DRESSAGE JUDGING is a highly moral activity, writes judge Wendy Jago, “This is not simply because we do our best as judges to discriminate wisely and accurately about the differing qualities of specific movements, or horses’ overall way of going, but, more importantly, because the basis on which those judgements are formed is the implicit question: does the way this horse performs demonstrate that his training has been undertaken with his interests at heart? The “yes” or “no” answers that we give through our marks are, I believe, our moral comments on the welfare of the horse.
“As judges, we are used to feeling accountable: to BD, to organisers, to competitors, to the FEI — and to the traditions of horsemanship that underlie the conventions of dressage”
“We live in an age where dressage has become largely a sport, but it was developed as a way of making horses more efficient in combat and more safe and comfortable as an essential means of transport, in times when horse performance and longevity were important to the rider’s immediate survival or to help supply the basic necessities of life. As a sport, dressage risks losing its moral groundedness. There is big money involved and reputations may depend on success. Both of these can have a distorting effect. Even without them, natural human competitiveness can lead to short-cuts and other potentially ‘immoral’ compromises.
“In recent years the leading equestrian bodies have made an attempt to re-anchor dressage morally by promoting the ideal of the horse as a ‘happy athlete’. All to the good — although in practice it has meant backing up judges’ right to sanction visible cruelty or rider-inflicted injuries. Moral, yes; valuable, of course. Enough: no!
Let’s take some behaviours that judges observe quite frequently, the horse who:
◊ is shortening in the neck
◊ is behind the vertical
◊ is held into a shape by the rider’s unyielding hands
◊ carries its neck propped up on its under-neck muscle, with no visible muscle development in front of the wither
◊ is in a “correct outline” but bent at the fourth vertebra through the use of unyielding hands or draw-reins rather than having learnt to carry its head lightly at the end of a well-developed, naturally rounded neck
◊ moves stiffly behind the saddle, not from age but because it has not been taught to step under from behind and swing through
◊ hollows in trot to protect itself because its rider’s arms and hands are unstable — or because its rider is bouncing in the saddle, holds its tail rigidly, or out to one side,
◊ or — and all horsey people know that horses do have expressions — obediently does everything it’s asked, but with tension in its body or a look of anxiety or even overt sadness on its face.
“Judges see these things often and not just at the lower levels. There are times when I find judging a deeply distressing experience, because the goal I have in mind for dressage is that it is the by-product of a training that has the horse’s education, comfort, athleticism and ultimately longer life as its basis. Yet in judging and marking the tests that exhibit the behaviours I’ve listed, I only have licence to refer to their technical aspects, not to the underlying moral issues that are implied.
“Perhaps that is all that it’s safe for any of us to do, though when the rider receives the test sheet they will take from it an implied injunction to change what they do, or a permission to go on as before. In marking anything, we cannot avoid sending out a moral message of some sort. I’d like to think we could engage from time to time in some overt discussion of this; but at present we’re just told to ‘avoid giving a riding lesson’ in our Collectives — a dodging of issues if ever I saw one! Nonetheless, our own values are implied, especially in what we repeatedly mark up or down as well as in our explicit comments, and can rightly be taken as our guidelines for future training.
“Very recently I gave a rider 5.5 for her riding of a talented horse: I hoped she would hear the message that while the horse was lovely she had a lot to change in the way she rode him. Sadly, I heard that another judge on the same day, though making the same overall comment, had given her 7.5. It’s hard when there is only one rider mark to award”
“The goals I’ve been talking about are rooted in the classical approach. And I find it sad that there should be a divergence between this highly ethical view of horsemanship and what can happen when competition is cut loose from an ethically-gounded anchor. Horses are no longer vital to our survival. We choose to own or ride them so we no longer have any excuse not to put their athletic development and their emotional well-being high on our list of priorities as riders, trainers and judges. In fact, I think this is the only basis on which we have any right to engage in any of these activities.
“These beliefs have developed as a result of my own experience in classical riding, through reading eloquent and ethical equestrian writers like Udo Burger (a veterinary surgeon as well as a horseman), Alois Podhajski, Charles de Kunffy and Paul Belasik, and through attending many days of clinics and seminars at the TTT for the last 20-plus years.
“And of course I know and meet — and value — riders, trainers and judges who sing to the same hymn sheet. What originally prompted this diatribe was attending a Judges’ Convention at Hartpury some time ago. It was a day in which about 400 dedicated judges watched wonderful horses and skilful riders and heard experienced and knowledgeable commentary from two world-class judges, without a single reference to the moral dimension that underlies — and, I believe, has to underpin — everything we do. It made me sad that the very thing that makes sense of it all was not there to back up, inform and illuminate those subtle discussions and fine judgements. To my mind, it was a wonderful performance with the central actor missing.
Wendy Jago, BD List 3 judging panel