Thursday, February 18, 2016

How Attending the L Program Changed How I Show

I enrolled in the L program because, the way I saw it, no matter how much money I spent on lessons, the judge ultimately determined my score.  The more I saw things from their perspective, the higher my potential score.  During the program, I learned that the judges are much more objective than most riders think. 

After going through the L program, I realized if I’m going to earn the scores I want, I needed to become as objective as my evaluators.  As a rider and trainer, changes in my horses’ balance and gaits are exciting, and feeling a horse begin to offer a movement is goose-bump worthy. But as a competitor, I had to be objective about what that offering looked like.  Let’s face it, the worst place to see what a horse looks like is on top of the horse.  So I had to pull out my video camera.

I videoed my tests, and once I got over picking apart my faults (which took a while), a funny thing started to happen. Previously, as soon as I left the arena, I was surrounded by either the euphoria of performance high, or crushing negativity because something didn’t work.  I was sure I had either hit it out of the park, or hadn’t broke 50.  Then I’d get my results back and be confused, because usually I was somewhere in the middle. I’d grumble and complain about the score, sure certain movements were better or worse than the judge’s scores. 

After I started taping my rides, I’d sit down with my score sheet while I watched the video.  Watching my performance with the evaluation in front of me showed me three things. First, the look and the feel of a dressage movement are not always the same.  Second, the judge is trying to tell me some specific things about my performance.  Third, sometimes I disagree with the judge’s evaluation.

First, “feel” versus look.

Feel is such a tricky thing, because what we feel is not necessarily correct or incorrect—what we usually feel is a change. Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes it is not.  Sometimes the horse gives us a bigger change in the feel than can be seen from the ground. 

For example, say I’ve been working hard to improve the shoulder in.   My work may have created a better angled, steadier, more cadenced shoulder in than last week, but is it fairly good?  In the judge’s number-based vocabulary, “fairly good” earns a 7.   If that shoulder in isn’t a 7 at home, or is a 7 sometimes at home, I can’t get angry when the judge doesn’t give it a 7 at a show. The catch, of course, is if I haven’t taken a look at the shoulder in, I’ll only know that it has changed, but not necessarily how much it has changed.

Which brings me to another point -- judges are evaluating what is “trained” to a level, not what is “training” at a level.  From a rider’s perspective, a horse is “trained” in a movement when he can successfully complete that movement 75% of the time in a relaxed, confident manner – hence he’s capable of a fairly good score, or a 7.  So in my shoulder in example above, my horse is “training” the shoulder in at home, not “trained” to shoulder in, so expecting 7 from every show performance isn’t really fair. Expecting a “trained” score from a movement that is still being developed will set up unnecessary frustration.

Once I started thinking of things this way, it changed how I read my test sheets. My reaction to the judge’s comments became much less emotional.  If I did a shoulder in that started well, then half way through the steps got short and my horse’s neck got tight, then he started falling over his outside shoulder, and the judge gave me a 5.5 and commented on those things, my thoughts became “good eye, judge.” 

Which neatly segues into my second topic—what judges are trying to tell us with the comments.

The judge has two jobs – first, evaluate each movement as it looks that day, using a number-based vocabulary. That vocabulary is the 1-10 scale, which is defined in the USEF Rulebook.  Second, in a few words, explain what I need to show them in order to earn a higher number.  Judges are required to give a comment if they thought the movement was sufficiently, marginally, or badly meeting the standard, or, in judge’s number-vocabulary, a 6 or below.  They aren’t obligated to comment on 7, 8, or 9s, but if I got a 7 with a comment, I knew the judge thought I was capable of an 8, 9, or 10 on that movement. 

A movement that earns a 7 is, by definition, fairly good.  Often, the difference between a 7 and 8 comes down to one of two things. Sometimes the difference can be the elasticity of the horse’s topline during the movement.  Sometimes the difference is the clarity of the movement, particularly the beginning and end of the movement. 

Elastic, swinging toplines are a product of suppleness, impulsion, and engagement.  Some horses begin with a more soft, swinging topline than others. Some horses come with more power.  Some come with a more naturally obedient personality.  Through training, all of these areas can be improved.  But if my horse starts with a 6 in natural topline swing and a 10 in try, the horse who starts with a 7 in topline swing and an 8 in try will probably pin ahead of me.

This can be disheartening, but it is part of the objectivity of judging.   A judge can’t be harder or easier on one horse than another, even if they recognize how much effort the horse is putting in.  Often the final comments will reflect that the horse is “trying her heart out,” but the numbers still need to objectively compare my horse to the idealistic “10.” 

But remember the clarity of the movement can bump the score up a number.  A judge can only evaluate what they see, and the more clearly they see it, the better they can evaluate it.  Elastic, swinging horses that present sloppy, wavering shoulder ins will score behind less-swingy horses with tidy performances. On the less-swingy horse, the rider needs to present a well- prepared test. Which to me is encouraging, because of all of the variables that horse shows create, test preparation is the one thing I can control.  

When I started watching my videos, I quickly saw ways I could improve my performance, and therefore pick up more points.  I started holding my accuracy to a much higher standard in my every-day riding, as well as my test riding.

Watching the videos revealed that, most of the time, I agreed with the judge.  But sometimes I disagreed, which is my third point.  

When I started to attend judge’s forums, I found out that not only do I sometimes disagree with the judge, judges sometimes disagree with each other.  In the L program, the examiners aren’t overly concerned as long as candidates are within 1 point of the evaluator on a given movement.  Their bigger concern is that the best, most well-presented horse wins the class and the weakest performance places last. 

But as a rider, the difference between a 5 and 6 on a specific movement feels large--much larger than its impact on the final score.  Often, when in forums where judges disagree, it’ll be resolved with “we are only talking about one point here.”  In terms of the overall score for the ride, 1 point is only about .01 or .02 percent, rarely enough to effect the order of placings.

That being said, it’s okay to disagree with a judge. Expecting a judge to sit there and give up to 36 evaluations plus a synopsis every 7 minutes, for 8 hours a day, and get every single evaluation correct, is optimistic. That judges get it right as often as they do amazes me.  But if I find myself disagreeing with every judge every time I head down the center line, it may be time to re-evaluate my standard.  The judges may be holding me to a higher standard than I am setting for myself.  

My time in the L program clearly clarified to me what I am trying to present to the judges, resulting in much less confusion about my marks, better prepared performances, and higher marks. 

Thank you to the DVCTA Marilyn O.  Heath Scholarship fund for helping support my trip to the judge’s box.



  1. What a great article. Thank you for helping me look at my scores more constructively, getting the most out of my test.

  2. You are very welcome. Glad my experience will help you as well.