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Reflections of an Amateur Dressage Judge
(originally published in the Equiery)

Michael Hillman

If anyone told me five years ago I would one day find myself judging dressage tests at starter horse trials, I would have questioned their mental capacity. Over the last few years however, my appreciation has grown for how important a sound dressage background is to the making of an event horse, and with it, my thirst for learning more about every aspect of this critical phase of eventing.

My initial efforts focused on improving my own performance, but it wasn't until I tried my hand at helping some local kids improve their dressage rides that my current passion for dressage took off. Needless to say, when I was asked to serve as dressage judge at a recent starter event, I jumped at the chance - not because of the enormous amount of money one makes judging dressage - but for the opportunity to learn.

Over the past two years, I've judged three times. I have noticed some reoccurring trends and patterns in basic dressage errors, which if corrected, would greatly improve most scores. These observations include:

Turnout - While braiding and banging tails are not required in eventing, it does show a judge you're willing to go the extra mile to show polish. A nicely turned out horse catches a judge's eye. Riders are judged on how well the horse and rider executes a given movement, and how pleasing they look while executing those movements does impact the score. Needless to say, it's a lot more pleasing to watch a nicely turned out horse than one that looks like it just came out of a field. And while a nicely turned out horse can't guarantee you better marks, especially if your horse is unruly or not up to the job, it sure can't hurt your score. So take the time to turn your horse out properly. In addition, a well turned-out horse may also help improve the all-important collective marks.

Make Eye Contact With The Judge - As you prepare to enter the ring, take a few moments and make eye contact with the judge. Offer them a warm 'good morning', or 'good afternoon' and wait for their response! This may be your only opportunity to let the judge know you're more then a number. Make your eye contact count. Make the judge feel appreciated.

Smile and Reward Your Horse - I have way too many riders execute their test with frowns. No matter how poor your ride, try to keep a smile on your face. If you're frowning, there's a good chance the judge will note it and begin to wonder why, and then begin to look for the reasons. On the other hand, a happy rider is always easier to judge, even when they have a bad test, again, it's the 'appearance thing'. After the test, always give your horse a pat. When a rider rewards the horse, the rider leaves the judge with the impression that the horse listened to them. This is the type of impression you want the judge to have when they score the collective marks.

Focus on Accuracy! - If you take the time to read the criteria you are judged against, accuracy always tops the list. Circles need to be round, not elliptical. Lines need to be straight, not crooked. If the test calls for you to begin your circle at 'B', begin it as your body reaches 'B', not two strides before or two strides after. Making circles round seems to be the biggest issue for most riders. To help accomplish this, if you have access to a dressage ring at home, mark out the circle with lime. While you ride it, note where the 'top' and 'bottom' of the circle comes with regards to the letters on the side of the ring. At an event, ride to the same markers. Too many riders make the mistake of simply following the tracks left by the riders before them. Don't be part of the pack. Ride it right!

Salutes - Don't hurry your salute. When you enter, your salute is your first formal presentation of your horse to the judge. Consider your salute as an opportunity to take a deep breath, to collect your thoughts, to give your horse a chance to size up his surroundings, and to prepare for that all-important first turn. A long salute also serves to give the judge a few seconds to appreciate you and your horse, and by taking your time, you establish in their mind that your test is going to be one of organization and purposefulness. After your final salute, walk towards the judge and once again make eye contact with them. Thank them, and with your smile, let them know you were pleased with your ride.

Don't Fight With Your Horse in the Arena - If your horse doesn't respond properly or misbehaves, don't discipline the horse in the dressage ring. Deal with the situation as best you can at the time. Disciplining should be done at home. During a recent show, I watched one young rider fight the urge to discipline her horse when he was naughty. By resisting the urge to punish him, only a few moments of her test were ruined. But the points she lost in that particular movement were more then made up by the reward she got in the collective marks, for her 'horsemanship'. As a rider, I'd rather have a 'tactfully ridden' comment any day than a chiding from a judge for poor horsemanship.

Free Walk - In far too many tests that I've judged, riders do not allow their horses to take the reins and stretch their heads towards the ground. This is a simple movement that can easily be perfected at home. Whenever you are on your horse and not working in a collected frame, encourage the horse to take the bit and stretch down. If you do this all the time, your horse will instantly take the bit and stretch on your free walk and trot circle in the test. The more they stretch, the better your score. However, don't mistake your horse snatching the bit for a true stretch, and don't allow your horse to plug along. For a good score, a horse should take the bit quietly and gradually. Since at the lower levels the importance of this movement is recognized by a multiplier of 2, it's too critical a part of your test not to perfect at home.

Accuracy - Have I mentioned accuracy yet? If you're not accurate, everything else is a waste of time. To improve the accuracy of your test, have someone watch you practice it. If your accomplish nothing else in your dressage test other than being accurate, you can be sure you'll score will at least put you in the middle of the pack.

Corners - Don't cut your corners! Go as deeply into the corners as you can. The more you can show the judge your horse's ability to bend, the better your marks will be.

Show Transitions - After accuracy, transitions are the next most important factor for a judge in determining a movement's score. If you have a horse that has difficulty doing a lengthening, at least try to show a transition. Before the lengthening, really collect your horse, then during the lengthening, allow your horse to go forward, at the end of the 'lengthening' movement, collect again to show a 'change'. Even if all you get is their normal trot, you'll get a better score then if you hadn't done anything.

Focus on the judges comments, not the score: For a long time I only looked at my test to see whether I received a five or a six on given movement. It wasn't until I truly began to take note of the 'tips' provided by the judge for improving each movement, that the fives and sixes quickly became sevens and eights. To help you interpret what the judge is trying to tell you, always, always, review your test with your coach. While each judge has specific items they look for, a top ride for one judge will almost always be in the top three for another judge. Rider's who learn from judges' comments will quickly find themselves with improving performance and scores.

Pick one aspect of your test, and work on improving it. This spring, I had an opportunity to compete a friend's horse. A review of his dressage tests highlighted a few key areas, which if improved, would greatly improve his standing after dressage. After each event, I concentrated the following week's work on the lowest scored movement. Never once did it fail to improve his score in the next show. As a result, he went from a score of 42 in his first training event, to a 32 in his fifth.

Lastly, for that extra winning margin, keep all your tests in a handy file in your trailer. When you show up at a show and discover your judge is the same one who judged you three events ago, you can quickly review their comments. The chances are pretty good that they'll be looking for the same things event after event, so focus on them and your scores should improve. Forewarned is forearmed.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman