Monday, May. 29, 2023

The Joy Of Judging

Our columnist has a passion for judging but wonders if some bureaucratic changes will diminish her future enjoyment of this vocation.

In the wake of attending the International Judges Meeting in Vienna, Austria, in October, I had time on the plane ride home and plenty of reason to contemplate what motivates you to become a dressage judge and what keeps you going.

I consider myself a trainer and competitor first and a judge second. Yet I have now spent more than 30 years in the judge’s box.

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Our columnist has a passion for judging but wonders if some bureaucratic changes will diminish her future enjoyment of this vocation.

In the wake of attending the International Judges Meeting in Vienna, Austria, in October, I had time on the plane ride home and plenty of reason to contemplate what motivates you to become a dressage judge and what keeps you going.

I consider myself a trainer and competitor first and a judge second. Yet I have now spent more than 30 years in the judge’s box.

Like all of my colleagues, I’ve endured numerous hours in the cold rain and the hot sun, beaten by wind and eaten by insects. I have traveled thousands of miles with everything but ox cart to get to unreachable destinations on canceled flights, slept in horrid motels and suffered donuts for breakfast and hot dogs for lunch. I have also been treated to luxury accommodations and outstanding courtesy from organizers who go way beyond the call of duty.

Although the travel has taken me to exciting places I otherwise may not have seen, it sometimes sounds more exotic than it is, because time is tight, and one dressage arena looks much like another.

Judges meet a lot of new people, and most of them expect a performance from the judge that will please them and fulfill their expectations. Organizers want to accommodate the competitors, the sponsors and the media and stay in the black. The riders want to win, although, unfortunately, only one of them can do that per class, and thus the judge will disappoint most riders at every show.

When judging the important European shows, especially those leading to championships and Olympics, the pressure can be enormous on the judges to produce their final scores in record time for the computers to spit them out before the horse leaves the ring, to be within very close range of each other in percentages, and to have the horses in the same order.

In the past several years, the attitude in Europe has changed toward judges from pleasant and welcoming to critical, demanding and sometimes even hostile. Competitors complain, trainers threaten and the media is sometimes downright abusive in their reports.

Before the Olympics in Hong Kong, there were some strong winds blowing about the jury, and although that same jury did a very decent job, the European dressage world is still acting as if they are trying to rid themselves of what they consider the ignorant, annoying and prejudiced people they no longer care if they please with their ride.

Changes In The Air

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Fédération Equestre Internationale officials are trying hard to accommodate the critics without being forced to fire all of their dressage officials.

In reaction, an ambitious evaluation process has been devised, using statistics. It has retroactively, and will in the future, evaluate the performances of all the FEI dressage judges.

The evaluation is based on how close the scores are between all five judges. This process is proposed as a way to prove to the critics that FEI judges are indeed on track and not only know their job but are also fair and even handed in their judging.

Naturally, this can cut both ways, because if judging is all about five people always saying the same thing, why have five, and not one judge instead?

And if having exactly the same score for every single ride is all that’s important, why, then, do judges get encouraged to “judge their conviction,” and “use the whole scale” in every seminar and forum they attend?

There’s definitely a catch-22 here. Even though the evaluation system is being proposed by the FEI as a “protection” for the judges, the records will be interpreted and acted upon by the FEI Bureau, and judges who are not up to standard (meaning deviating more than 2 percent from their colleagues on a regular basis) will be warned and possibly removed from the active list of judges. So much for individual thought and the concept that the odd score could, on occasion, be the only correct one. 

Exams every three years are another novelty being proposed, as well as a much more extensive education program for the judges.

Education is always welcome, especially since it’s not been a strong agenda in the FEI in the past. We used to have to fight to get into the sparse seminars offered, and all judges I know will gladly receive more education.

Exams are fine as well, but not if they are designed to remove you from your status if you fail, as was indicated in the presentation in October. Once you have passed your entrance exam to another level of judging, you should keep your position, unless you have broken some golden rule.

Being “demoted” just because you did not pass an exam is like taking away a doctor’s license or disbarring a lawyer for the same reason. Instead, you should be allowed to retake the exam until you pass, or give up. And, by the way, someone pointed out to me the fact that it takes a minimum of 20 years of practicing and exams to become an FEI I-rated judge but only 12 years to become a doctor. But, of course, that’s only brain surgery.

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Our Motivations

Both as a competitor and as an official, it’s my experience that every judge does his or her best to serve the sport, and most are extremely aware of their responsibility toward the competitors. Weak judges need guidance and training more than threats and pressure, and those who do not improve will eventually not get asked to judge. Thus the system clears them out.

Sitting at the meeting, which was attended by 63 international judges of all “denominations” (since we will soon have stars instead of letters as our trademark), I thought about what motivates us to continue to judge in the face of lack of respect and sometimes unfair criticism.

The payment of 100 Euros a day? (About $135). The dubious “status” of sitting in judgment? Because you want to spend weekends away from home to live in suitcases, sit in airports and go for long drives? No, it’s because the actual challenge of making all those decisions in record time while trying to sort out the excellent from the mediocre becomes a game of passion. Intensely watching the animals we are so fascinated by perform and living their moments of triumph and tragedy can be an exhilarating experience only another dressage judge can relate to.

In all endeavors, some of the players are more accurate, skilled and perceptive than others. This is also true about judges. I have several “idols” among dressage judges, whom I look up to because of their special knack of always making sense in their judging, but the one I admire the most is long gone.

Not only did Jaap Pot have the most incredible memory and clear assessment of every horse he judged, but he also had the real “feel” for judging that is much the same as a rider’s feel for a horse. Plus, he was ever enthusiastic and compassionate with helpful comments, whatever your score. He also lived and judged in an era when judges in Europe were appreciated and respected.

I wonder what he would think of the scene there today. 

Anne Gribbons


Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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