Monday, June 7, 2021

in which we are judged accordingly

So.... Charlie and I have a pretty spotty history with schooling dressage shows. And by "spotty," I mean... abysmal lol....

Who could forget that time I took a very green Charles to a small local show back in 2017, when the dressage judge scolded me for attempting such advanced tests as ... BN-A with a horse who obviously needed to go "back to the basics." Like. Ma'am. This is the basics. The basics *is* this. What the ever loving fuck do you think we're doing here??? 

Ahem. Cough cough. 

let's just pretend charlie always trots like this, m'kay?
More recently, in 2019, we came back to the same show the day after participating in a gallop clinic. And the judge was *horrified* by the state of Charlie's soundness. Literally appalled that I, an on-farm rider who literally paid $20 for some mileage in the ring, would dare to present my horse to her in such a condition. Refused to provide any feedback whatsoever, and requested I scratch my second test. 

Which, obviously, I did. I also went ahead and complied with her second (unspoken) request by having a full on meltdown existential crisis over failing this horse that I love more than just about anything else in life.  

LOLZ in case you thought our days of seeing "labored" in the judges comments were over
Now, sure. It's not the judge's responsibility to consider any sort of environmental or external factors when evaluating the horse put before them. 

There is zero expectation that a judge be understanding in the case of a rider who is just learning how to integrate gallop training into a fitness program, and therefore might not realize how it impacts her horse's delicate feet.

But... Call me crazy, but I think there is an expectation that judges do what is asked of them upon being presented with a dressage test: provide feedback. 

aw honey, what a good boy. ahem, emma, fix yer wrists wtf
And by "feedback" -- I don't mean tell me whether you think my horse or I have a future in dressage. Or whether you like my horse or not. I don't really care how Charlie compares to a purpose bred warmblood, or whether I ride in the style of Charlotte or not. Bc, spoilers: that's not why we're here. 

I go to dressage shows bc.... Honestly? It's something to do with my horse. It can be a fun way to spend a day with friends. 

To get show experience that is often lower-key (and lower-risk) than jumping classes. To mark a day on the calendar. Get dressed up, and gussy the horse up too. And go out and do the thing, possibly walking away with some nice pictures, maybe even a ribbon, and -- importantly -- feedback on where things are with our training. 

pictured: what our trot normally looks like in those 10m half turns....
And when it comes to deciding what tests to ride at a show.... Honestly, as a jumping rider who must consider our likely safety in jumping certain heights and combinations, well... Let's be real. The idea of blowing a leg yield in a dressage court sounds pretty low consequence lol. So I often see schooling dressage shows as an opportunity to "level up," so to say.

On this particular day, actually -- it was even simpler than all that, tho. I had "Free Ride" credits with the local dressage association from being secretary for them last year. And the show was at home haha. 

AND. Most importantly: I've had the pleasure of scribing for a few judges who struck me as.... let's say, 'good stewards for the future development of the sport.' By which I *do not* mean they were adept at identifying the next CDI campaigner or whatever. But rather, they took each rider and horse as they were, and judged their tests with an eye toward helping riders continue on their path. Whatever that path may be. 

big horse did a great job in his canters, at least as far as he knows
Because -- I know this might shock you, but.... Sometimes, riders who show up to do low level dressage tests at a schooling show are... exactly that. There to ride a low level test, and should be judged according to the level's standard - and nothing more. Intro level riders aren't 2nd level riders. And 2nd level riders aren't PSG riders. It really is that simple.

As far as I can tell, the VAST majority of english riders will never ride above 1st level or jump above 3'. Most don't even do that, let's be real. Tho ya know, feel free to chime in if you disagree with my anecdotal observation lol.

Anyway, one of these "good steward" judges has been on my list to ride with for basically years now, but it just never quite worked out. When I saw she was judging this weekend tho, I was allllll over it. Not bc I thought she'd give us inflated scores or whatever (tho probably she did). 

charlie can look quite compact from the right angles lol
But.... Bc I figured, at the very least, she probably wouldn't fill my soul with doubt, or make me question every single choice I've ever made with this horse. Rather, I expected she'd likely give us useful feedback. 

