COMPETING would be so much easier if we didn’t have a dressage judge eyeballing our every move making us feel nervous and putting us under additional pressure, when we already have enough to think about! Danielle Olding, who leads coaching company “From the Neck Up” says — “but please, don’t shoot the judge!”

How often have I heard…“Oh no! Look who’s judging our class, we may as well go home now!” or “were they even watching our test…?” Or, how about “she just doesn’t like us, I wish we hadn’t come”? The role of the judge is a complex one and subject to much conjecture, passion and opinion. Riders who get nervous about being judged often see judges as a “gateway” that they have to get through to achieve their aims — like trying to get a 44 tonne truck through a wicket gate in order to progress with the rest of their journey!

When I ask both riders and judges what the job of a dressage judge is, I get a wide range of answers. Yet, it is often a rider’s perception of what the judge is there to do that causes the problem. Let us, for argument’s sake, assume that a judge’s primary role is to identify a winner of a specified competition. And without having someone present to apply judging criteria, finding a winner would be very difficult indeed!

But what is a “best test” and how do judges decide? Why is it that several judges watching the same test give different scores for the same test (or movement) when they have all gone through similar training and have ridden at a similar competitive level?

Well, the answer lies in the fact that a good judge is still a HUMAN judge, and therefore just as flawed as the rest of us. The clue, I think, is in the job title. To “judge” is to apply a subjective interpretation, in the case of our dressage test to a set of prescribed guidelines. This means that any judge will interpret what they see according to a set of predetermined thought processes, sometimes subconscious, built up over a number of years and applied to the particular context.

While our brains all perform the same function and have a similar high level physiological structure, there are many other elements that are unique to an individual that would affect their perception of what they are seeing. For example, a judge’s teaching, competing and judging background may influence their perception.

Our sport has moved on significantly in the last 20 years in terms of the stamp of horses that are now being bred, in the way they are built and in the performance that they are capable of producing. As a result, over time, dressage tests have changed to reflect this and so have the demands we now make on our horses. Another factor in a judge’s perception, is how long ago they trained as riders themselves and where they trained. This may influence the individual’s understanding of how a horse should go at a particular level. Their values or principles evolved over time and through training or mentoring may determine what a judge finds acceptable or not at a particular level.

As an example, at a recent competition I was speaking to judges to understand what principles guide them when judging a Prelim test. One judge was firmly of the belief that Preliminary tests are for entry level horses starting out on the scales of training and therefore they expected to see them in a longer, lower outline and took a dim view of seeing horses “scrunched up”, if they clearly weren’t ready for Novice or Elementary. Another judge I spoke to took the view that Prelims were a stepping stone to Novice and therefore she expected to see horses working more towards a Novice frame. I happened to know one of the riders who rode for both judges that day, and the overall impression of their tests was reflected very differently in the feedback, even though the rider reported that the horse did a similar, consistent performance for both judges.

So what is it about the human brain that influences a judge’s interpretation of the judging guidelines?

Beyond an individual judge’s beliefs, values, training and personal experience, there are other factors that may affect what they see and how it is reflected in their score. These are known as “filters” and can influence a judge’s opinion consciously or unconsciously. We all have natural filters but some of us may have stronger extremes at one end of the scale or the other, and may be more prone to “filter bias” if we were judging. Some people are much more aware of their personal filters and can take steps to ensure they are not skewing the resulting score. This is sometimes what happens when a judge is “surprised” at the final result. There is absolutely no right or wrong with filters — it is just the brain’s natural way of making sense of the world and the data that we are bombarded with.

Does the judge have a natural inclination towards the “big picture” or the detail? This may affect what they notice and base their score on. The big picture thinker may observe generalities rather than specifics, may not give much detail to support their scores and often likes to judge the test in its entirety. The detailed thinker may tend to judge each movement independently and focus on the preparation of each move, giving you very precise feedback.

Is the judge internally driven? That is, do they utilise their own knowledge and experience to assess the quality of a movement or test without seeking further external data, or are they inclined not to mark up or down unless they have seen repeated external verification (eg, from the horse’s reaction or the impact on a following movement) to form an opinion either way? This may affect their allocation of where they give or withdraw marks.

