Chatting With Robert Dover about the Fairness Of Our Present Judging System

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When I wrote my last report for the World Cup I informed the horsesdaily readers that I had one more bit of information to bring you.  While at the World Cup I had a chance to chat with Robert Dover and of course I took the opportunity to pick his brain.  There are so many things happening in the Dressage world these days that rather than focus on many different topics I decided to ask Robert what his thoughts are about the present judging system for dressage and what he thinks (if anything) should be done differently.  With the upheaval that happened at the FEI over the past six months I was curious as to what the future holds when it comes to fairness in dressage.

To be honest, I expected Robert to be a bit more negative about the present judging system and so I walked away from that interview having a better understanding and realization that we all need to be better informed before we toss around our opinions.  What I learned from talking with Robert is that it’s easy for those of us who don’t have as vast a knowledge as the judges and riders and trainers to assume someone was not fairly treated when in fact that may not be the case.

For instance, I still question whether or not when someone makes a major mistake in a dressage test  if they should then be able to get a top placing.  I’m not talking minor here.  A perfect example are the two rides that Isabell Werth had at the Olympic Games when her horse fiercely kicked out and was clearly disobedient in one of the moves and into the transition.

In my mind I can’t quite justify that this is okay.  Yet when I questioned Robert about this he used as an example great skaters who have fallen during their routine and yet have won medals.  His explanation was that each movement gets its own score.  So, while that movement was marked very low, the others were so high that it compensated.

That explanation made me wonder if the real questionmark here is whether or not the system we use to judge the horses and riders is the right system to get the correct results.  It appears that I am not the only one wondering about this because Robert is now on a committee which is looking into how other sports do their judging.

Along those same lines before Robert took the floor I mentioned to him what NRHA President Rick Weaver had said to me.  He wasn’t specific in pointing fingers anywhere but what he did say was that the dressage world needs to take a look at the Reiners’ judging system.  Why?  Because the Reiners have put tremendous time and effort into defining what is correct, what is not correct, what is expected at the basic, middle and high levels and so on.  His point was that the rules are so clearly defined that there is no room for error when judging any particular move.

In response to that Robert remarked.  “It would be worthwhile to look into how their system works.”
In a way, Robert and the committee he is on are already doing that, but instead of looking at the Reiners they are “meeting with members of the figure staking, boxing and gymnastics world  to compare their systems.  We are going to try to evaluate that information because we are creating proposals from the FEI Dressage Task force as a possibility for the future.”

FEI Dressage Task Force at Work

While the FEI Dressage Task Force won’t make any changes they can offer suggestions and facts and so right now they are doing a lot of research and compiling that information.

“We are trying to improve our system of judging and that is the key next task.  I have many thoughts but it is too soon for me to put those forward until we have had these clear discussions and gone through the process.  I will be bringing my opinions to the task force and once we have a chance to discuss everything the result of all of our meetings will be made public.  The summaries will be made public to the stakeholder groups, the national federations and the media,” he commented.
Our conversation continued when I asked what Robert thought about the fairness or politics of judging.  So often you hear people say that a certain horse won because of politics or favoritism but Robert has his own beliefs. 

“Truthfully I don’t believe that there is a failure by the judges to do the very best that they can to come to very fair conclusions,” he explained.  “I think the system has to be looked at and examined in order to discover if there might be better scenarios to provide less room for error.  Even moreso it’s important to allow for the public to feel like they have a great understanding of all that is being considered when scores are brought in.”

Actually, that was exactly one of my points to Robert.  If you were at the Olympic Games and didn’t have the level of knowledge needed to separate the brilliance of a horse like Isabell Werth’s Satchmo from one that is less brilliant then you wouldn’t understand why in the end they earned a medal.  So, even if in the present system they clearly earned that medal because when the points were tallied they had the higher score how do you explain that to someone who can’t see the difference.
Robert went on to say “If you look historically at figure skating there have been gold medalists who did win with a fall.  Does it happen often – no!  But you have to take into consideration that there are X number of jumps plus all of the other points that they either earn or have demerits.  Once you do that you can understand the one fall if all the rest is perfect.  Plus, if others have other kinds of faults even if they don’t fall down then it is possible within that kind of system to have a champion that had that fall.”

