The Benefits of a Dressage Judge’s Perspective

Kathy Rowse explains a lesson she wishes she had learned sooner in her dressage career.
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Judges must learn and use correct terminology and become extremely descriptive in order to give reflective comments. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - arnd.nl )

Judges must learn and use correct terminology and become extremely descriptive in order to give reflective comments. (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst - arnd.nl )

I wish I’d known then that becoming a judge would have such a tremendously positive impact on my riding, training and teaching.

Other professionals I have met in my career have said to me they don’t want to become a judge; that their focus is on riding, teaching and competing. Many years ago, USDF “S” judge Carter Bass encouraged me to start my judging career by applying to enter the USEF “r” judging program (the USDF “L” Education Program wasn’t implemented until the year after I received my USEF “r” license). Although it certainly is a big commitment in time and resources, it has been well worth the investment in my education and was instrumental in my development as a rider, teacher and trainer.

I learned that I had to be more attentive to the basics of the Training Scale instead of only the description of the movement. The late Edgar Hotz and FEI 4* judge Jayne Ayers were my instructors in the “r” program. They developed my appreciation for the presentation of correct basics. Edgar advised us to avoid “laser-beam” judging. Jayne asked us to identify the “weakest link” in a performance. They both improved my ability to see the big picture, evaluate quality and decide if the training is going in the right direction and where to improve.

Judges must learn and use correct terminology and become extremely descriptive in order to give reflective comments. Studying the USDF Glossary of Judging Terms gives you a whole new appreciation of correct and varied comments. It requires a different set to accurately give comments that reflect what is going on in the arena instead of spouting generalities.

As a judge, you never ignore rhythm issues and you learn to separate impulsion issues from submission issues. You recognize and appreciate not only a correct position, but the effect of the aids on the performance of the horse. Judges are always advocates for the horse and we are committed to helping shape the sport.

At shows, riders sometimes shift blame to the judge for their less-than-optimal scores. Successfully navigating through the rigors of the USEF judging programs gives you an appreciation of the time, education and commitment that judges bring to their position. Remember that before you can even apply to enter a judging program, you have to have demonstrated competence by earning scores above the level at which you will be learning to judge. It’s one of the few sports where you have to prove that you can perform what you eventually will judge. While earning your license to judge from C, you get a very good view of what simple things like a straight entrance or a balanced and effortless transition look like.

Once you become a USEF judge, there are minimum requirements to keep your license, including an educational forum once every three years. I have strongly felt that I should do much more than the minimum and try to attend at least one judging forum each year. Earning your license is just the beginning. I always want to improve and refine my skills. The more I learn, the better I have found I become in all my dressage endeavors.

Not everyone may feel that they have the judicial temperament or the endless energy and dedication that it takes to judge all day, giving accurate scores, useful comments and placing the class in the right order. Even those who don’t wish to become USEF judges will find that undertaking the USDF “L” program and becoming an “L” graduate will give you a great education to be better riders, trainers and instructors to your students.

The bottom line is that judges help shape the future of the sport when we reward good training. Becoming a judge was and continues to be an important component of my overall dressage accomplishments and I sincerely feel that it was one of the most important steps that I have ever taken in my career. 

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Kathy Rowse is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, a USEF “S” judge, and a member of the USDF “L” Education Program faculty. Together with her husband, Mike, she operates Silverleaf Dressage, a training facility in Suffolk, Virginia.

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