Thoughts on dressage and judging

5 Feb

The Spanish Riding School, in its performances, has been held as a benchmark for that which is ‘classical’ about horsemanship. There is something about the uniforms, the chandeliers, the presence of so many white horses half passing across the silent peat-based arena that moves our souls.

As an adult, watching some of those performances on video, more knowledge and experience makes me aware of imperfections: the horses that are inelastic, unfocused, not bent correctly, out of rhythm…

But the magic of SRS is not necessarily  the specific performance; it is the living symbol of a time when horses were not hobby-sport. It dates from a time when a horse was the difference between life and death,on and off the battlefield. Whatever we have learned since those times about shoeing, nutrition,saddles–nothing even begins to compare to what those original horsemen knew about the bond between horse and human.

What makes a dressage performance–what makes any interaction with the horse– something spectacular and memorable, is the demonstration of that bond. That special communication that exists when there is trust as well as talent, and that makes athleticism cross over into art.

The older dressage shows, even up through the Olympics, featured what we now recognize as truly subpar judging. There was no emphasis on any of the modern hallmarks of elasticity, power,expression,as laid over the training scale. There was a lot of chauvinistic,highly irregular judging, culminating in the famous 1960 Olympics when the scores were not announced until several days after the actual performances, and after the judges had argued over films of the performances, trying to find some foundation of agreement.

We may or may n0t have ‘transparency’ yet, but we certainly have a good deal more accountability in judging. Audience and judges are still moved by the magic of true communication, true partnership, although  the words used are more often “harmony” and “rider’s effective use of aids”.

It’s rather like pornography–difficult to define but easy to recognize.

So many ideas have been tried out: judges sitting together; highest and lowest scores removed ; judges watching riders school and factoring in those performances as well as the public competition.

Several times, the IOC stepped in and threatened to remove dressage from Olympic  Games.

Compared to all the above, now may be at least the first golden era of dressage judging. The best judges today are better educated, more professional, less chauvinistic, and more accountable.

In the U.S., we can only marvel at the idea of 7 instead of 5 judges (considering well over 97% of U.S. shows have only one judge); a Judge Supervisory Panel to act as a further safeguard of correct scoring; and half points to make scoring ever more exact.

There is a growing demand to make judging dressage  ever more ‘scientific,’ ever more similar to other subjectively judged sports,such as figure skating and gymnastics. Hopefully,  these efforts  result in better judging.

Equally if not more important , we must make sure  these efforts do not lose sight of the basis for the sport, let alone judging the sport: the bond,the communication, between the two athletes,one human and one equine. Because it is this bond that gets audiences on their feet, not necessarily the best technical performance.



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