Which, naturally, she did. Sure, none of it is groundbreaking --- she wants the same from Charlie as every other judge and dressage trainer wants from him. More engagement, more power from the hind quarters. More push for bigger more quality gaits. 

And, in scoring the test, she did exactly the thing I generally expect (rightly or wrongly) from dressage judges: provide feedback on a score-by-score basis.

his face tho <3 charles murray, just doin his job, ma'am!
There were some movements I thought went better than others. Did the scores reflect that distinction? Yes! -- but, only in places. There were some movements I thought I really went for it (like our canter lengthenings), but... the comments indicated there's still more needed there. 

Some movements that felt better than others -- like the leg yield left vs the leg yield right -- did in fact score better, but she also identified some issues that need fixing even in the better side. 

Overall, the detailed commentary - combined with my memory of the tests, and the video footage (snagged by a very saintly ring steward -- thanks!) - allows me to take a thorough clear look back and say, 
"Yes, this felt good and scored relatively well compared to the rest. That felt like it needed work - and the judge identified xyz as the problem. This other thing felt atrocious but actually the judge liked where it was going."
Which.... is a long-winded way to say, it felt like an effective temperature-check of Charlie's flatwork, and that the judge's comments added definition to my understanding of how it went. 
 
(also omg the screaming deafening cicadas omg)

It's not groundbreaking stuff -- nothing earth shattering. As we've known for a while, the tune we hit in our "lengthenings" is actually probably right about where our "working" gaits need to be. For reference: the stretchy trot circle at the end of our test when I felt like I was getting run TF away with, that's where the judge said she wanted our frame and energy ALL the time*.

(*I'd note here tho, for my own record: In that moment, he doesn't look super downhill, tho obviously he's not very uphill. He FEELS hella downhill, tho, and the way he feels in that moment is 100% a feeling I never ever EVER want at the takeoff point to a jump... so... my instinct has been to err on the side of "but can we jump from this balance?" even when it means sacrificing some of what a dressage judge wants. Excellent riders can make it all happen in one neat tidy package. For me, tho, I've got to pick my battles lol....)

Charlie's also obviously not super round in any of the movements -- which makes sense when you consider I haven't ridden the horse on the bit in our practice for damn near a year at this point LOL. Tho, notably, the comments don't dwell on the connection. 

gosh it's so easy to pick ourselves apart in pictures like this (like wtf am i doing with my shoulders tho?!) but i love what a tank this horse has become <3 <3
So. Overall. I feel like I finally got the experience out of a dressage show that has been so elusive for so many years: We got in there, rode a test that's probably a little beyond our pay grade, and got feedback on where we're doing ok and which parts need more attention. 

Incredible that this feels like such a win haha. But ya know. Maybe your mileage has varied?


34 comments:

  1. There’s a lot to like here. Charlie is looking nice and fit too. I love hope your seat follows him. I can also see what you mean on the stretchy circle. It’s like he went ‘aha! We’re dressaging!’

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    1. ha thanks -- he's such a good boy <3 and re: the seat thing, the resistance band lessons last fall really helped me capture some new positional feelings, and basically all winter i stopped trying to ride the horse on the bit, stopped kicking and nagging him along every step, and just tried to sit a bit nicer on him and hold on to those feelings from the resistance band. i think the horse appreciates it LOL!

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  2. This reminds me of a tirade I want to go on on my own blog... inspired by some truly unkind comments a judge made at a pandemic-era schooling show, to a student of mine showing her once-feral standardbred at Intro. Thankfully, my student has a sense of humor and just rolled her eyes and continued to enjoy her pony, but those types of comments could have easily scarred another rider and turned them off to dressage entirely. I really think that judges at schooling shows, especially at the lower levels, have a responsibility to make the sport inviting. That doesn't mean sugar coating bad moments or scoring generously or anything, but it DOES mean leaving actual, constructive feed back, like you said. What (if anything) is going well? What (if anything) needs work? Ideally, none of that feedback is shocking or newsworthy to the rider. I think tests at schooling shows should mostly affirm that you're interpreting your horse's training correctly. If you get lucky, you get a pleasant surprise like, "I thought that was atrocious, but the judge didn't mind." Sorry for the rant. This is a touchy subject around here. LOL

