(Today’s post is a ‘take two’ of a blog that I thought I had posted on Friday, but realized today had never actually gone up on the blog, due to vagaries of the cyber universe)

Here’s a prediction for you: I don’t anticipate being nominated for any Miss Congeniality awards by the judges this year. Maybe ever.

During the Global Dressage Fest GP freestyles on the evening of Friday January 29th, I did something I’ve never done before. I posted an opinionated comment on my Facebook page. Some of you might have seen the comment. In it I observed that, according to the scores that had been handed out for the freestyle of Portugal’s Ricardo Wallenstein, only one of the five judges knew his left and right. You see, I had noticed that Ricardo had ridden two double pirouettes to the right in his canter tour, but not even a single one to the left.

My first thought when he finished the ride that lacked a spin in the sinister direction was that the crowd was going to be baffled by the very low marks that would surely be announced. I thought wrong.

The scores, announced after a longish delay before the next ride, were all between 66 and 71 or so, except for Christoph Hess, whose score was around 60. Hence my FB comment about only one judge knowing left from right. But after the next rider had finished, a corrected score for Hess was announced at 68-ish (I was later told that the low score was due to the collected walk having been incorrectly logged as a zero from Christoph’s e-scribe). Hence my next FB comment: that in fact none of the judges knew his or her left from right. Which is when the proverbial merde hit the fan.

It wasn’t long before I learned that my remarks had embedded themselves under some judgey skin. By the next morning I had learned a few more things: that two judges had actually noticed the plenitude of right pirouettes and dearth of left (I was told that Mr. Hess was not one of them). I was also informed that in freestyles the judges have to have unanimous agreement in order to give a zero for a movement. When I expressed great doubt as to the correctness of judges conferring over a mark for ANY movement in ANY test, I was told it was in the judging freestyle guidelines. Having consulted them and found no reference to such a directive, I was then told that this was something the judges are ‘taught’ to do. Kind of a gentlemen’s handshake sort of rule, if you will.

At this point, it was suggested by my interlocutor that this topic should be brought up at an upcoming judges’ pow-wow with Heap Big Chief Stephen Clarke. I replied that talking to Stephen was an excellent idea, and immediately sent him an email about the situation. Stephen of course replied promptly and with a meaningful, detailed response that I could only wish to receive when I send questions to federations. And he didn’t just send the link to the place on the FEI site;  he also copied and pasted the relevant clause so that I didn’t have to go on the hunt myself:

If a compulsory movement has been left out completely and deliberately the judge has to give a zero (0) for this movement.

The scores for both, choreography and degree of difficulty cannot be higher than max. 5,5. It is up to the judge to go further down with these two marks if more than one movement has been left out.

Before I go on my little tear, I’d like to first say that I do not wish to criticize Ricardo Wallenstein in any way. What happened to him was a completely innocent mistake, likely the most common off-course error riders commit in FEI freestyles – forgetting what way one did a pirouette and accidentally showing the same one a second time instead of the one not yet shown. I also want to state that I am not ‘attacking’ the judges, despite accusations to that effect. Judging freestyles is so difficult that it has been argued the human brain is simply incapable of taking in and processing the amount of information the judges are expected to handle when they sit down in their little huts.

However, given the great number of ‘likes’ and comments (not to mention several friend requests from judges!?) to my FB posts, I’ve once again found myself in barking-dog territory and feel compelled to live up to the expectation that I never run away from controversy – especially when there is something to be gained by igniting a discussion.

As I said to Stephen in my email, it might be tempting to dismiss what happened as not being of great consequence. The rider in question finished 14th out of 15 at a CDI 3*, so the stakes were low. Everyone can make a mistake. Everyone. That’s why there is a Judges’ Supervisory Panel at major championships, after all. But I challenge anyone to persuade me that relative importance excuses bad judgment – no pun intended – or unclear policy, both of which I believe are at play here. And of course it is not difficult to imagine this happening in a situation in which the stakes are considerably higher.

Let’s unpack what happened during and following Ricardo’s ride, in order to objectively identify what’s troubling me, and should be troubling some judges:

The rider performed an extended canter on right lead that took him from M to a spot near the quarter line by D/K. He then rode a double pirouette right, followed by a flying change, since he went to K after the pirouette and was now on left rein. Then, 55 seconds later, he rode a second right double pirouette at the end of a diagonal of one tempis that began at H and finished in front of F.  For an average spectator, the impression would have been that there were pirouettes in mirror positions to each other, and it would be easy to assume that their direction was also mirrored. I said spectators. Not judges.

