‘We need to change’: top judge calls for action on the future of dressage

  • Pressure continues to mount on the FEI to tackle the issues facing modern dressage.

    Five-star judge, vet and head of the International Dressage Officials Club (IDOC) Hans-Christian Matthiesen is the latest senior figure to argue that the current competition format for dressage is outdated and needs change.

    Among his recommendations are updating guidelines for judges that enable them to score a horse’s general impression more easily, making equipment such as double bridles and spurs optional, a marked assessment of each rider’s warm-up that counts toward their total score and new competition formats that include in-hand work.

    Mr Matthiesen made the suggestions in an article for Malgré Tout.

    “I think when the article came out some took it as if I was against the sport, but I’m not,” Mr Matthiesen told H&H. “However, I do get worried when I see people in dressage not willing to look into changes and consider what the outside world thinks about our sport. I’m not expecting to change everything for Paris right now but we need to get the discussion going.”

    He added that although the rules in dressage are tradition-based the FEI should not be reticent to take on board research that may indicate they need to be updated:

    “I see horses struggle in competitions because we have rules that dictate what type of equipment riders can use, and we will have some horses that struggle with a double bride, for example,” he said.

    Mr Matthiesen also stressed the need for the FEI to take a more proactive lead in research and commit to making evidence-based changes to the rules.

    “At the moment it takes too long for changes to be introduced,” he said.

    Among his recommendations, the marked assessment of a rider’s warm-up has garnered the most attention, with questions on how that rule could be implemented:

    “I’m on the board of two animal welfare organisations in Denmark, and we get a lot of pictures and videos of training from warm-ups,” he said. “When we see these pictures over and over again, it understandably leads to an outcry for change. One solution would be to have a judge working together with a steward in the warm-up.

    “It would have to be a simple set-up, and I’m not suggesting we do it at all levels, but at the lower levels in particular it could help to start changing the culture – to give the warming up equal importance to the test.

    “From a welfare perspective, we cannot explain to the outside world that we only care about the horse for five-and-a-half minutes. I empathise that it would be more expensive for competition organisers to hire more officials, but the way it is now, I wonder if we can afford not to do anything.

    “I’ve been on round tables with politicians, including members of the European Parliament, and if they start to have concerns about welfare then they will start to dictate rules and regulations that will make it much harder for our sport to survive.”

    H&H columnist Pammy Hutton said she found the ideas “refreshing” but added that she would like to see international judges make better use of the existing “directive ideas” for each movement on the grand prix test sheet, including regularity, elasticity, energy of hindquarters and lengthening of the frame.

    Four-time Olympian Richard Davison, who has also been a part of several FEI working groups, added: “If details can’t be observed by five judges seated around an arena looking at one horse, why does anyone think one judge looking at eight horses will do the task better?

    “The FEI judging handbook is more than 300 pages of mostly printed words, which needs to be recalled by a judge – but dressage judging is visual observation and score assignment.

    “That’s why a pictorial code of points is essential, and that was part of the report the FEI dressage judging working group drafted in 2018. Its implementation has been delayed too long and it could’ve supported and protected the judges from criticism.”

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