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    1. dude no. do your tirade. rant away. i will 100% read that LOL. this whole thing was inspired by *VERY* similar feelings and conversations i feel like i'm constantly having with my own riding buddies. like. to all the judges out there: not every horse was bred for dressage. some horses.... have other lives LOL. some are lesson ponies, some are mostly trail horses, some were hard used on the track. most are not in full or even partial professional training programs. but if they want to enter at A and give their best shot at a test, don't you dare dismiss them bc they don't pass some sort of gait purity test lol. and, same vein: not every rider is gonna ride like a grand prix rider. actually, most will *not*. but if they paid their entry fee, entered at A, and rode a test within some semblance of the requirements for the level -- produce feedback for them lol. or ya know. if a judge literally cannot stand the thought of spending a full afternoon judging kids and adult amateurs riding intro and training level tests at a schooling show.... then maybe judging isn't your calling after all haha

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  3. You go girl! Good on you for going out there and doing the thing, and honestly for noticing who the judge was too. I am The Worst at looking up and remembering judges' names and then I get caught out by "Oh yeah this judge always scores people way harsher for no reason" or whatever.

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    1. omg i am also the worst at remembering judge's names -- tho there are a few that i'm starting to learn after volunteering for so many years. bc yea... it turns out, individual judges apparently can play a huge role in outcomes --- which kinda sucks when folks are trying to earn their scores or ride at their favorite venues or whatever and some notoriously stingy or cranky judge ends up getting scheduled for the show...

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  4. I'm glad you and Charlie had a better experience this time out. I couldn't agree more on judging appropriately for the level, regardless of the discipline.

    I have a friend that judged fairs and western shows for eons (her words...lol) and she always carried a bag full of rule books, spare tack bits and old show clothes to help people (adults and kids) out that were new or just learning. She would always take time to provide feedback to the riders.

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    1. aw that is SO AWESOME of your judging friend! that's what it's all about -- every show (especially the local small stuff) can be seen as a learning and/or teaching opportunity. helping a rider out in a moment when maybe they didn't know the rules or made an important mistake or whatever can make all the difference in that rider deciding to keep going in the sport -- vs just being like, sorry no you're eliminated or you suck too much for even the most basic of dressage tests!!

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  5. I'm glad you guys had a better time doing a dressage show this show. My trainers have a mini list that they keep track of judges and they score, and some people are very fair, or very harsh. Took me a long time to view showing like a critique and while the scores are kinda important, like you I care more about the comments on the movements and the feedback, not only from the judge but whoever is coaching me that day so I have more to work on. Or judges are just rude and opinionated. My trainer took L to a third level test a few years back, and she got scored down so badly because the judge was A, sexist and scored all the women lower, and B L wasn't a warmblood.

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    1. ugh that's such a crappy experience for your trainer tho. like, after something like that happening (which, sadly, seems super common) why wouldn't any reasonable rider question whether it was worth bothering at all?? like, it's crazy to me that esp in pure dressage -- riders who are very serious about developing a sales horse or qualifying or whatever actually have to keep those lists of judges to ride with or avoid lol. is that really the intent of the sport?!

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    2. Its just insanity. I love dressage, but sometimes the judges are just not great. Can't do much about it, just keep rolling and hope for the best and keep going. Sometimes we can't avoid those judges. I guess you could argue in the other direction that having a very picky judge could be good for feedback, but at the same time, everyone has an opinion. I do think the judges that go "you missed the point of the level" are horrible and maybe need to go back to judging school for that.

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    3. Agreed completely. I don’t even mind “picky” either, to be honest. Like —this judge above felt my canter-trots were too much like “falling” out of canter vs stepping into trot; whereas the judge at the horse trial we did a couple weeks ago scored those transitions very well. I don’t mind that bit of pickiness AT ALL bc it’s useful constructive feedback that I can use to better understand how to improve, ya know? And I guess that’s kinda the point. When the feedback is constructive, we can do something with it. But when it feels like a judge just didn’t like the horse or rider or didn’t feel like some sort of standard was met…. That makes it much harder as a rider to know what to do next. Like. At least in jumping, the poles and clock don’t have much gray area haha - you don’t really have to guess whether a jump went well or not, it’s not totally up to interpretation haha

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  6. I took the horse from hell to a dressage show right before I decided to throw in the towel with him. Looking back, WHY??? I couldn't ride him at home half the time... It was insanely windy, to the point that flower pots were blowing across the arena. I was so, so happy that we managed to complete both tests without any errors. Intro A and B, mind you. The judge wrote some kind of comment that I was basically missing the whole point of dressage and needed to reread the test. Um, thanks, cause that was helpful...

