1. We’re on your side!

Brenda Minor.

Judges are there to help, not hinder. It’s so exciting to give a score of 9 or 10 for a particular movement that was “very good” or “excellent.” Alternatively, it’s very disappointing to have to give a low score for a poorly performed movement. Most judges recognize when a capable team is having a bad day and we try to reward the good moments. We want you to succeed, and even if the test isn’t high scoring, there should be some positive words of encouragement in the comments.


2. First impressions count

Just like your mother told you, first impressions do count. You may not get a score for turnout, but how you and your horse are presented and how you enter the ring help create the judge’s first impression. Dress for success, enter the ring with confidence and let the judge know you are there for the high scores! Get that 10 for an excellent entry, halt and trot off. Even if the remainder of the test might not go according to plan, at least you looked the part and got off to a great start.

3. We don’t expect miracles to happen – and neither should you

There’s a reason conventional wisdom suggests you should show at a level below that which you are comfortably schooling at home – miracles don’t happen in the ring. Your horse must be confident in the movements and able to execute them easily and accurately, following that training scale which is so important. Isn’t it better to get a high score in an easier test than to struggle through a higher-level test and get a low score? That’s not a confidence-builder for horse or rider.

4. There are no “do-overs”

The old adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” may work in most cases, but not during a dressage test. Judges must score your first attempt at a movement, and that should be your only attempt. Repeating a movement which had a mistake or was poorly executed is marked as an “off course” error, adding a costly deduction to your already low score for that movement. Best to get on with it, forget that it happened and perform the remainder of the test to the best of your ability.

5. No, we don’t hate your horse

Judges are trained to evaluate the quality of training and along with that, the quality of the horse. Some horses are blessed with a higher quality of gaits than others and even if they make a mistake, they may still score higher than a horse that is an average mover. That’s where correct training comes in to level the playing field. Often the ‘little’ things make the difference between a good score and a great score: consistent rhythm, suppleness, steady contact…oh wait, it’s the training scale again! Low scores are usually the result of training issues, accuracy issues and mistakes (or one member of the team being inexperienced in a scary ring). To learn how to improve your scores, compare the judge’s comments for each movement with the criteria stated in the rule book or on the test sheet.

6. We can hear you

Judges don’t just have eagle eyes; we have sharp ears, too. If you click your tongue or speak to your horse in the ring we’ll probably hear it. Yes, even when you’re at A and we’re sitting at C. Using your voice is a costly, since it’s marked as an error and results in a 2 point deduction every time it happens. Not only that, clicking or clucking also alerts the judge that your horse may not be in front of your leg, which will garner a reduced score for rider effectiveness and impulsion. Judges are trained to notice everything!

7. We don’t assign marks at random

Do you know what each mark means? Judges don’t just assign a number to a movement arbitrarily; those numbers each mean something specific. A 10 means “excellent,” not “perfect” (there’s no ‘perfect’ in dressage). Getting a 5 doesn’t mean the judge thinks you should take up another sport. Know the score; read the rule book section concerning the marking scale and review the judge’s comments, which should reflect why that score was given.

8. There’s no need for speed

Professionals know how to get every score possible out of a ride. Often, less experienced riders are nervous and just steer their horse around the ring, going for speed rather than accuracy. Take your time. Use every corner to balance and bend your horse. Each movement in the test is often a setup for the next, so take the time to perform each movement correctly. Prepare ahead of time for transitions and ensure they happen where they are supposed to. Plan your “attack.” You won’t break any world records for speed, but you will achieve higher scores.

9. We have rules, too

Judges invest thousands of hours (and dollars) to become certified and to progress up the judging levels. A large part of our education focuses on learning and understanding the rules so that we can apply them fairly to each horse and rider that enters our ring. Riders need to know the rules too; “I didn’t know” is unfortunately not an acceptable excuse for breaking a rule that forces us to deduct marks or worse, eliminate you from the ring. The rule book contains a wealth of information, covering everything from how each movement should be performed, to what pieces of tack and equipment are prohibited. We wish all riders would read them!

10. We’re only human

Things don’t always go as planned – both in the ring and in the judge’s booth, too! There are times when we don’t have the correct tests, or a mini-tornado sends test papers flying, coffee spills, a sneezing fit… any number of things can happen to disrupt our concentration momentarily on a ride. If a judge misses a movement, we’re trained to give the rider the benefit of the doubt with a positive score. Mistakes do happen, so check your test as soon as it is available. If you believe a numerical mistake has been made on your test, approaching the judge to complain isn’t the answer. There is a process to be followed, and it begins with bringing your concern to the competition management within two hours of the officially posted scores. They will handle it from there. Should you wish to discuss your test with the judge, you must first approach the tournament director or steward, who will then arrange an appropriate time to do so. They will also act as a “referee,” since as we all know, dressage can be very emotional. Most judges are more than happy to calmly discuss your test; however, you must also know that once a score has been posted, it cannot be changed.