Age Limits of FEI Officials to be Abolished, Replacement With “Competency” System Promised by FEI but to “Take Some Time”

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American 5* judges Linda Zang, Gary Rockwell and Anne Gribbons. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Nov. 12, 2018

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

Age limits on international dressage judges and other officials are likely to be abolished and replaced by a “competency based evaluation system” as part of a sweeping makeover of decision-making of equestrian competitions.

A lengthy list of recommendations including more education and accountability has been drawn up by an International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Officials Working Group led by Canada’s highly respected Mark Samuel to develop from scratch an evaluation system for officials.

Ingmar de Vos, the FEI president running unopposed for a second term, said in a report for the annual General Assembly of the governing body of international horse sports: “I will continue my quest to abolish the age limit of officials and to replace it by an evaluation system based upon quality and ability.”

Implementation of a complete makeover will require additional staff and technical support, the FEI said, “but this complex matter is one of the FEI’s priorities and we will devote the necessary time and resources to work on this important task.

“A newly appointed Director of Education and Officials will have to establish a clear roadmap for this, including a well-defined career pathway with clear promotion and demotion rules and the education system will be reviewed in a harmonized way,” it said. “In addition, FEI Campus will be further developed to provide the necessary tools for improved education of our Officials.”

No timetable was given for changes that have been sought for years.

Whatever happens will not, however, come in time to impact the current system forcing judges to retire at the age of 70 with an option for two extensions each of one year that will see the aging out of several top ranked FEI 5* judges around the world.

The number of American 5* judges, for example, will be cut to two at year’s end from the current four with one of the remaining two scheduled to be retired at the end of 2019. The age limit forces the retirement at year’s end of Gary Rockwell, who became a 5* judge in January 2008, and Anne Gribbons, appointed a year later. Linda Zang, who became an “O” later designated 5* judge in 1994 and was appointed to the Judges Supervisory Panel in 2014, reaches the age limit at the end of next year.

Anne Gribbons, who also was the United States team coach from 2009 through the 2012 Olympics, and retired American 5* judges Lilo Fore and Axel Steiner have opposed the current mandatory age limit, more for the loss to dressage of experience and mentoring of younger judges than any personal satisfaction being on ground juries.

All continue to judge at national shows where the United States has no age limit, similar to many countries including Europe, though not in Switzerland where the FEI is based.

Axel Steiner taking a rider’s salute at the Sydney Equitana World Cup Freestyle, the last CDI to be judged by the American FEI 5* official. Photo: Patrick Jackson

“I do support a medical exam for all officials over 70 to prove fitness to perform,” Axel Steiner told dressage-news.com. “I further agree that ‘older’ judges should not be assigned to major championships like Olympics, WEGs, World Cups, etc. Not that they could not do it, but to give younger, up and coming judges these unique experiences. Some of these opportunities come along only once in a judge’s lifetime.

“I do, however, support that all FEI emeritus judges be allowed to continue to officiate on regular CDI panels, together with less experienced judges, in order to provide mentorship to them (one emeritus judge per panel). This idea of mentoring by emeritus judges could also be done at our national shows. We need more panel judging, and one emeritus judge could be very helpful to junior judges on the panel. I know for a fact that riders would love this idea, and it would be a win-win situation for all concerned.

“We have lost some of our senior FEI judges in recent years, will lose several this year, and lose more next year. This is a drastic drain of judging experience, and it will take some time to rebuild this reservoir of knowledge.”

The appointment of 5* judges–what used to be “O” or Olympic officials required for top championships–are recommended by the Judges Supervisory Panel with the final decision made by the FEI Dressage Committee. The succession pipeline of judges in the United States and some other countries has, according to officials, not kept up with qualifications required to judge at Olympics and major championships as well as the ability to work on panels of up to seven judges as currently employed at Olympics, world and European Championships and World Cup Finals.

The decline in the number of judges outside Europe raises another issue that few like to admit.

