New Judging Format Sought by Riders Group, Trainers, Judges Want to Improve Current System

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The 2016 Olympic dressage judges and other officials. © Ken Braddick/

April 9, 2017


A proposal by the International Dressage Riders Club for a top-to-bottom overhaul of judging has run into stiff opposition from both trainers and judges groups ahead of the annual International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Sports Forum scheduled for Lausanne, Switzerland this week.

Divisions in ways to address judging issues has come to the forefront with the initial report of a Dressage Judging Working Group that was set up last summer to deal with “lack of transparency, consistency and clarity” in awarding points.

Differences between the stakeholder groups–there are questions as to how representative are the views of the leadership of some groups–have brought to a halt a review of the Dressage Handbook, the official standard that in its current version of 137 pages sets out requirements for the sport from rider’s clothing to detailed description of every movement.

The working group is headed up by Frank Kemperman, chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee, and includes Maribel Alonso, 5* judge of Mexico; Kyra Kyrklund, five-time Olympian for Finland and president of the riders’ club; Richard Davison, a four-time Olympian for Great Britain, and David Stickland, a senior research physicist with Princeton University and a consultant to the FEI on dressage judging analysis.

Judging issues being considered by the working group were framed by what the FEI considers are needed to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics where they have been for 104 years and is the only sport in which males and females compete head-to-head on equal terms.

The two major proposals–not to say either one will be adopted–are:

–Code of Points based on the current dressage handbook that the international dressage trainers and officials (judges, stewards and others) say would improve the status quo, and

–Assigning different judges to score separate aspects of a performance that the riders group proposes would, depending on how many judges, would split up scoring. One for example, would judge suppleness and elasticity, another rhythm and impulsion; a third frame and balance; a fourth accuracy of movement and a fifth general impression.

Supporters of the riders’ club proposal argue for a trial of a new system, as resulted from 2009 changes in the sport with the formation of seven-judge panels at Olympics and major championships and a three-member judges supervisory panel to provide a running review of scoring.

Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, the FEI Judge General and who was involved in revising the dressage handbook that has now been halted, said of the riders’ club proposal:

“My worry, with a rigid ‘code of points’ system, is that we risk producing future judges with a policeman-like mentality to judge from a ‘cooking recipe’ using only a tape measure to guide them, rather than assessing the quality of the horse’s way of going.

“The result of this could be that the riders will produce horses in the future that are more like trained poodles, rather than the gymnastically trained dressage horses that show the suppleness, expression and elasticity that we see in today’s sport.

“Many of our colleagues and several top riders that I have spoken to feel exactly the same, and there is the opinion that IDRC does not genuinely reflect the views of the top riders. In fact many of them are not even members…

“In my opinion, everyone’s energy could be better spent thinking of ways to deliver more and consistent training to the judges worldwide, rather than trying to re-invent the wheel.”

At issue is not just scores awarded at a particular competition but the education and training of thousands of judges and would-be judges around the world.

In the United States, there are about 240 licensed judges and about another 650 graduates of a learner (L) judge programs. In Britain, the total is put at about 1,000.

Further, whatever changes are made will impact not only dressage but also the dressage phase of the Olympic discipline of eventing as well as para-dressage.