FEI Test Boo-Boos

Dressage has always been pretty forgiving of a momentarily addled rider, unlike the hunter/jumper and eventing worlds where, if you have a brief brain freeze and slip past a jump out of order, you’re done. But, that’s about to change.

Going off course in a FEI test can be a costly mistake.

Last month, the FEI voted that a first error in a dressage test would incur a deduction of 2 percentage points (rather than the previous 2 points for a first error and 4 points for a second error), and a second error would mean elimination. Part of the rationale behind the rule change was reported to bring the penalty for rider error in dressage more in line with that of jumper horse sports, and the original proposal was for a deduction of 3 percentage sports. The FEI tests that take effect Jan. 1, 2016 have been printed to reflect this change.

Looking at it mathematically, a penalty of 2 points for one error in a Grand Prix test in the 70 percent range would take the score down less than half a percentage point. Under the new rules the score would drop to 68 percent, not to mention the effect on the rider’s internal panic meter.

Right now, there is a proposed rule change due for the USEF convention in mid-January that would bring FEI tests at national shows in the U.S. in line with the FEI rules at international shows (CDIs). That would prevent two separate scoring systems for FEI tests at either type of show. But, it will also mean two systems of deductions for errors at national shows: 2 percentage points and then elimination for FEI tests, while the current system will remain for tests for Intro through Fourth levels: 2 points for the first error, 4 points for the second error and elimination for the third error (aka fun for scorers!).

It’s likely the USEF rule change will pass. Historically, the USEF tries to keep its rules in line with FEI rules to avoid confusion, especially for riders who compete at both national shows and CDIs. In this case, there will be confusion either way, but the smoother path will be for the USEF rule change to pass so there won’t be two qualification systems involved at the FEI levels. If the rule passes, it should take effect Feb. 1.

The penalty of 2 percentage points will apply for FEI senior tests plus those tests for under-25 and young riders. A penalty of half a percentage point for the first error, 1 percentage point for the second and elimination for the third will apply for junior, pony, children and young horses.

I really don’t think this is a great move on the part of the FEI. The main emphasis in dressage has always been about the quality of the riding rather than relatively minor considerations, and this goes against that emphasis. If the rationale was indeed to provide fairness to the jumping disciplines, my feeling is that it doesn’t work well to rebalance fairness by taking something away from one group in lieu of giving something to another group.

What really caught my eye after the FEI vote in November was a comment by Carl Hester that this would put “crazy pressure on judges.” Well, the crazy pressure is mostly on the riders. However, it will certainly affect judges, too, because some errors can be rather a gray area.

Sure, turning right instead of left at C leaves no doubt about whether an error has occurred. But, for example, take a movement across the diagonal that was supposed to go to H but ends up at S. Did the rider aim at S (thus an error), or did the horse drift sideways (thus a lower score but not an error)? Does the judge call it an error and deduct two percentage points, or should she call it poor riding and deduct a couple of movement points? Can she always tell? Of course, areas of uncertainty should be decided in favor of the rider, but with the new rule there could be added consideration for some of these calls.

One way or the other, anyone entered in an FEI test should really make sure they know whether turn right or left at C. Or, where the free walk starts? Or, where the last halt ends? Or, where . . . .