The FEI, sources have told dressage-news.com, has compiled evidence based on scores from years of competitions of clear nationalistic judging. That was a factor in proposing the so-called “high-low” system to drop the highest and lowest scores for each movement at top sport, but was dropped because of widespread opposition before it was implemented.

A decline in the number of judges from nations such as Australia, Canada, Italy and the United States, that, for example, will be impacted by aging out will lead, some officials believe, to too much influence in too few countries.

“I would suggest eliminating the rule,” said America’s Anne Gribbons who was president of the ground jury at the Tryon World Equestrian Games, “reinstating the 5* judges who would be willing/able to continue or return to judging. Perhaps the ones who have been absent for, as an example, two years or more need to apply and be tested for rules and changes such as DOD (degree of difficulty for freestyles) and other novelties; request a regular medical exam of eyes, general fitness and condition of any person over 75 on a biannual schedule.

“I doubt there would be a big rush to return but it could preserve some knowledge and experience still valuable to the sport while the new 5* judges get broken in.”

Although national federations and show organizers want to retain the right to appoint some officials, the FEI is expected to insist on naming at least some officials by creating a development pool to deal with officials dropping out after completing courses and passing exams because they get no chance to put their knowledge into practice.

A rotation system for some categories of officials has also been proposed by the working group to break the mold of the same officials always officiating at the same events–common in dressage, exacerbated by the fact that European shows rarely pick up the costs of importing judges from North America, for example, in the same way as organizers in the U.S., such as the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida, commit to importing as many foreign judges as possible. Warm weather in mid-winter, payment multiple times that of Europe, and VIP hospitality also doesn’t hurt in attracting judges to Florida.

Some riders who have spent many years developing their skills, competing outrageously expensive horses owned by sponsors complain about being judged by inexperienced officials with no accountability and are reluctant to challenge decisions for fear of retribution.

At the same time, judging is not a lucrative enough pursuit, some say, to be second-guessed and criticized to the extent it becomes too unpleasant; payment required by FEI rules is €120/US$135 a day but multiple times that paid at Wellington’s Global.

Lilo Fore (with arms full of flowers) at ceremony at Dressage at Devon on her retirement as a judge. Photo courtesy Janet Foy

Lilo Fore of the United States, who became a 5* judge in mid-2013 late in her career and aged out 3 1/2 years later, sums up many of the issues.

The age limit, she said, was implemented to give all judges a chance to officiate at top international competition such as the Olympics and world championships.

Show managers in Europe, she said, use European judges for international competition mainly and understandably because of cost. But even in the U.S. Europeans are  mainly used and in some instances there is only one American on a panel.

Show managers who chose the judges cater to the riders, as competitors make the show, she said, but these decisions “cause hardship for many of our American international judges to have enough competitions to keep their license.

“Europe, very rarely asks American international judges unless they have the 5* status and even then in many instances they even want them to pay the travel cost or part of it which no American show manager ever does to an official. We treat our judges with more respect.”

Aging out is a a problem that is solving itself but, Lilo said, in a bad way as North America will barely have any international judges left by the end of 2019.

“Why is this rule still in existence? It does not make sense any more as we do stay more healthy, get older with still having all our brain cells working full power.” The age limit “is a very ridiculous rule and should be eliminated.

“Our country has proven its skill and grown so much internationally and should have the proper number of FEI Officials to represent our sport. Our aged out judges have experience, so much more to give, are willing to continue giving to the sport but are being dropped without any reward for all the years they have given to the sport.”

“I am looking back and remember all the amazing knowledgeable judges which have been retired. The judges who are now being retired and the ones who are going to be in the next years to come.

“It is a ridiculous rule to eliminate that expertise, that knowledge. Yes, we are all still involved but with no deserved international designation.

“Why not just limit the amount of international competition to the number that we must do to keep our status, limit the number of top international competitions these judges can officiate but keep them in the FEI fold and allow them to help keeping the high status of our sport and being able to show our judges skill, have health test done every two years for judges 74 and older.

“The age limit should be removed for all officials. Equal for all. Honor their long years of service, not just drop them out of the FEI.”