When you complete a dressage test in competition, at the end of the competition, you should receive a sheet detailing the marks you were awarded for each movement in the test. Some of these marks will be accompanied by comments from the judge, and then at the end of the sheet there should be marks and comments which cover the overall impression of the test, and possibly suggestions about why the marks are as they are, or maybe how to improve them.
Competitions run under British Dressage rules will use tests in use for the current year as decided by British Dressage, and the scale of marks will run from 0-10. The scale refers to the following standard as the judge sees it:
10 – Excellent
9 – Very good
8 – Good
7 – Fairly good
6 – Satisfactory
5 – Sufficient
4 – Insufficient
3 – Fairly bad
2 – Bad
1 – Very bad
0 – Nothing which was required was performed
The score you are given is usually worked out as a percentage of the total marks available, and this makes it easy to make comparisons between performances, because the number of marks available in a test will vary from test to test, so simply knowing the total score does not help you to track performance.
As a general rule, 60% is generally seen as the benchmark, below which we would not like to fall, except in unusual circumstances. As all the marks are out of 10, to achieve 60% you need obviously need to score 6 or above for the test as a whole to be in line for a 60%+ score. A six would generally be given if a movement has been performed without mistakes, and in reasonable balance, accurately and obediently, but perhaps without the extra ease and quality required for a 7, or any of the flair, expression, and flamboyancy necessary in increasing amounts, to gain you an 8, 9 or 10.
Knowing these things doesn’t necessarily make it easier for you to achieve higher marks, but sometimes an understanding of the reasoning behind a mark can help you to judge what kinds of scores you are likely to get and why. Then, you can almost become your own judge, by watching others and learning what a 60, 65, or 70% test looks or feels like.
So what about the judges comments? Sometimes the judge’s comments aren’t easy to understand, and can even construe the wrong impression. Judging is actually a very difficult task, and most judges I know do not take it on lightly, they feel a great responsibility to get it right, and certainly don’t set out to confuse or upset people. However, they get a very limited amount of time to comment on each movement and give their mark, so maintaining a positive feel can be hard when you are limited to only a few words per movement, and for the sake of the writer, some movements may not be commented on at all. Here is a brief look at some of the more common things said and what they might mean.
Rushing or hurried – This may of course mean that you literally are going too fast, but sometimes this comment is less about your miles per hour, and more about the tempo being quick for the horse’s size, or the stride covering only a little ground making the horse appear to take short quick steps, which is going to be a particular problem when lengthened or Medium paces are required. If the horse’s stride does not visibly lengthen during this time, but it is clear the horse has gone faster, then the terms rushing or hurried would apply here.
Lacking or losing activity –
This comment usually refers more to the activity of the hind legs than to the general speed or ‘busyness’ or the horse. For a hind leg to be referred to as active, we are looking for the appearance of energy, for the limb joints to be adequately flexed during movement, and for the length of the steps to allow the horse to ‘track up’ which is when, in walk or trot, the hind feet land on top of, or in front of, the hoof print left by the front foot on the same side. We are also looking for the hind limb in trot, to make a very similar angle to that of the forelimb.
This of course refers to the contact, but it means a great deal more than that. Contact is one of the first building blocks we look to establish in training the young horse, but it is possible to have contact, without yet having adequate connection. This is because connection refers more to the appropriate level of energy stepping through from the hind legs, over the horse’s back, into the reins and bridle. So it is not just connection between rider’s hands and the bit, but connection between hind legs and seat/hands/bit.
Balance – Of course we all know what balance means don’t we? Sure? Not as easy to describe as you think is it? Balance means both front to back, and side to side, so whether the horse is balanced over his shoulders or carries his weight more desirably on his hind legs, and whether his balance is frequently or permanently lost to the side. At a basic level, performing a movement in good or bad balance can be the difference between making the movement appear easy or difficult, smooth or jerky, and for instance on circles, whether the horse is more or less upright to the ground or leaning over like a motorbike. Apart from anything else, a horse that is in balance is more comfortable to ride than one that isn’t, not least because the horse will not need a great deal of support from the reins, making for a lighter feel.
Of course there are a lot of comments not covered here, but we have mentioned a few of the more common ones, and as we give them some thought, maybe we can begin to understand how much the judge is trying to convey in the one or two words they have the opportunity to say as the movements fly by!