Anna Ross: Are there really so few people who are ‘good’ at dressage? *H&H VIP*

  • Olympic dressage is under threat and action needs to be taken. One of the reasons dressage is under threat is because the scoring is difficult to understand.

    Judging is hard. There’s no doubt about that. I have the utmost respect for anyone who judges. I’m still emotionally scarred from one of my first experiences judging unaffiliated prelim: my first competitor fell off and I hadn’t revised the rules for acts of God so in my efforts to ensure fair play I left her face-planted in the arena surface while I scrabbled for the rulebook. The next competitor made no attempt to canter as the horse “wasn’t ready”. By the end, I was in utter turmoil as I’d over marked the first ones so much in my efforts not to destroy their confidence that my winner ended on a world record-breaking score.

    Judges are good. They are human (allegedly) and of course they make mistakes. But the current system of marking isn’t logical; it doesn’t help good judges judge well.

    Judges are encouraged to use the range of marks. Advice is to start from a 10 and work backwards. But at the end they mark the test again with an overview of every movement in the collective marks. This has as much logic as bingo and requires the mathematical skills of a rocket scientist to work out accurately. Therefore some collectives are totally out of sync with the test marks. It is counter to the principle of using the whole range of marks.

    There’s a giant leap between a six and a seven, a metaphorical bridge between “satisfactory’”and the “Olympic standard”.

    The sensible system?

    The current scoring system is referred to as the scale of marks:

    1 Very bad. Hardly anyone gets this. You almost have to fall off.

    2 Bad. This is a pity mark from a judge who is cringing at a one.

    3 Fairly Bad. It was still dreadful.

    4 Insufficient. It was poor. Or he napped. Or bronced. Something bad happened.

    5 Sufficient. It isn’t. It’s geographical. It’s poor but you got from marker to marker.

    6 Satisfactory. You got there without incident. Few people rejoice over a six.

    7 Fairly good. This actually means it was alright. In fact, it was so alright that many competitors — including internationally — would shout from the rooftops if they gained it for every movement and got 70%. You could feature on the Olympic leaderboard, claim your place in history and be remembered forever as… fairly good.

    8 Good. This is what a tiny group of top horses and riders in the Whole Big World Of Dressage sometimes get. Currently very few achieve 80%.

    9 Very good. It’s sh*t hot. You immediately take a photo of the test sheet and ring your family and trainer.

    10 Excellent. Reserved for historic moments.

    What happened? Are there really so few people who are “good” at dressage? This leaves our sport open to asking whether we are “good enough” to be in the Olympics at all? By our very own definition.

    The half marks don’t help much; they just mean you’re in-between-ish-OK.

    A new code of points is about to be piloted which also works backwards from a 10 using deductions in prescribed increments, graded as major or minor. It’s based on the success of judging in gymnastics — also an Olympic and a subjective sport.

    It looks complicated with lots of charts. The practical application is simpler than it appears, but you have to read it twice if, like me, your usual idea of a good read is Facebook or your horoscope.

    Do judges have time to make all the deductions? They manage it in gymnastics where movements come up even faster.

    It’s different. But it makes sense and it could help keep our sport in the next Olympics as it shows a more logical justification of marks that everyone can understand.

    Could this logical, mathematical approach destroy the “art” of dressage? No. Dressage riding remains the same and judging at Olympic level should be justifiable and transparent. We owe our “excellent” judges a better platform to achieve this. Code of points? Count me in.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 March 2016