Saturday, Apr. 13, 2024

Who Should Qualify To Be A Dressage Judge?

It’s long been the complaint of dressage riders that judges are biased and unfair. Now riders are wondering how much hands-on experience a judge should have before he picks up his pen.


It’s long been the complaint of dressage riders that judges are biased and unfair. Now riders are wondering how much hands-on experience a judge should have before he picks up his pen.

The judging conundrum: How do you encourage more objectivity and consistency in judging a subjective sport? There are many answers to this question, but one has increasingly found a voice around the dressage arena—increase the qualifications required to earn a judge’s license.

This is an issue that’s also received much attention lately because U.S. Dressage Team Coach Klaus Balkenhol has frequently asked it.

“It’s a question that occupies everybody in the world,” he said.

Balkenhol’s argument—and that of other riders who share his view—is that unless judges have the experience of showing at the levels at which they judge, they have no reference point from which to understand the process riders have endured to reach that show ring.

As a result, riders have, for some years, lodged complaints against judges with no, or limited, show experience.

The complaints have not fallen on deaf ears, at least not in the United States. Here, U.S. Equestrian Federation officials responded to those complaints by requiring judge candidates to have show experience in order to become a judge. But USEF policy does not govern at the international level, which is under the auspices of the Fédération Equestre Internationale. Hence, the debate over the question of whether or not judges, in order to qualify to be a judge, should first have put in their dues in the show ring continues at the international level.

Under the U.S. system for judges, one must have proven ability in the show ring in order to move up the rungs of the judge’s ladder. From the very bottom of the ladder—the USDF “L” judges program—to the top rung—that of S-rated judge—show experience is required. The bulk of rider criticism is directed at judges at the FEI level, because there are a number of FEI judges who lack experience showing and training at the levels they judge.

“The judge should be able, in reality, to ride what he is judging, but not many judges have done that. Especially when it comes to young horses, they don’t have that experience. If they had the experience of riding what they’re judging, they would have a much better understanding of how it should be,” said Balkenhol.

“I don’t want you to misunderstand me and think that I am saying that a judge who is judging a Grand Prix horse must be able to ride that particular horse and do an Olympic test,” he added. “I am saying, for example, that at a lower level—at a basic level—judges should be able to ride that particular type of horse at that level.”

A number of U.S. judges agree with the view expressed by Balkenhol, and several admitted they’d like to see other nations and the FEI adopt the U.S. model.

“I really think judges should have competitive experience because without it, they aren’t sympathetic enough to what the rider goes through,” said Hilda Gurney, an FEI-level I-rated judge and rider/trainer based in Moorpark, Calif. “The amount of time and work it takes to find, train, maintain and show a horse at the upper levels is astounding. And too many judges forget this. It’s important that judges know what riders go through to get to that show.”

Gurney noted she’s pessimistic the U.S. view will make inroads into FEI thinking, considering that no American sits on the five-member FEI Dressage Committee.

“There are only five people representing dressage and all but one are European,” she said. The fifth committee member is Japanese.

Charlotte Bredahl-Baker, who, like Gurney is an experienced judge and also a rider and trainer, said she understands the concern of riders with regard to judges having competitive experience.

“Judges who have ridden at the level they are judging have a better understanding for how difficult it is and therefore, are usually more empathetic in their judging,” said Bredahl-Baker, a USEF S-rated judge based in Santa Ynez, Calif. “I think judges who have never ridden at the level they are judging sometimes can be too nitpicky.”

Communication Is Critical
Despite these U.S. efforts to address the concerns riders have raised about the qualifications of judges, charges of bias and prejudice remain. And a far larger number of riders may believe they exist than some would like to think.

Riders are reluctant to express their views publicly because judges might then penalize them in the show ring—a charge judges are quick to deny. Riders who are willing to go on the record note that issues such as objectivity, prejudice and judges’ qualifications are frequent topics of conversation among riders.

“We riders are always talking about how judging can be made more objective,” said Suzanne Dansby-Phelps, an FEI-level rider based in Atlanta, Ga. “But it won’t be easy coming up with an objective system, partly because it’s about having control and power. I think riders need to be more vocal, but they’re afraid.”

