Summary of the IDOC and FEI Refresher Dressage Judges Seminar

The International Dressage Officials Club (IDOC) has been in existence for twenty years, and the recent evolutions within the FEI have allowed for the club to become an “FEI Associate Member,” representing the judges as a stakeholder group. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to furthering the education of judges and candidate judges, organization of meetings and seminars for judges and the dissemination of information with regard to questions of judgment and dressage tests among many other goals. Membership is available to FEI and Senior dressage judges. This winter, the IDOC and FEI offered a seminar on Feb 11-13, at the Wellington Classic Spring Challenge.
It was organized by the North American IDOC chapter headed up by Canadian Cara Whitham in conjunction with Maribel Alonso of Mexico, head of the Lain American chapter. Forty-five judges from the across the western hemisphere, including Peru, Colombia, Mexico, the United States and Canada were in attendance. Much of the attraction was course director Mariette Withages, one of the premier FEI 5* judges in the world and chairman of the IDOC well known for her dedication to education in the sport. She also will conduct an FEI Pilot program for 2* judges in Korea. Several other of the very best judges in world attended, providing a strong sounding board for the newer judges. Many of the officiating judges also dropped in for observation, as one can never stop learning and developing their eye for this sport

The seminar consisted of both practical and classroom sessions, the curriculum including the FEI Dressage Handbook: Guidelines for Judging, as well as the FEI rules, which, incidentally, are available to all, not just judges, through the FEI website, In addition, the course packet included a copy of the new Olympic Grand Prix Special (which has been shortened to allow more competitors--also available on the FEI website) and the FEI directives for Assessing the Degree of Difficulty in a Freestyle Test.

The first morning, the group dove right into judging the PSG. As a CDI * and Pan Am qualifier, it was a great opportunity to observe some of the best horses in the country. Mariette warmed up the judges with a succinct commentary and crisp score designation. She emphasized the criteria for each movement and the meaning of the marks, that an 8 is GOOD, while a 7 is FAIRLY good, and so on, while reinforcing the methodology of how one arrives at those marks in a split second. Special emphasis was placed on “appreciating” the good qualities of every movement shown, while using the shortcomings as modifiers to the scoring. The microphone was passed around to other participants as Ms. Withages supervised closely and corrected scores as needed. Much discussion centered around the collective marks: the evaluation of the quality of the gaits, differentiation between impulsion and submission (the “can he” or “won’t he”--he being the horse!), and of course, the rider’s influence….positive or negative.

The next phase of the program naturally focused on the Grand Prix. Of special importance is obviously appreciating the quality of the piaffe and passage by the rhythm and regularity as well as the expression and the transitions between the two. The sequence of the movements is incredibly quick, a judge’s reflexes must be well tuned to match the timing. One does not have the luxury to stop and think, but a good grand prix judge must almost instinctively grasp the essence of each movement, spot the strengths and weaknesses, and record them accurately.

FEI Dressage Committee Director, Trond Asmyr, Stephen Clarke, and Bo Jenna judging at the Wellington Classic Dressage CDI
FEI Dressage Committee Director, Trond Asmyr, Stephen Clarke, and Bo Jenna judging at the Wellington Classic Dressage CDI

The group was also treated to a personal address by FEI Dressage Committee Director, Trond Asmyr. Mr. Asmyr gave a brief report on the FEI Dressage Committee’s progress with experimenting with numerous judging systems and gave us a firsthand view as to how 2 more judges will be added to the panels on the short side at A. Beyond that, he was most encouraged to see so many judges participating in the seminar and lauded the efforts of Mariette and the IDOC. Pertinent to some of this discussion was the introduction of half points by the FEI (note: NOT by the USEF for national shows), the theory behind it and most appropriate usages.

The second day began with an in-depth ethics and theory session incredibly well prepared and detailed by Ms. Withages via power point. Mariette sought to stress the responsibility of the dressage judge to competitors and the sport and holds this group to a high standard, particularly when dealing with the media. Increasing and encouraged transparency is a theme throughout her educational programs.