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    1. wow wtf tho.... i hear stories like that and wonder if maybe the *judge* is missing the whole point here?? like, what exactly do they think intro level exists for?! ugh, sorry you had to deal with that added layer of frustration :(

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  7. I really identify with this post, and I'm glad you had a good experience. I remember one training level show we were getting comments and marks deducted for requirements well above the level. Sorry, we are at the very basic level, she is forward and relaxed, showing her natural gaits, I am happy. It is IMO unfair to deduct marks looking for more uphill or elevated movement or to compare us with some imaginary GP prospect.

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    1. dude --- seriously tho! like i get that judges have an 'ideal' in their mind, and that the horse's way of going is a big part of dressage. but.... it is NOT (nor should it be) a requirement for horses (esp at the lower levels) to meet that textbook ideal in terms of build or movement. realistically, horses that can't achieve the desired carriage or balance of upper level dressage just... won't be able to accomplish upper level movements lol. that kind of problem sorta takes care of itself, ya know? no bitchy judge's comments needed haha. but the lower levels? just about any riding horse out there can probably get through most of 2nd, even if it's not super 'beautiful' -- and idk why anybody would want to discourage that

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  8. I absolutely agree with your anecdotal observation - most riders aspire for more than they will ever attain. I do think that at the schooling level judges should be not putting on their best Robert Dover impersonation and thinking their making selections for the next Olympics, but I do think (as someone who doesn't even get comments or feedback on their rides at any horse show lol) that if provided enough time between tests, judges should give maybe more detailed feedback on what the rider should do to get to the next rung... then again tho... maybe that's what trainers are for LOL.

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    1. ha yes - exactly -- some of these judges out there really think they're part of some bigger important selection committee. like, no, guys. ain't nobody calling me up for tokyo haha, let's not get it twisted.... i just wanna ride this test of our training and get scored on it with comments that are actually constructive lol

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    2. I’m reminded of the time the judge left the comments blank, gave me an average score, then pulled my husband aside on lunch break and told him to buy me a new horse to move up on. How was any that helpful for me and the horse I own now? New horse to move up to what...second level? I’m decidedly sub average and Tokyo’s definitely not calling my name in this lifetime. Plus I pay for my own horses, thank you very much. Last rant for today, promise :D

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    3. omg no please, rant away --- it's amazing to me just how many horror stories are out there. like, what the ever loving fuck was that judge thinking saying that to your husband?? do they even know what an adult amateur is?? like, c'mon haha. most of us have one horse that we pour basically all of ourselves into -- so much more than just what happens inside the show ring. do they really think that whatever 5min test they observed is worth throwing away everything else we might have with a horse bc the judge perceives the horse to not be upper level potential?? honestly, it's kinda amazing... ugh

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  9. Wow, those are pretty negative experiences in the past. Good for you and Charlie for getting out there and giving it a go again, and good for this judge for actually understanding the point - constructive feedback! I love your video annotations of the test, great educational experience watching.

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    1. ha thanks! poor charlie, all the judges see him coming in with his big beautiful elegant body, and then end up woefully disappointed when we trot around in our dinky little trot like a golden retriever in a doggy wheelchair haha... sorry guys, charlie left a piece of his hind end on the track, whadya want form him??

      lolz... for real tho, glad you enjoyed the annotations in the video. transcribing all that out was almost like a little mini riding lesson unto itself, thanks to the helpful commentary

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  10. Omg I can't believe some of the experiences you have had with judges in the past. So sorry to hear that! I'd melt into a puddle too. Glad you had a good go this weekend and got appropriate feedback. About damn time!

