Three of 4 of Americas Top Judges Retiring by End of 2019, Changes In Sport Under Review

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Gary Rockwell, one of the top ranked international 5* judges, between fellow American 5* Linda Zang and Great Britain’s Stephen Clarke, the FEI Judge General, in Wellington, Florida. Gary is set for retirement this year after a judging career of the top events in the sport as well as international championship performances.  Linda is scheduled to retire after 2019, © 2018 Ken Braddick/

May 16, 2018


Three of the four American international top ranked 5* dressage judges reach retirement age in the next 18 months with no successors yet announced while the number of officials has not kept up with the growth in events around the world in the past decade.

At the same time as demands for top judges have grown with requirements for ground juries for major championships increased to seven members from five along with creation of so-called judges supervisory panels to correct apparent mistakes, the role of judges in the sport is also under official scrutiny.

No action has yet been taken on the long proposed idea to increase the official retirement age of judges to 72 years from the current 70, with the possibility of an extension of up to two years, to keep abreast of changes in the world at large that increasingly ignores ages in favor of competence.

The retirements of three of the four United States judges–Gary Rockwell and Anne Gribbons this year, Linda Zang in 2019–come at the same time as retirements of one 5* of three officials in Australia, the sole remaining Canadian and Italian 5* officials as well as at least four other judges who become 72 years old by the end of 2019.

Gary, Anne and Linda were competitors at top sport. Gary was appointed a 5* in 2008 and Anne and Linda in 2009. All have judged the highest levels of competitions, including Olympics. Anne Gribbons will be president of the ground jury at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina in September.

In 2018, there are 35 judges at the top International Equestrian Federation (FEI) rank of 5*, a level for Olympics, World Equestrian Games, World Cup Finals, major continental championships, such as the Europeans.

So far this year, the official FEI calendar lists 177 events, including the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina and the World Cup Final. Both require panels of seven judges as well as three-member judges supervisory panels.

In 2009, there were 28 judges at the same level while the number of events around the world totaled 126. Ground juries at major championships were five judges, no supervisory panel.

In the same period, the number of shows increased by 40 per cent over the decade while the roster of 5* judges grew by 25 per cent.

The number of combinations on the FEI rankings list at the end of July, 2009, the first month available online, was 577 compared with 756 at the end of April–an increase of more than 30 per cent.

The number of countries from which 5* judges have been appointed was 15 in 2018. It was 14 in 2009.

The expansion of judging panels plus the supervisory panel came about after the FEI adopted the recommendations of a task force following the 2008 Olympics to replace the judge-dominated dressage committee for one of six members representing major stakeholder groups such as riders, trainers, show organizers and judges.

In recent years, the FEI and a task force appointed to study judging have compiled a database that, sources who insisted on anonymity, told provide irrefutable numerical evidence of patterns of nationalistic bias by individual judges.

The FEI used this information to propose changes to counter nationalistic bias such as eliminating high and low scores at Grand Prix level that was strongly resisted and not adopted, while cutting three of the four collective marks that was implemented but is still criticized as being snuck in with no serious debate.

The FEI and its dressage committee are viewed by many as secretive and failing to make available data that supports proposed changes of the kind implemented in other jury sports such as ice skating to deal with nationalistic bias.

Dressage committee members, some report, have been admonished not to discuss issues with the media. Official reports of items before the committee are so scant as to have little meaning, and not made available to the media. Several riders report there is no indication beforehand of issues so that decisions are made without input from affected groups and thus when adopted by the FEI get little support.

Some aspects, however, are more engaging for spectators.

Spectator judging is in use at shows around the world.

Pre-configured freestyle performances similar to the format used in ice skating where commentators and judges know in advance the degrees of difficulty of specified movements so marks are awarded for how well they are executed can generate excitement as long as spectators know what to look for.