All in a day’s work: International dressage judge Stephen Clarke *H&H Plus*

  • Stephen Clarke on being talent-spotted by Harvey Smith, judging record-breaking tests and being proud to be British, as told to Leslie Bliss.

    When I was a child, all I could think about was riding. I grew up in Wales next to a farm that had great but wild ponies. If I could stay on board, I was allowed to train and show them. I set up my own stables before the age of 20 and had showjumpers, hunters and event horses.

    Harvey Smith spotted me at a local show with my Connemara/thoroughbred Daybreak and told me I should compete at Hickstead. I had no idea how to go about it. Harvey arranged everything. I had no money for a hotel, so slept in my mare’s stable with a bale of straw separating us.

    I had always tried to train my event horses and showjumpers to be supple and responsive, so I decided to train my showjumpers to the higher levels of dressage. Much to my amazement, they were successful.

    I was offered a job at the Wirral Riding Centre, where I competed two grand prix horses, as well as Ulysses, who became my first international grand prix horse.

    I then spent two winters training with Ernst Bachinger at the Spanish Riding School. Ulysses was sold, but I had a horse I had bought as a two-year old waiting in the wings. With help from Jennie Loriston-Clarke and Ferdi Eilberg, Becket went on to be reserve for the 1988 Olympics.

    I started judging in my early 20s as I became fed up with everyone moaning about the judging. I discovered it’s not that easy, and trying to balance the complexities so you give a fair mark to every rider through every movement takes a lot of concentration.

    I worked my way up the judging list while competing and running my training centre. About 30 years ago, I was asked by top international judge Eric Lette to go to the Netherlands to judge a championship. I was told it wasn’t an exam, but by the end, Eric said with a wink, “By the way, you passed the test,” and so I became an international judge.

    I seem to travel endlessly — probably 20 or 30 international shows a year. My British Airways app tells me I have flown the distance equivalent of going to the moon and back three times over the past decade.

    In 2013, I became the FEI dressage judge general. The job involves developing the uniformity of judging worldwide. Judging is all about trying to keep things in perspective and acknowledging that every rider is trying to do their best. My goal is to ensure young judges have the opportunity to develop their education and skills.

    I have been part of situations that were beyond my wildest dreams. Being president of the ground jury at the 2012 London Olympics was an honour. I was so proud of our country. To be on the judging panel when Totilas and Valegro broke the world records was beyond exciting. The privilege of being able to award 10s for movements where you just can’t imagine how it could be better is so exciting.

    Some years ago, I was on the judging panel at a show in Florida. The other Europeans and I were jet-lagged. Apart from the judge at B, we failed to notice that one of the riders had missed two movements during the grand prix. I still get a red face thinking about it.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 27 February 2020

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