse is hurting, sometimes we have to speak a little bit louder.

Some judges fall away from the standard, but it’s normally the judge who does not judge very many good horses. After a while, if you don’t judge a lot of good horses, all of a sudden a mediocre horse looks good—that happens; that’s human nature.

The more you judge, the more you see the standard, and you see the difference. I don’t think anybody out there on purpose tries to cheat. Some people try to be very nice because they want to be invited back. Some people like to judge a lot, and they want to be invited back, and they want to be loved. Well, we’re not there to be loved; we’re there to be judges, and we’re trying to make sure we have the right score and also the right order in a class. The best horse should win, and the second should be second, etc., with the right score.


Axel Steiner

A retired five-star Fédération Equestre Internationale judge, Axel Steiner has been judging for more than 50 years and is an active U.S. Equestrian Federation S judge, USEF L faculty member and clinician. A native of Wiesbaden, Germany, Steiner came to the United States in the early 1960s. He became a five-star judge in 1988 and has officiated FEI World Cup Finals, Pan American Games and Olympic Games, as well as at many U.S. championships. He is a founding member of the U.S. Dressage Federation, was a longtime member of the USEF Dressage Committee and is a current member of the USDF L Program Committee. He also commentates for television and livestreams. He lives in San Marcos, California, with his wife, Terri Miller, an accomplished equestrian photographer and artist.


This is an excerpt from the article “Ask 3: What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Tough’ Judge,” which appears in the May 6 & 13, 2019 Dressage Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, with perspectives from Jayne Ayers and Natalie Lamping, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.

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