Stephen Clarke: ‘Judges need competition practice, too’ *H&H Plus*


  • Stephen Clarke on how judges have had to adapt to challenges in 2020.

    Stephen Clarke is a five-star international judge and has held the position of FEI dressage judge general since 2013.

    No one could have imagined a year ago that the world would be plunged into the dreadful crisis we now find ourselves in. But in it we are, and we have had no choice but to sink or swim. Fortunately the human race is very adaptable, and we can take heart from all the examples of positivity and resilience of so many amazing people out there.

    Even though it seems we are currently in the middle of the darkest period of this pandemic, our incredible scientists have given us a light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine that has been developed with miraculous speed and efficiency, which will hopefully take the pressure off the wonderful NHS in the foreseeable future, as well as saving many lives.

    Ordinarily, as an FEI judge, I would travel long-haul once or even twice a month, but my last international show was March 2020, in Florida. I suspect – and hope – that same show might be my next. But throughout the summer, we had several grand prix test riding days, organised by Caroline Griffith and Carl Hester. As well as these being amazing opportunities for riders, it was wonderful for us judges to have a chance to do some judging.

    Top riders have plenty of knowledge and ability they can put into their training, but it’s not the same as actually performing a test. In the same way, judges are experienced and knowledgeable, but that knowledge at home is different to actually sitting around an arena and judging a test. We had good discussions after the tests, too, with the other judges and the riders, and it benefited everyone to hear each other’s point of view.

    It was also great to see several horses I hadn’t seen for some time pop up later in the year, having developed amazingly in their strength and confidence. Riders have had time to consolidate their training without the pressure of a big show or championship, and this will pay dividends.

    It is fairly obvious to judges when riders are schooling their horses through a grand prix test, and of course we have to mark what we see, but it is great to be able to talk to riders afterwards about it. It is such a good opportunity for riders to be able to go into a test situation but without having to ride for every mark. It means they can have their horses on their terms and that is beneficial for horses long-term.

    Forced innovation

    I must praise Dane Rawlins for instigating the Hickstead-Rotterdam Grand Prix Challenge last summer, which gave many riders a chance to shake off their mothballs.

    That was a particularly strange experience for me because I did the commentary from home, alongside Mariette Sanders-van Gansewinkel from her home in the Netherlands. It’s a real testament to the opportunities afforded by technology, and well done, too, to British Dressage (BD) for running so many online judge training situations, as well as the first live-streamed national convention, which seemed very popular.

    I’m a dinosaur when it comes to technology, but I’ve been learning to operate Zoom and I have now done several online seminars for many countries around the world. It’s amazing how, since we have been forced to, we have found innovative ways of doing things that only a year ago we couldn’t have dreamt of.

    That said, I do miss the atmosphere that comes with judging at big shows. This really struck me while judging at the National Grand Prix Championships at Hartpury in December; with the standard of riding and talent that we witnessed there, we judges were almost waiting for deafening applause – that never came. If the place had been full of spectators as normal, the roof would have come off at the end of some of those tests!

    Different angles

    Riders seem to be gaining a better understanding of the fact that judges see different things depending on where they are seated around the arena.

    Clive Halsall and Peter Storr did an amazing job of explaining this during the BD National Convention, and it helps riders to understand that there are moments in a test where not only are there different marks from different angles, but there should be.

    For example, when judging a horse from behind – in the extended trot, for instance – you can really only see the regularity and the impulsion. So you might reward that with a high mark, even though you can’t see whether the horse is short in the neck – you leave that responsibility to the judge with the side view.

    Many movements look different from different positions and should have correctly differing marks for the right reasons; judges can only judge what they see.

    But of course it is very important that we all judge from the same criteria. I will never forget David Hunt once saying to me, when discussing a halt, “You could see that halt was out behind if you’d been flying over in a 747!”

    Ref: 21 January 2021

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