How the next generation of judges are breaking down barriers *H&H Plus*

  • Judging is often seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and pensioners, so where will our future officials come from? Pippa Cuckson finds plenty of hope in the next generation

    When a 20-something Ali Dane told her father she was training to judge dressage he exclaimed: “Will you have to put on seven stone and wear tweed?”

    There is still a wide perception that equestrians only take up officiating in their dotage. You can understand why: aside from tradition, officiating is one of the few equestrian activities people still do for “love”. Moreover, age discrimination legislation means judges are no longer forced to retire at pensionable age in many countries, reducing opportunities for the next generation.

    But youngsters are making the cut – all possessing the rare qualities of patience, a commitment to lifelong learning and determination to raise the barriers to entry.

    Ali (now 35, an event rider and coach based in Wantage, Oxon) still spends at least one afternoon a week shadowing other British Dressage (BD) judges, even when not “ramping up” for an exam.

    “It’s the training and exams that take the time,” cautions Richard Baldwin, already a “veteran” at 38. “Once you are qualified you can take as little or as much judging as you like.”

    Most fledgling judges are initially coaxed in by mentors who spot their potential. At 19, Leanne Wall, from Aylesford, Kent, was encouraged to try by BD List One judge Mary-Anne Horn, when preparing for her British Horse Society exams.

    “When I turned up for testing, Sally Merrison and Helen Webber thought I was the writer, not the judge!” she recalls.

    She happily sat midway on BD List Three for five years, before tackling the ascent to List One. Consolidation in everything by “small stepping stones” is her philosophy.

    Younger judges are then inevitably hooked by the urge to self-improve. There is, too, a helpful crossover between eventing and dressage. Leanne hopes to progress to FEI via eventing because, as a Team GBR selector, there are limitations over whom she may judge in dressage. Richard also began in BD, starting to judge just two years after finishing in young riders and becoming the youngest person to reach List One. He qualified simultaneously as an FEI eventing judge and, just before the spring Covid-19 lockdown, obtained dispensation to judge at Keysoe CDI.

    Most aspiring officials have a day job, so their first challenge is to commit most weekends to driving the length and breadth of Britain for judging and shadowing opportunities year after year.

    An early hurdle can be indifference from much older, hugely experienced judges, though in the main the opposite is true. Stephen Clarke, Isobel Wessels and David Trott are often flagged as some of the distinguished dressage judges who help the young.

    Adam Cromarty qualified as a FEI jumping judge five years ago when he had just turned 30. As a qualified assessor, he has also examined judges notably older than himself.

    “Looking back, some judges have maybe resented a younger person being in the box, though,” he says.

    Another challenge is growing a thick skin. Leanne says: “Judges put themselves out there to give something back, so sometimes it can feel weird when people don’t appreciate you. Social media can be cruel when someone doesn’t like their sheet, or enjoys pointing out that you missed it when someone went wrong.

    “The emphasis in judging should always be about encouraging comments, framing it
    in terms of areas for improvement and the rider’s own highlights. That is one of our greatest duties – to distinguish whether the horse has been properly trained from one or two minor mistakes.”

    Richard feels that young judges are readily accepted by riders nowadays; veteran judges can be assumed, albeit unfairly, to think “old” as well as being old. “Dressage has moved on so much in the past 20 years – will someone younger be more current in their knowledge of training?” he asks.

    And is it intimidating for a young judge to have a really big name before them?

    “I never look at the start list,” says Leanne. “I just look at the horse. The top riders all know if they’ve done a good test or not, so you won’t gain their respect by giving needlessly high marks.”

    Showjumping, uniquely, offers the young two routes towards significant responsibility – judging plus course-building. Shaun Sands got into designing in his late teens, having stewarded frequently across the Scottish scene. He became British Showjumping (BS) accredited in 2009 and now, aged 32, he is one of just three working Level Four designers north of the border. He has assisted at the Royal Highland, Horse of the Year Show and FEI pony Europeans.

    “It took me four years to get on to the BS panel, and that frustrated me when I was very young because all I wanted was to reach that point,” he reveals. “But those four years were a benefit. You need to mature, learning not just the technicalities but how to deal with situations if, say, a rider is having a bad day and questioning your distances.”

    An international debate is ongoing over widespread future payment of officials (see below). The FEI once devoted a morning to this thorny topic at its annual sports forum, reaching no consensus, even though it would be a game-changer.

    In 2016, the FEI was sufficiently worried about recruitment of officials to set up a working group under FEI vice-president Mark Samuel. After extensive consultations, it published recommendations last year. The FEI is now streamlining its training systems across the board. But for now, both judge education and funding vary considerably from country to country and discipline to discipline.

    Richard was dismayed by the experience of a BD day for potential “young judges” – defined as anyone under 40.

    “A lot of people came, but when they realised how much time it takes, it put a lot of people off,” he says. “Some wanted to do it to put on their CV – they’d get the qualification but then not go on to judge – that is tricky.

    “Britain is so lucky. We can judge the best eventing riders at the best events all of the time, or receive training from the best five-star dressage judge in the world [Stephen Clarke].If I hear people moan, I suggest they talk to [aspiring judges in] Belarus; they can’t just turn up at Burghley and walk the course with Ian Stark. We take so much for granted.”

    Should officials be properly paid?

    Course-designer Shaun Sands works full-time in Glasgow, having a demanding role in public sector construction management. Even though he has gained a solid reputation, BS course-building – which he undertakes for free – is not yet a viable career. He is concerned there is a widespread misunderstanding about the volunteering aspect of sport, and a disbelief that people still do it for the love of it, joking that he has even had to pay his sister to help at shows.

    “Unfortunately, some trainees seem to think it’s about making money, and being able to charge a day-rate before they are even on the BS panel,” he says.

    For FEI jumping judge Adam Cromarty, judging opened the many global commentating and broadcasting opportunities which now dominate his time.

    “I was probably getting £50 a day in the UK for judging,” he says. “In the US, judges are paid $300 to $400 [about £225 to £300] a day, although, over there, they are also more accountable and can be fined if something goes wrong.

    “When I first started, judging was a sort of honour. You needed letters of recommendation; now it’s more about your ability. There’s an obligation for continual judge training and improvement. The world has changed and while it shouldn’t be about the money, professional people do want recognition for their work. People are less willing just to have their expenses covered for sitting there for 14 hours a day.”

    Sports organisers’ costs vary so much that in eventing, a judge’s “minimum wage” could be difficult to stipulate.

    List One British Dressage judge Richard Baldwin says: “I’ve judged in the US three times and always been paid. France recently decided to pay officials, although at Pau two years ago they didn’t. The FEI would lose a lot of smaller eventing countries if they brought in payments.”

    The current need to self-fund training can also be a burden. The FEI’s mandatory judging and refresher courses are infrequent and scattered, even in non-Covid times. Adam was €300 (about £266) out of pocket after attending an FEI Level One course in Slovakia and knows another judge who part-paid his own way to Australia for the only available FEI course – one ironically given by a fellow Brit, the late Jon Doney.

    BD List Four judge Ali Dane says: “Judges need to be financially independent, which a lot of horse people are not.

    “My family background is in motor racing, which used to rely heavily on volunteer stewards until they made it commercial. In Australia’s V8 touring car series, all the money from spectators is distributed among the officials.

    “So dressage probably does need a new business model. It can sometimes be depressing when you have judged 40-odd riders for a pound per horse, and maybe a cup of tea!

    “A massive amount of time, money and effort is involved in being accepted into the exclusive judges’ ‘club’. I don’t mean that to sound derisive – judges are incredible people with so much knowledge, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that.”

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 3 December 2020

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