I'll Be the Judge of That!

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(All references to people in this blog will be to “her”, not to be sexist, but just because that’s the way I wrote it.  Thank you for not pointing out the inequalities of our sport.)

Recently, a friend was sharing her pre-season schooling show experience with me.  She had not shown in a few years, and wanted to have a good experience where both she and the horse could feel successful.  She and her trainer decided she should take her horse in at a lower level than they were schooling, while still maintaining the higher level of collection they had been working on at home.  This particular trainer is a licensed trainer who has shown in the FEI ring with more than one horse, and has had a more than reasonable amount of success in her career, both in her own riding and with her students.  She is a trainer that I would trust her opinion of what was going on, who is not known to sugar coat things, but is also someone who will not steal your success from you when you do it right.

So we were speaking of this test…at a schooling show….outside of season.  My friend was really pleased with her test – a good start, no?  As the rider, she was able to point out the 2 major oopses she had – sounds reasonable.  She was excited about her ability to think through her corners, and not just hold her breath and pray; now we’re rolling!  And to top off the dessert, her TRAINER was PLEASED!!!!!  How many times does this “perfect storm” of realization, planning, thinking and doing come together into a test that an AA can be pleased with, and can share that happiness with her trainer?  I was as happy for her as she was telling me all the details, knowing how they have struggled through different issues, saddles, tack, etc., etc.

Only to have her tell me she got a 52%.

Excuse me?  I thought you said the trainer was HAPPY.

But she was – the trainer was happy, the rider was happy, I think even the horse shared a sense of accomplishment.  Until they got to the judging booth.    I thought this through, and ran through some possibilities that she might have seen on her score sheet – “too much collection for this level” came to mind, but no, it was not to be found.  Tension was the most oft repeated phrase, despite a number of 8’s interspersed with 3’s.   Hmmmmm……..

On the other side of the moon……

Another friend of mine is a high level competitor.  I mean it, seriously high level.  Like WOW.  With a WOW horse, and good work ethic, and good training plan, who is choosy about who coaches her, but still uses coaches, as should we all.  I respect her training immensely, and one of the reasons why I do is her transparency.  She knows, as a trainer of trainers, that we will all make mistakes, and by sharing her mistakes with me, she will hopefully help me to circumnavigate some of the mistakes she has made.  Or, conversely, help me understand that some of the very things that SEEM like mistakes actually are progress, disguised as an uncomfortable moment.  If you get that my respect for this trainer is high, then we are all on the same page.  Until we get to the show…

Here we have another example of “what were they looking at?” in the judge’s booth.  And no, I am not referring to the much addressed variance of scores with multiple judges.  In looking at the quality of these rides, compared to the quality of other rides by equally high level riders, her scores did not add up.  They did not add up to what her coaches saw, what her students saw (both professional and non), or what she herself saw in the mirrors in her daily quest for correct, well-paired, athletic dressage.  Sure, there were some bones thrown in there, but nothing that really helped her over the hump of that level.  So what gives? Are the judges keeping up with the fads and letting go of the truths about dressage, or are the trainers kidding themselves and their clients into believing that they are doing better than they are?  So, my dear readers, who do we go with?  Let me be the judge of that.

As a trainer, my job is to point out your strengths, your weaknesses, those of your horse, and then make a cohesive plan to slowly but surely rub out the weaker points and help you gain confidence in your strengths, and those of your horse.  I see you week in and week out, through your divorce, through your promotion, through the traumas of your kids, and through the various ailments and lamenesses and microscopic improvements and huge bounding a-ha’s that you encounter in your quest to be a dressage rider.  There are times when I wonder if it’s ever going to come together; there are other times when I am amazed and humbled by your stick-to-it-iveness, your work ethic, and how darned hard you try.   When I take you to a show, my goal is not to put you in a situation where you will be embarrassed or hurt or scared, but to position you to succeed, at whatever level we are at, so that you feel a sense of accomplishment.  I WANT you to like our sport, and I want you to have fun, not because it lines my pockets, but because I live and breathe this stuff, and I want to help you achieve your dreams as much as you can, too.