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    1. dude for real tho, we've had A TIME trying to reconcile judges' snap impressions of charlie with what my vets, trainers, and other various professionals in his life say and think... and judges have not been shy about casually suggesting some pretty unpleasant things about the horse. which like, guys, no, plz don't say that about my precious unicorn :'(

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  11. That is crazy, glad you had a better experience. My trainer said at a schooling show they are supposed to comment for any score below 7. During the pandemic some did not speak to people, but they at least wrote notes.

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    1. yea i'm so glad this judge was so thoughtful too! definitely made for a super educational and positive experience!! imo it's not really just about the comments -- but whether the comments are actually constructive or not. example: i've had tests where every single movement has the same exact comment written in the box. like... ok, judge, i get your point. but ffs, isn't there literally *any other bit of insight* you could also conceivably offer about the selection of movements i just rode in front of you?? lol... maybe i'm just being too picky in what i expect from these people tho??

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  12. ABOVE THE BIT. THAT IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY TO YOU MA'AM.

    Hahaha omgggg tho. I volunteered at a schooling show yesterday and the judge was sooooo sweet and encouraging for the couple seconds she chatted with each rider after their tests, and everyone was commenting on the good feedback she provided on the tests. And yet the scores were I thought maybe a little low for a schooling show, but ya know what - not one rider complained and I think that's such an awesome balance!

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    1. Ha crazy how that works!! Like. Turns out, riders kinda wanna know what went well and what didn’t — I’ve earned my fair share of 5s, 4s and probably more 3s than I’d care to remember…. But nothing bugs me more than when I really felt like one movement went substantially better than others but they all got the same exact score or comment. Used to happen all the time with Izzy esp with judges who hated when she’d get a little curling in her carriage. Really tho. Yea esp at schooling shows the point is kinda the feedback. Repeating the same comment again and again just doesn’t quite move the needle lol

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  13. Agree with all of your points here! Glad you had a great show this time! I also agree with your process with Charlie this past year. I think you have to sometimes sacrifice the shape to get the engine running. Once that's reliable you can start to put the pieces back in place. AND ALSO, yes, your flat work is meant to set you up for jumping success, so yeah sometimes it's not what the dressage judge might want. In the wise words of my father... "Fuck 'em"
    (Sorry for the language. But it's appropriate. Lol)

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    1. Lol strong language is always appropriate here haha… and thanks yea it’s been a real journey with Charlie on the flat. He’s a very “front wheel drive” sorta horse when there isn’t a big exciting jump in front of him, so it’s really REALLY easy to end up riding him front to back — which is exactly where judges start seeing rein lameness in our tests. And also, like you say, exactly where we run into issues over fences too. Like the horse is so brave and uncomplicated to jump I really don’t want to make my own unreliable self any more influential than absolutely necessary haha. So. Yea lol. Fuck it. We find a balance that works and then push the boundaries from there!

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  14. Totally agreed! Judges that provide useful feedback are fantastic. I remember asking one judge after I won a class what else I could do better, because there's always room for improvement (it was a simple flat class). And they said, "You won, what more can you want to know?" Like....Okay. Thanks. lol
    I'm glad you were able to have her as a judge tho! She gave good feedback that you're able to take and apply to how it best works for you and Charles! Those judges are definitely wonderful!

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    1. definitely.... i does depend on the class too. some types of classes, like a jumper or xc round, there's no expectation of feedback from the judge. some hunter classes like derbies etc will produce a numeric score, but idk if competitors actually get any info on how the score breaks down. in dressage, tho, there is a specific "comments" box on the test returned to competitors, with judges expected to provide info on their scores. it's definitely great when they actually do so in a way that helps us figure out how to do better next time!

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  15. I 100% agree with you that judges have got to lighten up on the lower levels - certainly not in terms of scoring (otherwise you suddenly find yourself in 2nd or 3rd level with huge training holes), but definitely in terms of comments. There is absolutely no reason why criticism can't be constructive in the comments - and judges need to remember that they are scoring five or ten minutes of a horse's career, not the entire career.
    In South Africa at least, judges are the gatekeepers of showing and dressage. One single kind judge at a crucial moment in my first few dressage shows gave me the confidence to give it another shot despite a poor score. But on the other hand, demoralizing experiences with patronizing judges ruined showing shows (kinda like hunters) for me, and I won't be going back.

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  16. Glad you had a good show and got some realistic and helpful feedback for a change!

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