Sunday, May. 26, 2024

We Should Strive For Subjectivity Plus Integrity

I’d like to expand on the points raised in Lynndee Kemmet’s article “Who Should Qualify To Be A Dressage Judge?” (p. 8) and the general issue of dressage judging. These thoughts are strictly my own, based on many years of judging and teaching.

The Fédération Equestre Internationale governs equestrian sport worldwide but has to answer to the International Olympic Committee, which governs all sports worldwide.


I’d like to expand on the points raised in Lynndee Kemmet’s article “Who Should Qualify To Be A Dressage Judge?” (p. 8) and the general issue of dressage judging. These thoughts are strictly my own, based on many years of judging and teaching.

The Fédération Equestre Internationale governs equestrian sport worldwide but has to answer to the International Olympic Committee, which governs all sports worldwide.

The mandate from the IOC to the FEI is that officials (judges, technical delegates, etc.) must be geographically selected. For example, if there are dressage competitions in South Africa or Asia, then there have to be some officials selected from those regions.

The FEI receives nominations from the respective National Federations for prospective candidate judges. The FEI Dressage Committee is fully aware that some of these judge candidates often may not have the experience and background that judges from Europe or North America have.

In order to give those judges more experience, they have to attend seminars, do co-judging and pass a test.

This formula has the positive effect of allowing those candidate judges to bring this experience and education back to their home countries, thereby improving dressage worldwide.

When FEI officials assign a less experienced judge to a show, they make sure that this judge is paired with an otherwise strong panel. Only very seldom have I seen that one less experienced judge has any great influence on the final results in this situation. Last but not least, there are rules stipulating how many candidate judges can sit on a panel.

We have come a long way in our judging in the United States. In the early years of dressage here, becoming a judge was based on riding and/or training experience. Then, and now, few riders who competed at the highest levels had the time, interest, and/or funds to dedicate to judge training.

Others, many with European riding and training backgrounds, but maybe not at the highest levels, filled the void. We all learned together, and many fine judges came out of these groups. In the past 25 years, our sport has exploded in numbers of riders, shows, judges and rules. With this explosion, our sport became more structured, and requirements for riders and judges increased over time. Today it is a long road from the lowest judge category to the highest. Here is the path:

In order to gain permission to apply to the U.S. Equestrian Federation for enrollment into the r-rated program (judging through second level), the candidate must be a distinguished graduate of the USDF “L” program, must have five scores of 65 percent in fourth level or higher, from four different judges in the past eight years.


To be promoted to an R-rated judge (judging through fourth level), the judge must have been an r-rated judge for at least three years, have judged a minimum of 10 shows, including 40 rides at second level, test 4, and earned five scores of 65 percent or better by showing at Prix St. Georges.

To then be promoted to an S-rated judge (able to judge all levels), the judge must have been an R-rated judge for at least three years, judged at least 40 rides at fourth level at eight shows, and earned five scores of 60 percent or better by showing at the Intermediaire II and Grand Prix levels.

Those S-rated judges who excel, are interested, and still young enough (under 55), have a chance to start over on the FEI ladder starting, first as candidate judges, then international judges, and a few even make it to official status.

I say, probably with some prejudice, that we in the United States have the finest—and most likely toughest—dressage judge training system in the world.

We have to accept the fact that our sport, just like figure skating, gymnastics, diving, etc., can only be subjectively adjudicated.

We just can’t be measured by time or distance. Much has been done to bring judging criteria and standards closer together worldwide, however. The latest FEI project, to be released later this year, is a breakdown of every required movement explaining what should score a zero up to 10.

A move to make dressage more transparent has been going on for some time. At larger shows, riders and the media now receive a printout showing each judge’s score for each movement.

Spectators can now follow each test seeing the judges’ scores on an electronic score board. At major shows, judges get together for a critical analysis if their scores varied more than 5 percent. There are many other examples of how we try to be as objective and transparent as possible. We will never be perfect, but we try very hard.

The suggestion to again have a “test ride” before a class so that judges can get calibrated is an interesting one, but not supported by most show managers as it takes time. To me, a test ride would be great for the benefit of the spectators, if a judge, or other knowledgeable person, would give a running commentary to get the spectators primed for things to come.

The suggestion that judges should not only be riders but also trainers is a laudable one. Unfortunately, the pressures of time, money, and opportunity only seldom allow a rider/trainer also to spend the considerable time to learn to judge properly.


We have some notable exceptions in the two ladies (Hilda Gurney and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker) mentioned in the previous article. Also, we have ample proof that not every rider/trainer is destined to become a good judge sitting at C. All are excellent from the bleachers. But it takes years of experience to properly and quickly evaluate what one sees, compare against the standard, assign a numerical value, and to make a descriptive comment.

I recognize, however, that we might be losing out on some potential dressage judging talent due to the current demanding requirements to become a judge. I would be willing to champion the idea of a “fast track” for truly qualified riders to become judges. Let me know who you are, and I will take it to the USEF Dressage Committee.

The suggestion made by Klaus Balkenhol that judges should be able to ride the young horses they are judging, unfortunately, goes against “the law of bounce.” Older riders and judges just don’t bounce as well as they once did, and young horses present the most potential for proving that!

I fully agree with the comments made by Susan Dansby-Phelps regarding better communication between riders and judges. When I judge in other parts of the world, there are always opportunities for riders and judges to get together and talk. Here in the United States, this is seldom the case.

The reason given is that “riders might influence the judges.” What nonsense! Most of us love to talk to riders, just not on our 10-minute break on the way to the bathroom.

I can’t agree with Susan that riders are ‘punished’ for making comments that ‘upset’ judges. Most of the judges at a larger show don’t know most of the riders and would have no knowledge what a particular rider had to say about them unless it was said directly to the judge. In that case, if done properly, it could be a learning opportunity for both.

To preclude any “local area personality conflicts,” riders should encourage show management to hire judges from as far away as possible. This might add a little to the show expense, but it will greatly add to the confidence in the scores received.

It all comes down to the very basics. Our sport is based on rules passed down through generations. These rules are the standards to which horses need to be trained, and they are the same standards against which judges have to evaluate a performance. There will always be some subjectivity in judging, but as long as this subjectivity is coupled with integrity, it’s the best system we can have.

Axel Steiner

Axel Steiner, San Marcos, Calif., has been involved with dressage most of his life, with judging and teaching his primary activities in recent years. He holds the highest judging cards in the U.S. Equestrian Federation (S-rated) and the Fédération Equestre Internationale (O-rated). So far, he’s presided in 31 countries and was on the judging panels for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2003 Pan American Games (Santa Domingo) and the 2005 FEI World Cup Finals (Nev.).




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