Still, Dansby-Phelps said communication, not only between riders, but also between riders and judges, is key to addressing the question of how the system of judging can be made as objective as possible.


“It’s our job as riders and trainers to bring the discussion to the table and openly communicate in order to make this a better sport for everyone,” she said. “People need to feel the sport is as objective as possible in order for it to grow.”

Although riders praise USEF officials for addressing the issue of judges’ qualifications, they also note that only part of that issue has been addressed. For example, said Gerhard Politz, the USEF may have addressed the question of a judge’s show experience, but what of training? That, according to him, is a “whole other kettle of fish.”

“One should have experience training several different horses to Grand Prix rather than showing one or two. I think it’s unfortunate that few of the judges who have shown to upper level have also actually trained horses to those levels,” said Politz, an FEI-level rider and trainer based in Flintridge, Calif.

It’s not inconceivable, he said, for someone to buy a trained horse and then show it to get the scores needed to fulfill the criteria for entering a judge program. The real question is: Does this person know how to train a horse? A proven record as a trainer should be added to the list of qualifications for judge candidates.

“I would respect a judge much more if I knew that he or she had actually trained horses to that level, whether or not they’ve actually shown,” Politz said.

Deborah Hausman, a dressage rider and breeder who co-owns Quailhurst Farm, Sherwood, Ore., agreed.

“I do feel that it’s a bit unfair when a rider has actually gone through the process and trained these horses and then has a judge who has never experienced that himself being your critic,” she said. “I’d also respect a judge more who has been a trainer.”

Consistency Counts
The issue of judges’ qualifications is in many ways just a part of the larger debate about dressage show judging. And it’s a debate that may never end. The sport has long been plagued by the problem that it, like other sports such as figure skating and gymnastics, is one where complete objectivity in judging may not be possible.

In show jumping, the horse either clears the fence or it doesn’t. The judging of dressage is nowhere near as clear. Whether one horse’s passage should score higher than another is to some degree, a matter of opinion.

Those who judge defend the current system, noting that improvements have been made. “I think the judging is much more objective than it used to be, because we get a lot more training and more specific guidance for each movement,” Bredahl-Baker said.

Bredahl-Baker, who began judging in 1985, said she’s witnessed tremendous efforts in the past 20 years to get judges on the same page. When she was judging in the 1980s, judges had much more leeway in scoring than they do today. But through the use of educational clinics and seminars for judges, scoring has become much more consistent.

“The guidelines for judges are now much more strict, more narrow,” she added.

Despite these efforts to get judges on the same page, competitors noted they still witness enough differences among judges to justify their view that judging remains more subjective than it ought to be.

“I do agree that riders complain about judges, but [they] have no idea how difficult it is to do justice to everybody. I take my hat off to those judges who do a good job. I understand it’s not an easy job by any means. But I think that some things can be done to make judging more on the same page,” Politz said.

There may be strict guidelines for judges, but being human, they still have their preferences and these do show up in the scoring, he said.

“As an example, there are very strict criteria for a half-pass and all of the judges know what they are. The FEI rules say the shoulder should be slightly leading and some judges do like the shoulder to be slightly ahead of the haunches. However, others value the ‘parallelism,’ ” Politz said.

“Another example is the flying change,” Politz continued. “FEI rules say in the flying change, one should allow the horse to go a bit more forward in his canter in the changes. But I’ve been judged that when I encourage my horse to go a little bit more forward, some of the judges make a comment that I need to keep collection. Other judges like that the horse goes more forward because it enhances the quality of the changes. So, although it’s all written down in the book, you can set an accent over how it’s interpreted.”

Bredahl-Baker said riders ought to be as empathetic to judges as they want judges to be to them. And, in fact, just as riders make a request that judges share with them the experience of riding and training horses, she said more riders should get some experience at judging.

“Riders who are very critical of judges should try judging a schooling show, just to appreciate how hard judging is,” she said. “There are so many things to take into consideration.

