The subject of dressage judging and how the judge arrives at his/her marks is a topic that’s always guaranteed to spark a lively debate among competitors, especially if you’re new to the sport.
In this article, we explain how dressage tests are judged. Also, we suggest some practical ways in which you can gain a clearer understanding of why you received the marks you did.
Who can be a dressage judge?
So, who can be a dressage judge?
In theory, anyone who has ridden at a decent level in affiliated competitions or has a proven track record in training dressage horses and riders can apply to join the judges’ official panel.
Would-be dressage judges are usually required to sit exams and undertake ongoing training to join and remain on the panel.
Also, as a listed dressage judge, you’re required to judge a certain number of affiliated classes every year.
Related Read: How to Become a Dressage Judge (British Dressage)
Qualities of a good dressage judge
So, as well as having the right qualifications and training to do the job, what makes a good dressage judge?
As well as being able to identify flaws in the horse’s way of going, a good dressage judge will have the experience and knowledge to make comments that may guide the rider in how to correct those problems.
A good dressage judge will be fair and impartial.
He/she will mark every combination that comes down the centerline against the same scale of marks, and with no bias toward any horse or rider, from the first competitor to the last.
Good judges always run to time.
There’s nothing more frustrating for a competitor than having their horse ready to go, only to be told that the judge is running late.
A good judge’s comments and marks will always correlate to the official marking scale.
The judge’s comments in the body of the test should relate directly to those in the summation of the overall performance at the bottom of the test sheet and to the collective marks.
Dressage judges should be approachable and friendly, especially if things go wrong.
After all, the judge should understand the mishaps that occur to every rider at some time in their dressage career and be suitable sympathetic.
An experienced dressage judge will have stamina to burn!
Sometimes, the judge must assess up to 50 or more combinations across one class. Every horse and rider should receive the same standard of judging, from the first to the last, and that can mean a five or six-hour stint for the judge!
A good dressage judge knows the rules!
So if something happens during the test, for example, if the horse spooks and leaves the arena, the judge must immediately know what action to take and will apply the rules accordingly.
What is the dressage judge looking for?
So, the judge is looking to see that the horse’s training is progressing correctly in line with the Scales, i.e.,
The judge will apply the Scales of Training to every test, regardless of the level of competition, from the most basic walk and trot tests through to the pinnacle of the Grand Prix. However, the judge’s expectations at each level will be different, and that will be reflected in the marks she awards.
So, regardless of the level of the test she’s judging, the judge is looking to see that:
- The horse works in a clear, regular rhythm, and the pattern of footfalls is correct for the pace. The tempo, or speed, of the rhythm, should not be hurried or too slow.
- The horse should be relaxed and supple, swinging through his back, working forward into an elastic, consistent contact and round frame.
- The horse’s hindquarters should be active, propelling him forward and in an uphill balance.
- The judge expects to see a uniform bend through the horse’s body around circles and through turns, and the horse should move straight and on one track at all times unless performing lateral exercises.
- The horse should be balanced through transitions. At medium level and above, the horse should show clear collection and should carry more weight on his hindquarters.
Also, the horse should be free from signs of mental or physical tension, and he should show no resistance to his rider’s aids. That said, momentary lapses in attention should not be penalized heavily.
How are the marks awarded in dressage tests?
Each movement in every dressage test is marked out of a maximum of 10. Half-marks can also be used, up to a value of 9.5.
Every mark from 0 to 10 correlates to a description of what happened during the movement and relates directly to the judge’s opinion of how well, or not, the exercise was performed.
The scale of marks is applied as follows:
- 0 = not performed
- 1 = very bad
- 2 = bad
- 3 = fairly bad
- 4 = insufficient
- 5 = sufficient
- 6 = satisfactory
- 7 = fairly good
- 8 = good
- 9 = very good
- 10 = excellent
For example, if the judge considers that the movement was done fairly well, she should award a mark of 7.0 or 7.5. However, if the horse shows resistance to the rider’s aids by bucking, rearing, napping, or otherwise being obnoxious, the judge will give a score of 3.0 or lower.
The marks are awarded relative to the level of the test.
For example, a horse that keeps the rhythm, maintains a reasonable balance, and is soft and round into the rider’s contact as he negotiates a 10-meter trot circle, but lacks a bit of bend and could be more uphill in his frame will most likely be awarded a mark of 7 or 7.5 in a novice level test.
However, at medium level where collection and self-carriage are demanded, the same way of going would only receive a mark of 6.0.
The allocation of marks is an area that frequently causes disagreement among competitors and judges alike! Even though all judges receive the same basic training, there will always be an element of subjectivity when it comes to awarding the marks. After all, what one person thinks is fairly good may be deemed to be only satisfactory by someone else!
Related Read: How is Dressage Scored?
What happens if you go wrong?
If the competitor takes the wrong course, the judge will sound the horn or ring the bell to stop the test. The judge will explain where the rider has gone wrong and will tell her from which movement to continue.
At the bottom of the test sheet, the judge will indicate that two marks should be deducted. If the rider makes another error of course, a further four marks are deducted. If the rider goes wrong a third time, she will be eliminated.
Related Reads: What to do if You Make a Mistake During a Dressage Test
How is a dressage test judged?
The judge must be familiar with the test she’s judging so that she knows where each movement starts and ends. The judge must also have a clear understanding of what each movement is there to test and how the movements should be ridden and presented.
Each movement in the dressage test is judged on its own merits, according to the test plan. After each movement, the judge awards a mark and makes comments where necessary. The comments should correlate to the mark that the judge has awarded, and any mark below 7.0 must be commented on.
At the end of the test, the judge considers the horse and rider’s overall performance and awards the collective marks, together with a summary comment.
The collectives are awarded for:
The judge uses the same marking scale to award the rider marks for the collectives, and her marks and summation should clearly relate to what happened during the main body of the test.
Writing for the dressage judge
Of course, no dressage judge can do their best work without an efficient writer or scribe.
As the judge watches the test, a helpful assistant will note the judge’s marks and comments on a dressage score sheet. This leaves the judge free to concentrate on the test performance, without having to look up and down from a piece of paper.
Also, writing for a dressage judge is a great way to learn what the judge is looking for and how they arrive at their marks. Many judges are happy to discuss aspects of a combination’s performance after the test has finished and to answer any questions that their writer has.
Most competitors are astounded by how clearly the judge’s position at C exposes flaws in the horse’s way of going and in the accuracy (or lack of it!) with which the test is presented by the rider.
So, why not ask an event organizer if you can write for a dressage judge, ideally for a test at the level at which you compete? You’ll be amazed by how much you learn!
Riding at dressage test clinics
If you have the opportunity to take part in dressage test clinics, do so!
A dressage test clinic entails riding through a dressage test in front of a judge who will mark your performance.
After the test, you’ll get your sheet back so that you can review the judge’s marks and comments. You’ll then have a short coaching session with the judge so that you can learn how to save marks and produce a better performance.
Dressage judging is undoubtedly a rewarding and fascinating occupation, although it’s not always easy.
You can learn a lot and gain valuable insight into how a dressage test is judged and how you can improve your own performance by writing or sitting-in with a good judge.
Have you ever judged a dressage test? Or do you enjoy writing at dressage competitions? Tell us your story in the comments section below.