Judging in the dressage world has become a matter of concern. From the online forums to the FEI judging seminars themselves, the contention that dressage judging is too subjective and promotes incorrect training techniques has become a rampant topic of debate. Judges are accused of favouring the so-called "dressage breeds" (a.k.a warmbloods) and then within those breeds, they apparently cannot differentiate between flashy versus correct movement.

If you have had the opportunity to scribe for a judge, or shadow a judge, or go to a judges' update or forum, you would be witness to the amount of effort that is being put into objectifying a rather subjective exercise: that of considering and rating a horse's movement against accepted international standards of reference.

Certainly, judging isn't for everyone. Other than the handful of world-renowned judges that make a good living from judging, most judges are dedicated to the job not for the "money" but for the desire to improve the horse, the rider, and ultimately, dressage. It is a task of dedication involving long days, disciplined focus, on-the-spot decision making and criticism from every member of the riding public from riders to people who have never sat on a horse.
How much really goes into judging dressage?The fact that there is a subjective component to judging dressage cannot be denied. Firstly, the judges sitting at different locations around the ring points directly to subjectivity: a judge at C sees a completely different angle than a judge at E. This is why, at the highest levels of competition, there are five judges placed strategically around the ring - the scores are collected from each vantage point and the average is the representation of the overall "picture"that includes opinions from each angle.

Another element of subjectivity includes the score value given to the movement. Like it or not, when one person is scoring a movement, they do have to take a stab at giving it a value. It is possible that one judge sees a 7 when another sees the same movement as a 5. It helps to consider that the different perspective on the movement is a contributing factor to the discrepancy.

With respect to breeds and "types" of horses: dressage isn't a 'breed sport' at all. It just happens that the warmblood breeding programs, particularly those located in Europe, have been more directly focused on producing dressage-specific horses over the past 20-30 years than the other bloodlines. Accusing judges of favouring warmbloods over say, Thoroughbreds or (insert your choice of breed), is as silly as complaining when a farm tractor doesn't "get to" win at NASCAR racing! You get the idea.....

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A similar problem would be evident if you wanted to ask a warmblood horse to do FEI-level reining, or even better - win at 100 mile endurance races. Given the proper training, a warmblood could do a decent sliding stop and rollback. But it would probably never be able to compete against a suitably bred Quarterhorse in terms of picking up speed on a (relatively) small circle in an indoor arena. The length of stride of the WB might be too large and and the knee action too high - he might need a lower and quicker stride to pick up the speed and then sit back into a lope.

Ditto for the endurance race - could a WB go 100 miles? Maybe some horses could be predisposed to travelling that far, but when competing against a small, light, lithe Arabian horse that through specialized breeding over generations, has developed an incredibly efficient air exchange system, the Arabian might have a distinct advantage.

There could be (few and far between) horse breeds other than WBs that can move with the same dedicated dressage-type stride - they need the uphill body outline, the strength and sit-down capability. They need to easily lengthen and compress through the whole body and these days, they need the inborn suspension of the "super horses".

At the lower levels, the playing field might be more even for non-warmblood horses. An accurate, fluidly-executed test might secure higher marks than a sporadically correct test completed by a flashy, "typey" horse. Even though the movement might be spectacular for some movements, if enough errors occur, the less flamboyant but steadier mover could outscore the flashy horse.

However, dressage at the top levels is ALL ABOUT about movement. The assumption at that level is that the training is at par (in general) by all of the competing riders - let's face it, they all have to be strong trainers to get to that level (don't bash me on this one - you can only comment if you are regularly riding at the top of the FEI levels!). Therefore, much of the difference will lie in the suitability of the horses' movements in relation to the requirements of dressage. As the "super horses" improve in their movements, the bar is rising for all the breeds. It's just that the warmbloods are outstanding round movers with suspension.

This is why, at the grass roots levels, the warmblood-cross mare can (in general) get better marks than the QH/TB horse. The first mare simply moves better - more elasticity, better depth of stride, more "throughness", and even more suspension (as little as it might be). Bottom line.

And before people criticize judges and condemn the judging system, they should head off to judging seminars and inform themselves of the requirements of dressage at all levels. They could invest a few years in scribing with different judges, and witness for themselves the decision-making processes that judges go through movement to movement, hour after hour, and sometimes, day after day.

And as wise Morpheus emphatically insisted to Neo in The Matrix,

"Sooner or later you're going to realize, just as I did, there's a difference between knowing the path and walking the path..."

One Comment

  1. The judges I know all work hard at it and do a great job, but that is at a local level. As you go up the tree it seems like things get more calcified – at the last Olympics I stopped watching the dressage because my opinions of which horses looked better or worse were almost exactly the opposite of the judges. I’m no dressage connoisseur but it seemed to me that they were favouring horses with a stiff mechanical action and clear anxiety markers over horses with a smoother, more relaxed way of going.

    Regardless of my opinions, there clearly is a crisis at the top of international Dressage – look at the chaos with the FEI’s dressage board a year or so back and the fallout from that continues. Then there was all the trouble about hyperflexion where, as various distinguished critics of the technique have observed, the FEI judging criteria if they were applied exactly should select strongly against a horse trained in that way. This isn’t a question of breed favouritism, it is a question of simple equine welfare and regardless of the money involved and the level of competition none of us should lose track of that.