Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

The Dressage World Faces Collective(s) Angst

Leading up to major FEI events, we are often told there will be an update from its dressage judging working group. Some of their decisions are contentious.

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By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

In the run-up to many major FEI gatherings, we are often alerted there will be an update from its dressage judging working group.

It feels like this has been going on for a decade. In fact, the working group beavered away for 18 months but I expect it feels like 10 years to them, too. Goodness knows their 19 recommendations were put out for consultation enough times, so how frustrating and exhausting that at this late stage there are moves to kick much of its work into the long grass.

It’s not even something that can be said to have justified second thoughts over the winter. The vote on the most incendiary change – the axing of collective marks – took place at the 2017 General Assembly in Montevideo – i.e nearly 17 months ago – and was applied on January 1, 2018.

Scores were then monitored closely for six months (the FEI dressage statistics advisor, David Stickland, is a seriously bright guy who has a day job at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider.) The practical impacts gave the working group confidence to declare ongoing discontinuation: collectives rely “upon a longer-term memory retrieval when compared to awarding a mark at the conclusion of each individual movement, there is a lower degree of probability of precision when selecting the appropriate mark and leaves too much to the discretion of each individual judge.”

But now opponents – notably the German team – have weighed in, calling for reinstatement. It’s causing immense angst. Re-introducing the collectives would skew the FEI’s new dressage judging strategy: there will in due course be a code setting out exactly what is expected in each movement and how failure to deliver etc should be marked (I can’t believe there isn’t already such detailed guidance!)

But more controversially, it has been alleged that some judges used to weight the collectives to “correct” an overall score either up or down.

Naturally, some judges have taken offence at this slur on their integrity and competence. And at the same time, it’s being openly stated on erudite social platforms that the riders who used to benefit most from tactical application of collectives were, ahem, the Germans.

What are collectives, for readers who don’t follow dressage? In a set test (as opposed to the freestyle) the choreography is broken up into multiple sections and each is marked out of 10. These scores are added up and the total is then converted into a percentage.

If you fluff one movement, the mind-set is that you can pull your percentage back up by executing following movements spectacularly well. (Not all pastimes that are subjectively judged – gymnastics, skating, international competitions for virtuoso dancers and musical instrumentalists – have that exact same facility.)

Then at the bottom of the judging sheet there used to be a section for general marks for the horse’s paces and submission etc (the collectives that have been scrapped) and for overall impression of the rider (retained for now.)

Opponents note the FEI Dressage Handbook states collectives must “be a reflection of the entire test and a summary of the performance of horse and rider.” Logically, then, they should be the same percentage as the movement-by-movement total. But quite often they are ways apart.

Over the winter, the German elite squad published a critique of the 19 recommendations. There were other things they really didn’t like, including the Hi/Lo drop score proposal. But they particularly insisted the collectives “are essential to value and underline the essentials of dressage training.”

The International Dressage Riders Club, whose president Kyra Kyrklund sat on the FEI working group, recently hit back via Survey Monkey. I have rather enjoyed the fact that critics of the furtive “loading” of dressage scores had no compunction about “loading” their own questionnaire, but I certainly don’t blame them for telling it how they see it!

Here’s what they ask. The first question is about collectives, the second about a more conventional mechanism for “score correction.”

Question 1. So you’ve got some great scores and the rider who ended up in front is someone very well known in the area. All in all, you’re really pleased and incredibly proud of your horse. That’s when one of your fellow competitors walks up to you and says: “You really should have won. It’s only because the rider who won is famous, and got more points in the Collectives.”

What’s your immediate thought?

  • “Surely, it’s unfair that the Collectives are the deciding factor. They refer to criteria that every horse and rider have to show in every single movement throughout the test. To give a mark again, right at the end of the test, after the judge has had to concentrate fully for at least 6 minutes, cannot possibly be an accurate indicator of quality.”
  • “Of course the famous rider should get more points in the Collectives. Even though I got some good marks, that rider is famous for a reason and has been given lots of great scores in the past.”
    Don’t know.

Question 2. After your recent success at the show, you’re now more determined than ever to become the best rider you can be. To see the world’s top riders in action, you’re at the dressage team final at the World Equestrian Games. And it couldn’t be more exciting! The world’s top two dressage nations – let’s call them “Team A” and “Team B”, are almost tied with Team B 2% ahead of Team A.

Controversially, one of the judges has just awarded Team A’s top rider a score that was 5% higher than the average score of the other judges. It’s caused a lot of controversy, with people claiming it’s not fair, and that the judge has made a mistake. However, the final score remains unchanged.

Then, the last rider of Team B has his turn. Once again, the same judge awards a score 5% higher than the average of the other judges. This time, however, the Judges Supervisory Panel decides to disallow the 5% and changes the judge’s marks down to match the next highest judge. The result is that Team A wins…

In your opinion, what would be the best way to address these types of discrepancies between individual judges’ scores?

  • In order to remove outliers and therefore prevent any such discrepancies from occurring in the first place, the highest and lowest mark for each individual movement is dropped automatically.
  • If one judge is 5% or more above or below the average of the other judges, the Judges Supervisory Panel should be allowed to revise the score retrospectively, and at their discretion.
  • Don’t know.

One thing that intrigues me is that for all the current campaigning, hasn’t this ship already sailed? Reinstatement can’t happen unless the FEI board (formerly known as the bureau) either uses special powers (which thus far have only ever been used, most sparingly, for horse welfare emergencies) or recommends a potentially embarrassing U-turn at the 2019 General Assembly in November and a majority of its 130-odd member national federations then vote in favour.

It would be extremely rare for the FEI board to go against the findings of one of its own working groups. Victory on this occasion would thus rely on the German federation winning the hearts and minds of rivals in the dressage arena PLUS those a fair few nations that don’t even do dressage. The latter, as history so often shows, usually play safe rubber-stamp whatever the FEI advises.