USA’s Jessica Ransehousen Speaks Out on Dressage Judging

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Editor’s Note: Jessica Ransehousen rode for the United States in three Olympics, was chef d’equipe of Team USA at some of its greatest triumphs, is an FEI “I” judge and a longtime trainer and teacher. At the age of 71, she has attained the status in the dressage community that George Morris enjoys in the jumper world. Her commitment to dressage is deep and passionate. Her opinions are informed by a lifetime of experience. She is direct, but typically softens the impact with a keen sense of humor. She has returned to serve the sport again, as acting chef d’equipe of Team USA until a new national coach/chef d’equipe is selected. In this article for www.dressage-news.com, Ms. Ransehousen speaks out on judging, perhaps the single biggest issue in dressage today.
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LAS VEGAS– A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

By JESSICA RANSEHOUSEN

Jessica Ransehousen (eyeglasses) watching the FEI World Cup at Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jessica Ransehousen (eyeglasses) watching the FEI World Cup at Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The Dressage World Cup Final this year in Las Vegas was fun, interesting and beautifully produced. Las Vegas is such an extraordinary place. The casinos are huge, and make every effort to make people feel comfortable and play at the games! Right away it is clear that time is not important! There are no windows or clocks to remind tourists of the passing of time. You can find restaurants of all kinds under the same roof, along with fantastic entertainment. The Dressage World Cup Final had the same kind of excitement. Between the competitions there were light shows, acrobatic performances, and popular singers; just a great background for dressage and stadium jumping. But even with all of the hoopla, we witnessed judging that was refreshing and showed an honesty in judging that needs to be recognized and applauded.

The riders’ performances were certainly equal to the entertainment level. We all sat back in our seats in the wonderful Thomas & Mack Arena and enjoyed the show! The spectators were very knowledgeable, and with the stadium mostly sold out, the atmosphere was quite electric. But all of this marvelous production must not distract from the very important issue of the judging which deserves some reflection.

When a performance is evaluated by subjective judging, questions always arise in one’s mind about just how that judge came to the conclusion to award a specific score. And when the scores just don’t seem to be justified by the performance, the spectators ask why and riders become frustrated. The more educated the public, the better the judges and judging must be. The “results of competition in dressage are so dependent upon the judges’ interpretation of what they see at the moment” — let’s hold on to that phrase, it’s going to be important. At major competitions, like CDI***, CDI**** and CDI***** and CDIO, a panel of at least five judges should insure that the outcome is accurate. Yet, with the results of some past major competitions, one begins to wonder if this is true. It appears that the pressure is greater for the sameness of a score rather the than the correctness, and the judges rely on the reputation and past performance of a rider rather than what they see on the competition day.

As an FEI “I” judge, I have watched with interest, the abolition of the FEI Dressage Committee and the formation of the Dressage Task Force. After the Hong Kong Olympics, this Task Force was directed to review all aspects of the dressage discipline, including judging. There are two sides to the judging issues: the educational preparation, and the actual performance of the judges at the major competitions.

Katrina Wuest, a German judge who is also a member of the Task Force, is heading up the judging issues. Letters are flowing between FEI judges and Katerina concerning judging and other issues such as the size of the Olympic teams, etc. Questions are being asked as to whether we should go back to having four members on a team, with one drop score, but that’s another article.

One major issue that has surfaced in the discussions is the education of the judges.  Stephen Clark, (British O judge) provided excellent input concerning the educational side of FEI judges. I agree with him, and most of our American judges, that our national judges’ program is probably the best in the world. Our US judge’s program demands that the judge is proficient as a rider at our different national levels and the progression from “L”  (learner)  judge,  through small “r” and large “R,” and finally to “S” (senior) judge takes time. There are no short cuts! This program gives our judges a rounded education.  Once a Senior judge makes the transition to a FEI judge, the continuing education seminars are very informative and stimulating. They are run with excellent discussion and freedom to express individual views.

We hear a lot through the press and also from knowledgeable spectators about the political side of judging that occurs at big international competitions, such as World Equestrian Games and Olympic Games. There seems to be a political influence that has created a disparity between what the judges see in a given test and how the ride is actually scored. I think the feeling is that there are two levels of major importance at these big international competitions. The highest level consists of the nations of Germany and Holland. These riders seem to be immune from the critical scrutiny the rest of the world has to face. The second level consists of the riders from all other nations.

Let me give you an example of this: let’s take a look at the Dutch rider, Anky van Grusven’s  performance in Athens with Salinero in the Grand Prix and then Isabell Werth’s ride in Hong Kong.