The program strives to see that judges are thoroughly trained to evaluate the quality of the horse’s movement as reflected through the classical principles of dressage and the scale of the training tree. The education is focused on solidifying the world-wide standards of quality according to each level, which then must be applied towards the assessment of each dressage movement. The ultimate goal is that a 5 is a 5 and an 8 is an 8 all over the world. From there, the hope, beyond placing the dressage class correctly, is to evaluate the training process and reward quality riding through effective scoring and commenting.

A most affective teaching technique was introduced…..a rather unusual practical group exercise focused on identifying specific judging criteria for canter pirouettes and piaffe. The participants were divided into groups and asked to collaborate on the marks and comments. First, a series of slides were shown of 3 canter pirouettes on each slide and we had to place them, give them a score and comment. Next, it was the same exercise with the Piaffe. It is most difficult to judge from photo stills, but that moment frozen in time did give one an unusual perspective on the criteria. Again, an excellent opportunity to confer with ones’ colleagues and most experienced judges in a constructive setting.

The next portion of the theory covered Freestyle judging. As the most “spectator friendly” aspect of our sport, Freestyle judging is fraught with challenges. The judge must evaluate the technical aspects of the performance as it is happening, (often times having to guess as what movement the rider is actually doing) and then provide the artistic evaluation immediately afterwards, all within moments. Special emphasis was made to recognize specifically those movements that make a freestyle more difficult, as well as how scoring criteria for choreography and musicality. The theory will be put into practice that evening.

After a quick lunch, it was back to the show grounds for the Grand Prix qualifier for the Special, where the seminar participants were divided again into their judging groups. This was another invaluable opportunity to confer with other experts during the actual test. After the class, the entire group reviewed each and every ride, scoring, commenting and critiquing all the way through movement by movement.

Then on to the Grand Prix Freestyle! The group was seated at A, a very interesting and completely different perspective as most freestyles are designed to be viewed best from the front or side. We were to concentrate on the artistic marks, but still they cannot be arrived at separately from the technical side of the score sheet. The first two artistic marks parallel collective marks: rhythm is a reflection of gaits and impulsion; harmony reflects the submission and rider. Choreography is the creative use of the arena and how movements are utilized and put together to show the strengths of the horse, Degree of Difficulty is determined by much more is done beyond the basic requirements and compulsory movements (such as two tempis followed by one tempis, etc. Again, all this is available on the FEI website) and finally, of course, the music and its interpretation….for the walk, trot and canter rolled into one score. Many judges use a checklist type of score card that allow them to compare each ride and thus place the class correctly as it is an extraordinary amount of information and thought process!

The seminar finished up the following morning with the Grand Prix Special. By now, most judges had hit their stride and were in agreement with the various commentary and scoring. Such intensive work lead by an extraordinary team of experts served to solidify a high level of judging ability and bridge knowledge gaps that emerged during the team collaborations, an extremely rewarding outcome.

Thus the goal of the IDOC seminar served to confirm that the international judges possess the extensive knowledge of equine biomechanics along with the basic training scale principles required to accurately evaluate the horse’s quality of movement. These basics always prevail regardless of the level of the test judged. Good judges are intimately familiar with the tests as well as the scoring system and have a special ability to make appropriate, constructive remarks and have positive discussions with riders and trainers. To keep their eye fresh, they must continue to attend these types of seminars and clinics regularly, another reason this particular seminar was so special. It is truly a labor of love.

So next time you ride down the center line, look the judge in the eye. Hopefully you will see a reflection of your own dedication to our wonderful equine partners. And when you review your test, look not only for recognition of your strengths, but an accurate assessment of weaknesses, too. Perhaps you will find new insight into a particular problem. Try to remember that it is only one person’s interpretation of your performance at one moment in time. It is all meant to encourage you further along the wonderful path of discovery that is the dressage experience. The joy is in the journey.

The next IDOC/FEI course will be in Verden ,Germany (3 to 7 August) during the World Championships for Young Horses and the General Assembly of the IDOC. Please note this in your agendas. This Seminar, to be given by Dieter Schuele, FEI 5* dressage Judge from Germany, on judging Young Horses, is open to all IDOC members regardless if they are FEI or national Senior judges. For all FEI judges who wish to take the exam, please ensure that you go through your NF for completing the application form and for the National Federation to send to the FEI.Summary of the IDOC and FEI.