As secretary general of the International Dressage Riders Club (IDRC), I am often asked why riders have a problem with dressage judging. The answer is we don’t. We have a problem with the current system of judging that we (judges, riders and trainers) use.

The system takes a lot of training for everyone involved but still relies too much on interpretation by individual judges.

This obscures the public appreciation of performance and too often produces the wrong results — it is just not accurate enough.

All other judged Olympic sports — apart from boxing — have moved on from our type of system and adopted a code of points that defines a reasonably objective standard that can be consistently measured. Dressage should be moving in this direction too.

Stephen Clarke is the FEI dressage judge general, a trainer and rider — the complete package. Although he defends the current system, his recent H&H comment makes the case for a code of points very well.

Stephen says that judges are hardworking individuals with integrity, doing their utmost to give correct and logical marks. This is true.

He points out that sometimes judges are given unreasonable workloads, for example judging 50 horses per day. This is also true.

He also says that there will be “inevitable differences of opinion”. This is true, and this is the problem. If marks are subject to a difference of opinion, then there is no objective standard. There is no equality of measurement. There is no level playing field. There is no sport.

Consistency and precision

Stephen pointed out that the Dressage Handbook — Guidelines for Judges, published in 2007, has detailed descriptions for each movement. It is an excellent publication but it is not precise. It needs to be updated to quantify the actual deductions that must to be made for each error or grade of performance.

For example, in the grand prix each piaffe movement requires 12–15 steps. If a horse does 11 steps of faultless piaffe, what mark should it get? Should it still get a 10 because it is so good; should it suffer a small deduction of 0.5 or one mark; or was it simply “insufficient”, which could be a four. On this point, the handbook is silent.

Additionally, not all the handbook’s definitions are followed. To score more than an eight for extended walk, the horse must over-track by more than three hoof prints. Having discussed this with several Olympic judges, this rule is not observed. If one rule is not followed, how many others aren’t?

A code of points should state exactly how these, and all other errors, will be evaluated. Riders, trainers and spectators need consistency of marking against a well-defined standard.

I can assure Stephen the IDRC is not “reinventing the wheel”. Actually, all we have done is to codify and make more precise the handbook for judges. Elimination of all objectivity is perhaps an unobtainable goal, but there is plenty of room to advance before we hit the barrier. This is evolution, not revolution.

The IDRC development team would be even better if Stephen would join our effort and appoint one or two Olympic level judges to be part of the team. Clearly the judges themselves have the knowledge and experience needed to make this effort successful. We need collaboration rather than their current apparent “hands off” approach. As politicians say, we are all in this together.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 September 2015