In the Grand Prix, Anky’s entry was not quite straight; the halt was never established and was slightly off the centerline. The first extended trot did not show enough suspension, the horse running with his nose slightly behind the vertical; in the first trot half pass the haunches were trailing slightly. The first piaffe was not centered over the centerline, the steps, at first, not very regular and he never stayed on the place. The regularity improved towards the end. The extended walk was disappointing, the horse did not stretch over the top line at all, and the steps got hurried and quick toward the end. The second piaffe was again not on the place nor correctly placed on the centerline.  The passage was at times not straight. After the canter depart, the canter stride was tense and did not show much ground cover.  Salerino spooked as he approached the centerline for the zigzag half passes, therefore, the movement did not start on the centerline. The extended canter was disappointing because the tension caused the strides to be quick. The series flying changes were clean. The pirouette to the right did not start on the centerline – the horse then spooked and crouched close to the ground with the front legs extended and spun around through the rest of the pirouette. The left pirouette was better, but too big because the horse stepped out too far to the right with right hind leg. The last centerline with piaffe and passage looked the best and the final halt was much better than the first. It is true that Salinero was very active and powerful, but power is only good if it is harnessed in a proper way to show harmony and suppleness, with enough relaxation to allow the activity traveling from behind over the back and into a steady contact. With all these problems and the tension that this horse showed through the movements of the test, it is difficult to believe this horse could have finished with a score higher than a 66% or 67%. The tension along with some disobedience should have been reflected in the actual movement scores as well in the general impressions found in the collective marks. So how was it possible that this ride earned a score of 74.2%?

I was not in Hong Kong, but the TV coverage showed Isabell’s two major resistances quite clearly and one wonders if these things would have been so easily overlooked in riders from other nations. In Hong Kong, the problems actually start in the Grand Prix when Satchmo kicked out behind at Isabell’s spur in the last few steps of the piaffe. It is also interesting that he travels on a single track behind in the piaffe. He continues with this problem in all three performances. In the Special, the horse starts the piaffe with about eight steps and then hesitates, throws his head down and violently backs up. As Isabell pushes him forward, he bucks and finally plunges forward and continues into the passage and the rest of the test. After that, both of his canter pirouettes are too big.

Isabell Werth and Satchmo in the Olympic Games Grand Prix Special. © 2008 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Isabell Werth and Satchmo in the Olympic Games Grand Prix Special. © 2008 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

4In her third ride, the Freestyle, Isabell rides a pirouette in the piaffe. The horse makes the first six steps, and then suddenly backs up three steps, throwing his head down, and jumping sideways. He finally jumps forward into the passage and continues on with the Freestyle. These resistances are so similar in the Special and the Freestyle, that it must be something this horse has done many times before. How could this ride have been awarded an Individual Silver Medal???

Isabell Werth and Satchmo in the Olympic Grand Prix Freestyle. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Isabell Werth and Satchmo in the Olympic Grand Prix Freestyle. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Now let’s take the Dressage World Cup Final in Las Vegas where the results were like a breath of fresh air! Most people, and knowledgeable ones at that, predicted that Isabell would win. This point of view clearly stems from previous competitions where Isabell could do no wrong or at least her mistakes were easily forgiven. Even though Anky did not qualify with Salinero, she decided to come to Las Vegas.  She is always happy to participate, even if it happens with her second horse “Painted Black,” instead of her best horse.

Let’s look at the rides in Las Vegas. When we look at the Grand Prix, Isabell was surprisingly unfocused. She incorrectly counted the strides in the canter zigzag, putting in one at 7 strides rather than the required 6 strides. She also was annoyed with the people filming the tests behind the corner near A. She definitely had a problem with her first canter pirouette when Satchmo dropped out of the canter. Altogether the test was conservative and uninteresting. Satchmo is very base narrow when performing the passage and piaffe. He often steps with the left hind leg to the right, in front of the right hind. There is a wonderful movement that he does do well.  He makes beautiful half passes in the trot. He has enormous freedom in the shoulders and shows wonderful expression. Isabell came in 3rd in the Grand Prix with all four of the judges in agreement

Isabell Werth on Satchmo giving the "eye" to photographers at the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Isabell Werth on Satchmo giving the "eye" to photographers at the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

In the Grand Prix, Steffen rode a beautiful test with great expression, especially in the piaffe and canter pirouettes, because Ravel can sit and carry his weight easily behind. He showed great freedom and scope in his trot half passes. It was a really fluid test with no mistakes!