As a trainer, it is also my job to be educated.  Although I may see the latest riding fashions that occur (no, I do not mean the recycling of your plaid full seats!), I feel the need to assess the validity and longevity of these trends.  How they apply to you and your horse are my concern, and whether they will make your understanding clearer or cloudier.  I believe that I should understand the basics of Dressage, so that when I tell you about throughness, or connection, or how to do a better shoulder-in, that it all becomes clay in your hands, something that you can delve into, explore the depths of, and emerge with a clearer head as to how it works and affects you and your mount.  Sometimes, this belief will take us off the beaten path, away from the trends that are currently en vogue, but I believe in my heart that I am working towards the best solutions – for you, for your horse, for the pair of you, for your training goals and limitations and your after-work-rides-in-the-dark goals.

As a trainer, my job is to polish you until you shine with as much light as you can muster – be it on a Quarter Horse on a second career, or your new leggy warmblood baby, the first truly nice horse that you have scrimped and saved to own.  I see you when you are not at the shows.  I see you when it is not perfect, but when you are working to perfect a movement or technique.  I see you when it is you, just you, not you against the competition, not you against the fancier horses or the better turned out riders.  You may be the best turned out rider there, riding the fanciest horse on the show grounds; I have still seen you at your worst and your best, and cheer you on six ways till Sunday.  And if you make a mess of it I will softly but surely tell you, so that we can do it better next time.

Although I have judged some schooling shows, I am not a judge by license, or reputation, or knowledge.  I find it amazing that the judges are able to discern as much from a test as they can – they must decide not only on if a movement is completed, but if there was harmony, the rider’s aids were effective, the horse was using itself correctly, and if the movement could have been done better – or worse.  This is all in the span of seconds, as they have to keep up with the combo in the ring, and keep making these assessments over and over, for the whole of the 7 minutes you are in front of them.

Judges go through a pretty rigorous time getting their judging cards.  There are many shows that they judge at for practice and experience, not for pay.  They must travel far and wide to get to judging symposiums, at their own expense.  It takes a lot of dedication to get to be a judge, only to work weekends, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in an uncomfortable chair, sometimes judging the same test for hours.  It is not glamorous, and judges should be commended for the effort to become what they are.  I also expect them to continue to develop their eye, as I am expected to continue my learning as a trainer and rider.

I believe, as a trainer and competitor, that the judge is there to help us improve, by giving us a clear picture of where we were that day compared to the standard.  Their education, sense of timing, and clear sense of what is appropriate at a level and what is not is what I am paying for when I enter a show, and I go in hoping that my money is well spent.  Getting a 52% in a test that both the rider and the trainer were pleased with does not feel like money well spent to me.  Being told “tension” is the problem when neither the rider nor the trainer felt like there was visible tension is not helpful in getting you to the next step.  At the other end of the spectrum, receiving a 7 for passage or piaffe with NO comment is equally unhelpful for the FEI rider – why was it not an 8, what can I do to improve?

A judge sees you as a mobile snapshot, for approximately 7 minutes.  In the blink of an eye, they make an assessment of your horse, your training, and your competence at the level you are showing.  If the initial impression doesn’t thrill them, you will be hard pressed to change their minds in 2 days, let alone 7 minutes.  If you enter on a less than impressive horse, or follow an extremely impressive horse, be prepared to get a lower score because of the comparison that will naturally occur.  Again, at the upper levels, you can come in on an extremely expressive horse, but do they know your name?  Are you a big contributor to our National Team?  Have you been around long enough, in their eyes, to “earn” the score you really deserve?  Do they mean to do this?  No.  Are they conscious of doing this?  They may be slightly uncomfortable, but they will get over it or chalk it up to indigestion from lunch.  This is a cold hard fact of showing that few people want to discuss, and even more people want to pretend doesn’t exist.  Why does it happen?  Because they are human, and we are all attracted to pretty things; because they are human, and we are all affected by fame, whether we admit it or not.   How can we fix it?  Teach the horses to judge and get the people out of the booth.  Not happening, you say?  Then we have to learn to expect it.

And so, dear readers, who should be the judge of that?  I say, when you look for someone to rely on for their absolute honesty, their untiring effort to improve you and your horse, no matter what level or breed you are, I say look to your trainer.  If you work with a reputable trainer who can reproduce what they ask you to do, who has horses who are happy in their work and exhibit the tenets of Dressage that are our standards,  who continues their education through lessons, books, and videos, trust your trainer.  Consider the judge of the day as a consultant, brought in to give you an overall impression of your partnership, but don’t bank on their impressions as the whole and only opinion that will ever count.  Let your trainer be the judge of that!

What of my friend with the 52%, you ask?  She is excited to keep showing, working on improving their movements, relaxation and all those other things we all strive for.  She and her trainer decided that next time – they might not pick up the test after the class!

Stephany Fish