Is the judge more inclined to look for the “good” and give feedback on elements that positively match their expectations or are they inclined to look for the “development areas” and give feedback predominantly where your work does not match their expectations? While we’d like to think that two judges with the opposite filter would ultimately arrive at the same score, tiny differences over the course of the entire test and a different interpretation of what “good” looks like for your horse, can result in a difference of several percentage points overall. This may have less to do with the standard of the rider’s test or their riding ability, and more to do with the personal interpretation criteria of the individual judge.

Briefly, the brain contains two hemispheres that each performs a number of roles. In psychology, the Right brain / Left brain theory is based on the lateralisation of brain function. A person with a “right-brain” dominance is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. The “Left brain” person is said to be concerned with tasks that involve logic, language, and analytical thinking.

Therefore applying this theory in a dressage judging context, if a judge has a ‘Right’ thinking preference, then their interpretation of what they see could be influenced subconsciously by the “wholeness” of the test, the general rhythm and flow and the way the test hangs together. This could mean that an individual mistake or inaccuracy could have less of an impact on the final score, especially in the Collectives. If a judge has a ‘Left’ thinking preference, this would suggest they may be more linear thinkers influenced by the detail and the logical process of the horse’s way of going.

Now, let us remember that any such influences are likely to be very small (if at all).

As with people in all walks of life, some judges will have absolutely no idea their brain is automatically filtering what they see, while others will be acutely aware of their own personal filter biases and ‘self-check’ to satisfy themselves that their opinion would still be consistent viewing the test from a different filter ‘angle’

The problem for you as a rider is that you won’t know which type of judge you have! My point, of course, is that the extent to which these individual filters affect judges will never be known. It could therefore be considered somewhat rash to overreact to a judge’s feedback, when you should remain aware that there could be a whole host of subconscious processes going on beneath the waterline affecting their opinion about your test… few of them to do with you!

You are, of course, perfectly free to “make it all about you” and take it as a personal slight on your riding or your horse, if you wish. Or, you can decide for yourself whether your performance was acceptable based on what you know about yourself and your horse’s abilities, your limitations and style of presentation.

Top level athletes do not train with a new, barely known coach every week while preparing for a world championship. They do not measure their performance on the basis of someone else’s performance or subjective opinion. Instead they work with a trainer who knows what good looks like for them and they work on a strategy tailored to their particular body and style of performance, using performance runs to get feedback on their own strategy.

Now, if we are talking about competition results rather than personal performance, this is a different matter. If your goal is to win, then of course the judge’s view and the scoring system determines the winner on the day. Additionally, we all know there is a general trend where tests presented with certain qualities (as perceived by the judge) tend to get better marks and win more tests most of the time. In this regard we can see that as we go up the competition ladder, scores between judges do become more consistent. This could be due to less variation in the standard of competitors riding a Grand Prix test, for example, than an Elementary one, and judges at this level will be bringing similar levels of experience and of course, judge training always seeks to bring consistency to interpretations. It is not that subconscious filtering does not happen at this level (it does), however it is much more subtle. The scores tend to be tighter with potentially smaller margins between the winner and somebody in fifth place, so subtleties do still matter to riders at this level.

One of my clients sent me a message recently saying “today was a good example of scores not equalling performance”. By jove, I thought to myself, I think she’s got it! It’s only taken four years!

Scores are a snapshot in time taken by one person’s camera. They do not identify the capabilities of the rider or the horse, they do not predict the level of future success — sometimes they do not even reflect the effectiveness of the rider in the saddle on that particular day. Scores are indeed indicative of opinion and results, not performance.

Danielle Olding

About the author : Danielle Olding leads a company called ‘From the Neck Up’. She is an established performance and mental skills coach and certified NLP Master Sports Practitioner and trainer who works across a range of equestrian sports with both professional and amateur riders. She has ridden competitively all her life and remains actively involved in racing, point-to-pointing, eventing, dressage and show-jumping.

© Out and About Dressage Ltd, October 2017

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