I'm always interested in the subject of conditioning the dressage horse because I don’t think it gets enough attention, especially at Second Level where collection is being developed. I thought about it more this week, however, when I was judging at the Arabian and Half-Arabian Sport Horse Nationals in Raleigh, N.C.
I didn’t see a single dressage test during the six days of judging. Instead, I judged the Sport Horse Division, with in-hand classes in the morning and rail classes in the afternoon. This is an interesting show for me, with all the officials coming from the open worlds of hunters, dressage and carriage. There were no Arabian-specific judges, and the judges knew few—if any—of the competitors. Competitors came from all over the country and Canada, and the classes were well-filled—three rings just for dressage championship classes. Our Sport Horse in-hand and rail classes had dozens of entries, and the rail classes needed preliminary rounds to get them down to a manageable size.
The in-hand Sport Horse classes were divided into “dressage type” and “hunter type,” and I was paired with Peta Cristen of Canada who also judges a lot of eventing. But, for the rail classes, we were paired with hunter judges Danny Robertshaw and Bucky Reynolds, who are judging royalty in the hunter/jumper world and who have done thousands of rail classes in their careers.
Judging rail classes for a dressage judge can be problematic since we’re simply not used to doing them very often. I’ve judged Sport Horse rail classes at Arabian shows before but with much smaller entries. In this case, the classes had 16 to 20 riders each. We were to put our top seven or 10 picks in order. Then our choices were combined to decide the top ten in each division plus the champion and reserve. Specific placings below reserve, other than top ten, were not given.
Dressage judges who do these classes at Arabian shows are always admonished to keep them to between 10 to 15 minutes and faster if possible. There are horror stories about dressage judges running a rail class as long as 20 or 30 minutes or even longer. It plays heck with the schedule but, even more important, it becomes an impossible endurance test for the horses and riders. Many dressage judges, however, just can’t get past their usual duties of watching every move that every horse makes and assigning specific numbers.
I was slower than the hunter judges to start, but not too bad. I queried them about their methods of judging such large classes, and Peta and I were both gratified to learn we could pick up the pace. (I would love to have Danny and Bucky join me for a day of dressage judging and compare notes there!).
There are two types of Arabian Sport Horse rail classes, Sport Horse Under Saddle (roughly equivalent to Training/First Level) and Show Hack (roughly equivalent to Second and above). “Normal” and lengthened gaits are required in Sport Horse Under Saddle, while Show Hack requires “normal,” collected and extended in all three gaits plus hand gallop. That’s where the conditioning that I talked about above became apparent to me.
Think about it. In a regular dressage test, a horse does an extended trot or canter just across the diagonal or down the long side. But in a hack class, the extended gaits will go on around the entire arena (much bigger than a dressage ring), for one or more circuits. If a horse does those 10 different requirements (normal, collected, extended at three gaits plus hand gallop) each for a circuit of the ring in both directions, well it’s easy to see how such a class can run on for a long time and also to see how important it is for a judge to make fast and accurate evaluations (not to mention having a fabulous scribe to help).
I used to think that horses doing rail classes had it easier than dressage horses doing tests but now I’m not so sure, especially when it comes to the Arabian Sport Horse classes. And many of the horses in the rail classes were also competing outside in the regular dressage and hunter classes as well. Yes, they are Arabians and come from an endurance heritage. However, these horses not only demonstrated elegance and usefulness but also toughness as well.