Although I do see the comparison of this I still wonder if we can really compare our sport to one that doesn’t involve two live beings.  In response to that Robert went on voicing his opinion.  “There is the complexity of our sport.  We have so many figures that each of these riders go through.  For Isabell’s ride there were so many incredibly beautiful movements where she had amassed an enormous number of points.  She got a low score for the disobedience and it lowered her score in the bottom of her test where she had submission.  She also went on and went right back and did more amazing things.  This is where the divide comes into play with what the public understands and what the judges have to consider in what that final score is.”

Robert explained that in figure skating they come in with a perfect score and then get points taken off rather than how we do it where they get points for each movement and then those points are tallied for the highest total.

Some Examples and Thoughts From Robert

To help clarify things Robert presented a possible scenario.
“Let’s say you came in as a rider from any country and you started off with what was the perfect score as in three-day where they get deductions.  That is what they do in figure skating where they have a perfect score and every time they make a mistake points are deducted.  In that way everyone understands it.”

Okay, so in my mind what Robert was saying was that every mistake has a value.  Say a skater falls and they get a -5 for that or they land wrong and the deduction is -1.5 for that.  Well then why couldn’t we do the same thing in Dressage.  Missing a tempi change would be given a value, not transitioning at the correct letter and so on.  Each mistake would be given a minus point value that then would be deducted from your perfect score rather than the other way around.

One other point about judging and point values in skating is that perfect is not 10 in skating but rather 6. Robert clarified that even further.  “In skating you make such and such a mistake and for that mistake you get so many demerits based on a 6 point value.  The reason that they chose six is because psychologically 10 is what people consider perfect and it is easier to think of 6 being that perfect score.   So, in skating a top score would be 5.9 or 6.  Those mathematical differences are psychological differences.  Why?  Because when you see the best dressage riders are between 70 and 80 and that Steffen got a score of 77.915 in the Grand Prix (84.95 in the Freestyle) that is where we have a real problem.  Yet if you base it on 6 it’s easier for the judges to give a higher score.
(About two weeks after my discussion with Robert he updated me on some changes that are being considered in Figure Skating.  Robert emailed me as follows:  “It seems that, since we talked, the skating world has gone back to a 0-10 range. They still have well understood point demerits for mistakes made and separate judge’s tasks.”)

“We can’t have a sport that the best in the world does not end up with an average that goes with a score that represents that the ride was good or excellent.   This is why I think the model of skating works and this is where I think we need to create systematic changes that would allow for a resolution to this complex problem,” continued Robert.

In essence that’s where things stand right now.  The Task Force is looking at the way we do things now and simply trying to find out if there is a better way.  No matter what the outcome, the goal is to ensure that the correct person wins the class and that the judges have the tools to be able to judge so that happens.

And so that was our conversation.  However, if any of you know Robert you also know that he is a man of opinions and so there was one other point that Robert wanted to make and that was about the cost of buying a good horse. 

So, take it away Robert.

“There is one other problem that I also think needs to be addressed and it’s that these horses have become priced in a way that makes it clearly impossible for great numbers of people to have the kind of horses that we see going into the arena and being at the top of the world.  Do I wish that horses cost what they cost when I was younger?  You bet I do.  It made for a sport that was easier for the world to find horses in.  At the end of the day the cream rises to the top.  The difference is that there are many young people who are capable but not able to purchase a quality horse.  The prices have gone too crazy so there is where it becomes very difficult and we all do the best we can with the horses we have.”

And so all you horsesdaily readers a big thank you to Robert for letting us know that actions are being taken to improve the world of Dressage.  Robert has promised to keep us updated with things as they unfold and you can also visit Robert’s web site to keep on top of Robert’s World.  Just go to

As always, feel free to email me with your questions or comments at