Isobel Wessels: ‘Judges are quality controllers, not policemen’ *H&H VIP*

  • It goes without saying that I am passionate about judging, albeit a love-hate relationship. The love comes from having a front-row seat and being part of an inspirational sport; the hate from all the backbiting that seems to go with the job.

    The role of the judge is well documented and most riders understand how hard it is to have the perfect result. In fact, many seem to appreciate the fact that judges are prepared to stick their necks out and assess exactly what they see, even if they are a little different. Computer-style judging will not improve our sport.

    It’s been a big eye-opener for me over the past year being back on the other side of the fence with Chagall and San Marco in the arena.

    I have been mystified with the judging of the novice level. Some judges are overhard, while others miss the serious mistakes and are overgenerous.

    Neither way is helpful. Riders think they are on the right track, then come down to earth with an almighty bump at the regionals, or just want to go unaffiliated and enjoy themselves.

    Personally I think there is too much expectation at the lower levels. If a horse goes forward with rhythm to the bit and shows a smooth way of going, this must surely be worth over 70%, and where there is more suppleness, expression and carriage then plus-80% must be possible more often. An eight only means good, after all.

    At the regionals, I watched a horse do a nigh-perfect novice test with all the expression and willingness imaginable, but it was only deemed worthy of 77%.

    I watched one or two others going with a few mistakes, and they were relegated to the mid- 60%s. It seemed harsh; they were just young horses.

    When I train judges I always encourage them to look for the positives before the negatives. The latter are easy to spot, but sometimes it takes more knowledge and confidence to identify the former.

    I remember years ago hearing respected judge Mariette Withages saying, “Judges are quality controllers, not policemen”. I like that — it has real relevance.

    At the higher levels, the exactness of everything is more important and, of course, making mistakes is expensive.

    On the other hand, when the difficult movements have been executed well it would be nice to have a comment as to why it’s only a seven or 7.5.

    To ride a good grand prix is a far cry from the demands of the small tour, but I think judges need to learn to mark up in spite of imperfections, rather than down because of them — to cite the much-missed late international judge Nick Williams.

    The envy of Europe

    Thanks to Stephen Clarke, our judge training system is the envy of many European countries. The learning opportunities are many and plenty of candidates put in a lot of effort to better themselves, which is vital.

    New British Dressage judges’ director Jo Graham is trying to improve the examination system by using very senior judges for testing the lower level. This is a good move because we want the right people coming through, with direct experience of riding and training.

    I do a lot of mentoring for the FEI judges, which I love. I start to understand their way of thinking, and it gives me the chance to help develop the quality of judging and preparation with the all-important exams.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 9 June 2016