Anky, on the other hand, had some mistakes in the flying changes every second stride but overall the horse gave a good, active performance in the Grand Prix. So the result of the Grand Prix was very refreshing for everyone. Steffen was first, Anky was second and Isabell was third. With such a rewarding win for Steffen in the Grand Prix the atmosphere was electric for Saturday night’s freestyle.

Anky van Grunsven on IPS Painted Black at the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Anky van Grunsven on IPS Painted Black at the FEI World Cup in Las Vegas. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Isabell was the first to ride of the three highest riders. She knew she had a job to do to win. I think she thought her strength rested on her great ability to ride the technical side of the freestyle. She showed many difficult combinations, including extended canter to pirouettes and flying changes to pirouette. Her half passes in the trot were wonderful and she probably earned 10 points on her trot half pass to the left. But, unfortunately, she had two mistakes in the flying changes every second stride, behind, on the circle.

Steffen then rode his freestyle and everyone held their breath. This ride was a confirmation of the Grand Prix two days before. Ravel showed smooth transitions and wonderful piaffe and canter pirouettes with great engagement and carrying power. The freestyle showed a great degree of difficulty with no mistakes. Steffen and Ravel are so harmonious together. They have a true partnership – no subservience on the horse’s part, just a happy, elastic, horse. The horse is ridden with real swing from behind over the back and into a quiet contact remaining uphill. It is wonderful to see how quiet and low Steffen’s hands remain even through the most difficult movements in the test.

FEI World Cup Champions Steffen Peters and Ravel. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
FEI World Cup Champions Steffen Peters and Ravel. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

So, the results show that all the judges were in good agreement over all. Mistakes were not forgiven and Linda Zang and Wim Ernes were brave to see the finer points in this competition. They saw top riders riding their best, but when it came down to the wire, Steffen showed the closest to the dressage ideal of precise figures shown with good energy and impulsion, never losing fluidity, suppleness and a wonderful degree of harmony between rider and horse. Too often energy and brilliance brings out too much tension so the ultimate harmony and suppleness is lost.

FEI World Cup judges Gustaf Svalling (SWE), Katerina Wuest (GER), Linda Zang (USA), Wim Ernes (NED).  © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
FEI World Cup judges Gustaf Svalling (SWE), Katrina Wuest (GER), Linda Zang (USA), Wim Ernes (NED). The fifth judge, not in photo, was Maribel Alonso de Quinanos (MEX). © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Las Vegas is definitely a breath of fresh air because everyone except Isabell thought the outcome was fair. Isabell showed bad sportsmanship, especially during the press conference, she felt entitled to win no matter what. After all she has a background of being rewarded when it was not deserved and she expects that entitlement to continue.

Isabell Werth at at the FEI World Cup Final news conference speaking about the judging. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Isabell Werth at at the FEI World Cup Final news conference speaking about the judging. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Anky van Grunsven at FEI World Cup Final news conference. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Anky van Grunsven at FEI World Cup Final news conference. © 2009 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Are we not tired of having the team Gold and Silver medals decided before the Olympics? The FEI has a group of excellent judges with great experience, but what happens when the ground jury gets to the WEG or the Olympics? What happens to judging fairly and without bias? Judging what is seen at the moment! It is not that a movement that is incorrectly ridden is not penalized, but rather this penalty is not carried through into the general impressions, under submission and use of the rider’s aids. Do we have to go to outside mandatory deductions? What would Isabell’s score look like if an automatic deduction of, let’s say 5 points for a halting in a movement and a deduction of 10 points for a disobedience such as backing up in the test? These could be introduced if the judges do not recognize the importance of point deductions not only at the time of the movement but also at the end of the test. Having to resort to this method would be unfortunate! Do we really want to take these decisions out of the hands of the judges?

What keeps judges from judging what they see on a given day? Good horses and good riders have bad performances. I like Anky’s reply at the press conference in Las Vegas.  She said that Steffen’s win was good for the sport and she smiled and said you win some and lose some and Steffen was the best! That is good sportsmanship and it comes from a rider who is used to having good scores even when, as in Athens, many issues in her performance were down played.

Our sport of Dressage could be much more exciting at the WEG and Olympic level if the scores reflected what was really happening in the arena on the day. That is why Las Vegas was a truly exciting example of good, honest judging with the correct outcome.

Most nations know that the only team and individual medal, that riders work hard to qualify and compete for, is the Bronze. Let us all work hard to keep this problem from happening again. The judging record in the past has not helped promote our sport to the general public and the press. Las Vegas could be used as a shining example of how to correct this problem.