I have heard my students and other competitors ask this question of me and of others. As a competitor for over 30 years, I never knew what went on at “judge’s school” or “behind closed doors.” Showing always was a tense endeavor for me but I love the rush and the idea of having defined goals to reach. I didn’t really contemplate what it takes to become a judge and how one maintains the right standards for objective judging. Let me assure you that judges have a difficult job and we take it very seriously. We sit for days on end in conferences, clinics and meetings discussing how to align ourselves into objective standards in a very subjective sport. Each of us have a different background and, sometimes, different ideas about how best to promote dressage. This leads to lively discussions but. at the end of the day, we all want American dressage to be among the best in the world.
If you are showing for the first time, competing a new horse or just moving up to the next level, it might be helpful to know how things appear from the judge’s box. I have come up with my “Top 10 List” of what judges want from you, the rider. It is in no way an all-inclusive list. I highly recommend hiring a professional to help you prepare for competitions and coach you at the show as well. Even if you can’t afford full training, it is best to have some assistance in navigating this endeavor, which is steeped in tradition and is governed by rather strict guidelines. I also advise you to read the latest edition of the “USEF Rule Book.” As a licensed official, I carry one with me at shows and quiz myself on plane rides or in between classes at horse shows. The rules are always changing and it is my job to know them. You should know them too.
1) Know the “Purpose” of the Test you will be showing. It sounds rather basic but if you read the purpose of the test and you are not nodding your head in agreement with the principles expressed and the fact that you and your horse are proficient at these skills, then you should not show that level. Print a copy of the test and read through the “Purpose” at the top and the directive ideas for each movement. If these words don’t describe your ride, then you should not show that test yet. It can serve as a driving force to your daily training, however.
2) Don’t show a level that is too difficult for you or your horse. I have actually heard a trainer say to her student, “Your horse has no piaffe or passage, but go ahead and show the Grand Prix because you have all the other parts.” What!!!!!????? If your horse cannot perform ALL the movements of a given test without difficulty, then please don’t show that level. It shows disrespect to the judge but, more importantly, your poor horse is trying to do a job that it either can’t do or is not ready to do. Also, if your horse is capable of showing at Prix St. Georges but you have never shown or don’t know the correct aids for a half-pass, please start at a lower level. The tailcoat is an elegant “rite of passage” for the dressage rider but it must be earned. That’s what makes it so special.
3) Know the patterns of the test. At the national levels, you can have a caller for the test. If you are nervous or new to showing, I recommend it. As a judge, I can tell you that it does not affect your score. Even if you have a caller, make sure you know the test so that you don’t get flustered because you can’t hear the instructions or because the caller told you to turn too late. If however, you do have an error, brush it off. It only has to affect one score and you can still do well.
4) Be as accurate as you possibly can. Once you have mastered the movements, really work on the precision of the patterns so they look crisp from an aerial viewpoint. Sloppy circles and drifting centerlines are among the most expensive sins at the lower levels. If your horse is disobedient, do your best to get back on course as quickly as possible. Don’t add extra circles if you can help it. There isn’t a “do-over” clause in judging unless we ring the bell or blow the whistle indicating an error has occurred.
5) Never talk during your ride. Use of voice is considered an error so don’t “let us catch you” clucking or speaking. If you are certain I can’t hear you and you are at the other end of the arena, then that is a risk you take, but I can’t ignore it if it’s right in front of me. After your final salute, it is customary to pat your horse and say “thank you” to the judge.
6) Do greet the judge and scribe when you enter the show area and prepare to enter the show arena. The scribe is responsible for confirming that your bridle number matches the one on the test sheet, so ride in front of the judge’s box so that the scribe can see it. If it is not visible from her seat, tell the scribe your number. A simple “Good morning! Number 123 for the First Level Test 2” is a sufficient greeting. Don’t ask us how we like the weather or the color of your jacket. We want to stay on schedule and we may be writing final comments from the last ride, which requires our concentration. Don’t be offended if we don’t look up at you. We do our best but some of us are in a “zone” when writing helpful comments to competitors.
7) Be polite. Check in with the ring steward and don’t make the steward chase you down. Always answer if the videographer asks you if you would like a video of your ride. A “yes” or “no thank you” is much appreciated. Also, if there is a TD or equipment check staff member checking your equipment after your ride, please be courteous.
8) Be on time. This is self-explanatory. Judges really don’t like to eliminate competitors but coming in late is disrespectful. If there are scratched rides before you or you see that the judge and scribe are in the box, you may ask to ride earlier. However, don’t assume that this is possible because the judge may need a bathroom break before your ride or she may need to fill out paperwork for the show officials.
9) Take care in your appearance. There are a lot of stunning show clothes options and fine tack to choose from these days and it can be overwhelming if you are on a budget. Don’t feel that you must purchase the latest and greatest to score well. Judges want to see that good care has been taken in the preparation of a dressage team. This means that your horse should be in good weight, well-groomed, neatly braided and healthy. Your equipment should be clean and functional. Your clothes should fit you well and hair should be contained as neatly as possible.
10) Don’t punish your horse with your aids. I put this one last because it is the one thing I dislike above all else. Abusive hands on an obedient horse make my blood boil! A horse show is designed to “show” all that is good about our sport. Never yank a horse in the mouth unless your safety is in peril. Do not ride with spurs so long and legs so unsteady that the horse takes a jab in the ribs for every stride it takes. If your horse is disobedient and resistant, there are training methods to discourage this behavior that can be implemented in the warm-up ring or at home. Do not pick a fight with your horse in the show ring. If you are so new to riding that you don’t know if you are hurting your horse, then you should employ a trainer to help you. Remember that these animals could kill us easily but they choose to be submissive. We have no right to abuse their trust.
Most of the judges you will encounter have shown themselves and know that things don’t always go as planned but with some planning and preparation, you can have an enjoyable experience. Judges are trained to look out for the welfare of the horse and reward good riding and training. Work on establishing the basics and be proud to go down the centerline with your horse. We want showing to be a good experience for you and for your horse.
Jennifer Benoit is a licensed USEF judge, USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold Medalist, and Grand Prix competitor with 30 years of experience riding, training and competing. She specializes in using correct training while being fair and honest to help riders set and achieve their goals. She and her husband, Chris, own Seahorse Stables, LLC, of Wellington, FL, and offer performance horse sales, boarding, training, clinics, instruction and certified appraisals in a tranquil setting ideally located near all the competition venues. She specializes in the training, development, conditioning, fitness and performance of dressage athletes and believes riding should be comfortable and enjoyable for both horse and rider. Find her at www.seahorsewellington.com.