According to my reliable source, two of the five judges noted the omission of the left pirouette. That’s an information-gathering success rate of only 40% from five FEI judges. That one fact on its own should make anyone who places their competitive fate in the hands of the judges feel a bit uncomfortable.

Here is what happened with three judges: in the span of less than a minute, each of them gave his or her scribe four marks for right pirouettes. When a double pirouette is executed, the judge gives a mark for each 360 degree revolution. So three of the world’s most experienced judges all said ‘right pirouette’ four times and ‘left pirouette’ zero times. Unless of course they really didn’t know their left from right, that is. I’m not sure which scenario is more damning.

If the judge correctly identified what direction Ricardo’s horse was turning and gave four right pirouette marks without having noticed the lack of a left pirouette, it is probable the scribe then pointed out to the judge at the end of the ride that there was no mark given for a left pirouette. The judge may then have recalled that the pirouettes had been placed in mirror locations and decided that he or she had incorrectly said ‘right’ instead of ‘left’ for one of the double pirouettes. He or she might then have told the scribe to take two of the marks and put them in for the left pirouette. But look what happens next.

Instead of just giving zeros for the pirouettes they didn’t see (as they should have done), one of the two judges who correctly noted the absence of the left pirouette decided that the other judges should be consulted. The other three had either decided already that they had said ‘right’ when they meant ‘left’, or they simply thought they were looking at a left pirouette when it was a right pirouette.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that there is never a situation in which judges should discuss what mark to give a specific movement after a test is over, whether it’s a four, a seven, a ten or a zero. When they discussed the pirouettes, three of them dug their heels in (despite the probability that at least one of them had already gone through the ‘four rights’ scenario with their scribes) and insisted the left pirouette had been ridden. And in the mistaken belief that unanimous agreement was required to give a zero, two judges gave a mark for a movement that they knew had not been executed.

In what universe would anyone think it’s the right answer to give a mark for something that didn’t happen?

In the spirit of not just b*@tching about something without offering solutions, I would like to propose the following actions (and as a freestyle designer, I have a vested interest in the quality of freestyle judging, after all):

  1. The rules about discussing individual marks amongst themselves be clarified in a document that is sent out to all FEI judges. It is obvious there is not adequate understanding of the rule about giving out zeros in freestyles.
  2. Pirouettes be identified in both the judges’ guidelines and in all freestyle judging education as a movement that needs particular attention paid by the judge, since it’s the most common place for riders to accidentally leave one direction out, and for a judge to miss it.
  3. At competitions where there is video (which is more or less all of them nowadays) there be a clause added to the rules that in the case of at least one but fewer than all judges giving a zero for a movement, the video be watched by the entire jury immediately following the class or in a break (time permitting) so that a correction can be made. It doesn’t take a JSP to look at the video and see that there were a lot of flies in eyes last Friday night.
  4. All FEI judges be required to take an ‘arrogance management’ course. Okay, I don’t think that course exists, but how about a slice of Humble Pie now and again?

As one of my non-DQ friends said the other day, this is a topic that very few people on the planet care about, but we care about it a LOT. If you have survived today’s post to this point and you are not a DQ, I have a reward for you. Here is something 100 percent non-DQ that I hope will send you running to post your indignation on EC’s FB page. Or better yet, send an angry email to the CEO. When I first saw it, I found it so offensive that I immediately suspected that EC’s website had been hacked and the material posted as a joke. But no. It’s for reals. For reals bad taste, EC. And for shame.

I’m giving you a link here, but as EC seems to have accidentally-on-purpose lost the English version of the quotes and put up only the French translation (everything sounds better in French), here is a taste of what The George is being quoted as having said – and keep in mind that this is meant to be an endorsement of The George by our national federation, which I’d like to point out is well over half female:

“I love dressage, but I keep it in its place. Just like if I had a wife…I’d keep Hilary Clinton in her place. I keep aggressive women in their place.”

If this shocks you even half as much as it shocked me, to the point that you don’t believe it, just go on EC’s FB page where the English version of the quote is still appearing from Feb 1 (well, until someone at EC sees this post and ‘disappears’ it from there too – which is why I have  printed the page as evidence).