“As an example, consider the tempi changes,” she explained. “The judge must think: Were the changes clean? Were they straight? Were they expressive? Were they short or completely through? Did the horse swish his tail? Were the changes centered over X? Was he on the bit? Was his mouth open? Was his croup high? Was he tense or relaxed? How was the quality of the canter? Did the rider sit quiet? These are just some of the things the judge must take into consideration in just one movement.”


In fact, most riders don’t seem to dispute that judging is a difficult job, but they do have their suggestions for further improvement. And Dansby-Phelps said riders need to become more vocal in expressing themselves and also that communication between riders and judges should increase.

Hausman, who is currently going through the USDF “L” judges program and has judged schooling shows, agreed that there’s nothing easy about judging. “I’d agree that it’s not possible to be entirely objective,” she said. “Subjectivity is part of human nature.”

She suggested more transparency in scores, such as posting riders’ full scores so that everyone can see how each judge scored every movement, rather than just posting overall scores for movements.

Politz said that video could be more widely used, especially in forums where judges and riders can interact and discuss how the videotaped rides were scored. He also sug-gested that the idea of “test riders” be
revisited, pointing out that such a ride was used in the 1984 Olympics. In that particular case, judges scored a ride as if it was part of the competition and then compared notes to be sure they were all in sync before the actual competition began.

For his part, Balkenhol doesn’t expect change to occur any time soon, but he said judging, and particularly the qualifications required for it, is a topic that ought to be out there and widely discussed. Certainly, he’s doing his part to put the issue out there in the public realm to the chagrin of some judges.

“Change takes time. No one expects this to change from one day to the next, but the subject has to be put on the table and discussed in order for change to come about,” he said.

Is There A Judging Bias?
We love them when we win, but all too often we hate them when we don’t.

The charges levied by riders against judges are numerous—breed bias (this one kept riders of Paints and Appaloosas away from the dressage ring for years), size bias (judges don’t see good things in small packages), type bias (either type of body or type of movement), movement bias (judges just don’t like the pirouette performed “that” way), riding bias (judges dislike that “style” of riding, which often leads to judges don’t like “that” rider).

The dressage judge is especially easy to blame when results don’t go the way we’d hoped, and all too often these feelings are manifested in words and actions.

For their part, judges deny such biases exist—or at least they note not at the level that riders believe. They may be right, but truth and perception are often two very different things.

The belief that breed bias exists does keep many horses out of the show ring and has led a number of breed organizations to hold their own dressage shows so their breeds would have a “fair chance” in the dressage ring.

“What riders and owners often perceive as ‘bias’ toward their non-traditional dressage horses is the result of an honest evaluation of their horses’ performance against the established standards for dressage,” said FEI O-rated judge Axel Steiner.

“These standards are clearly spelled out in the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the Fédération Equestre Internationale rules for dressage.”

While dressage training is universal and beneficial to all horses, these standards are based on the European-type warmblood. This type of horse has been selectively bred with the standards of dressage in mind.

“Think of other types of specialists in equestrian competition—would the 17-hand warmblood with the floating trot excel in cutting against Quarter Horses that have been bred to work cows? Or, in a 100-mile endurance race against a talented Arabian? Probably not!” Steiner noted.

“I’ve personally judged outstanding examples of non-traditional dressage horses in all levels,” he continued. “These horses are often the exception, however, and their owners and riders should be very proud that through good training and talent their horses can excel in dressage, as well as that for which they were primarily bred.”

Steiner further explained: “If, for example, their horses have good overstride in the walk, a balanced ground-covering extended trot, can do balanced flying changes, and sit in a pirouette, then they will score high. If, on the other hand, they do some of these things not quite in accordance with the established standards, then the score will be lower. This has nothing to do with bias, just with the fulfillment of our standards.”

Editor’s note: For addi-tional thoughts from Axel Steiner, see his Horse-man’s Forum “We Should Strive For Subjectivity Plus Integrity,” p. 16.

Lyndee Kemmet




Follow us on


Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse