A Western dressage judge’s and trainer’s perspective
Ribbons, scores, end-of-year competition awards—oh my! This can sometimes become the Holy Grail of riders and trainers. Any instructor or judge that tells them they are missing the mark becomes vilified and a pariah of their small horse community. Striking a balance in helping the rider become a better horseman and the horse a healthier, happier mount can be a challenge.
The avid horse lover wants to be a partner and helpmate to their horse. They strive to make the world a better place for horses and glean every bit of information they can from what they perceive as reliable sources. One of those sources is their trainer. But who is the trainer listening to if they want the accolades of showing? The horse show judge is the answer to that question.
I’ve always said that judges are the guardians of the sport, and I believe judges are in a very good position to ensure the correct training and welfare of our horse sport partners. Training will go the way of judging—by that, I mean trainers that chase ribbons will acquiesce to a judge’s performance standards in order to post those “selfies” with ribbons and trophies.
Those performance standards can come in the form of strict adherence to quality of gaits and movements, lack of tension and a harmonious team with a happy horse athlete. They can also come in the form of so-called “Santa Claus” judging by a judge who freely gives high marks to rides they know—or don’t know—are substandard. Perhaps the judge is uneducated or perhaps they want to get hired back again and are afraid to judge correctly.
So do judges take the path of the Grinch or Santa Claus? I believe there is a balance between being stingy with points and sprinkling fairy dust over the movements so the numbers magically multiply.
Trainers and riders are more than their show record. This is the first fact to establish. I know many very good trainers who don’t show but enjoy the process of bringing a horse up through the levels. Unfortunately, I also know many trainers that show an exhausted, poorly trained horse every weekend for self-glory. That same tired schoolmaster/push-button horse is used for rider after rider to get their medals and awards and the rider is left with the false perception that they earned the scores because of their skillful riding. And here is where we must separate the wheat from the chaff as judges because many uneducated riders may choose their trainer based only on their and their students’ show records.
Speaking the truth in love, as I put it, means that the latter group of trainers and riders will hear kindly, but firmly, that they are not meeting standards and need to go home and get help with the basics. If all judges remain true to their craft, the cycle of endless rewards for substandard performance will halt and trainers will make an effort to improve their education. However, judges must stand united. If some throw high points at anyone who enters the ring and others remain diligent, the ribbon chasers will show under the judge who is more lenient. These are the facts of horse show life.
For our part, judges must remove any memory bias and judge what is in front of us. That means if a pair that normally does an outstanding job in the arena has a bad day, the scores should reflect that.
Our sport is one that has a large community of dressage enthusiasts with a very educated eye. They know a bad ride when they see one—no matter who the rider is. The judge is the horse and rider’s ally, not their enemy. An ally gives honest analysis of the good and the bad in a performance. We can make a difference for the better in the horse community by remaining fair, unbiased and, most of all, kindly honest.