What do breed scores really tell you?

J. Ashton Moore on interpreting breed scores
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Credit: Susan J Stickle A lot goes into breed scores

Credit: Susan J Stickle A lot goes into breed scores

Question: I am thinking about purchasing a 3-year-old warmblood who was presented at a breed show. He got a score of 7.5 and placed second. Is this a good indicator that he is a suitable dressage prospect? What kind of scores do exceptional horses get?
Name withheld by request

Answer: I wish it were this easy. Certainly, on the face of it, a score of 7.5 is quite presentable. But it may have been earned in several different ways that may be important to your decision.

The judging/scoring system: The individual scores/issues that comprise the final score are divided into categories with varying weight: conformation, walk, trot and general impression. They all enter into the final score in various degrees of importance. The general impression is rather a vague score, and for some judges is mainly about behavior.

It is possible for the horse to be beautiful—picture-perfect—and get high scores in conformation and perhaps in general impression. At the same time, the horse might have less-impressive scores for movement. Or it might be the case that the score for trot is high (8.5) and the score for the walk is not so good (5.2) or vice versa. This can be an issue of behavior, not just quality. Some youngsters are uptight or frolicsome under the show circumstances and might break into canter during the trot or jig in the walk reprise. The judges agonize about how to score a gait that is not well or clearly shown; we have to judge what we see, not what we assume is the horse’s capability. So we might have to give a score that we feel doesn’t really reflect the horse’s quality and accept that a lesser horse, who shows better, might score and place higher.

The number of entries in the class: In a big class of high-quality horses, second place is quite impressive. In a class of two or three modest ones, it may not indicate much.

The stage of development: Some horses, even through their third year, are variable. They may be lovely one week and resemble a dinosaur the next. You can’t tell that from a score or placing. The good news is that they will usually end up as good as their better moments, but you might turn down a “wowzer” during a temporary ugly or ungainly phase. One of my best stallions produced babies that lurched from ugly to gorgeous by the month; another of my stallions produced babies that were tidy and cute throughout their youth.

The presentation: There is a big difference between buying a horse off a score sheet or published score/placing and actually seeing him go and comparing him to the other horses. In a poor presentation, there may be only a few good steps—but enough for you to be able to assess the horse’s real capability, irrespective of score. Sometimes seeing the horse cavort can give you valuable information about his athleticism. 

Access to the scoresheets: This could make a difference. Some good judges make extensive remarks that can be helpful; some don’t.

The pedigree: It’s a good idea to research the pedigree. What is the breed (some are not considered cantering breeds: e.g., Hackneys, some Friesians and Standardbreds)? What are the bloodlines? What has the sire begat? What has the dam produced? Her sire? Sometimes we hear that such-and-such a stallion is from a “jumping line” or a “dressage line.” I take that with a grain of salt. Several of my best dressage-producing stallions were considered “jumping lines.”

Reputation of the breeder/owner/seller: Is the owner the breeder or is this a resale (not necessarily bad—some good dealers/sellers go out and about and select promising young prospects for resale—a sort of pre-selection)? Is this a one-mare breeder or a big-time breeder? If it’s a big-time breeder, does he/she have any good competition horses that have come out of that program? If possible, contact people who have bought from that breeder to get an idea if he/she represents the horses realistically and is easy to deal with. Ask if the seller thinks the horse is amateur-suitable. Ridability can be more to the point than characteristics of a dazzling volcano.

Character, temperament and personality: Most Americans are vague about this. Simplistically put, character is qualitative: good will. Temperament is quantitative: self-motivation—excitable, nitwit or slug. Personality is everything else: timidity, shying, acceptance of pressure, tendency to experiment, etc. A cheerful, exuberant, inexperienced horse who cavorts and ruins the presentation is quite different from a horse who tries to kick or bite or strike or is mulish. You can’t get much information about this from a score or a scoresheet. 

The canter: Canter is not shown nor judged, yet it is an important gait. Much of the work and many of the dressage test movements are performed at canter—much more than at walk. If I had my druthers, I would definitely like to see the canter somehow—free, on the longe line, in long reins—in person or on video.

Finally, the really good horses (if they are shown well and performing well on that day) would usually score in the 8s. But a splendid horse might fuss and fiddle and cavort and get low scores. A more modest horse might perform consistently and get better scores. And there is that nagging canter issue—not addressed during in-hand presentations. 

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J. Ashton Moore is a USEF “S” dressage and sporthorse breeding judge and co-author of the USDF Glossary of Judging Terms.

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