If you ever wondered why the FEI is looking at ways to improve the accuracy and consistency of dressage judging you only need to look at the results from the Grand Prix at Hickstead.  All five judges were Olympic level and yet they had one rider ranked both 1st and 20th and two others 2nd and 19th. In fact, they could not agree to within 10 places on almost 50% of the horses.  Yet this wasn’t bad judging or bad judges, it is a symptom of our current system.

I suspect the reason for this divergence is that they hadn’t judged most of the horses before so they couldn’t fall back on a well-known crutch of pigeonholing. This is where the judges know that a combination is a 6.5 so they start on a 6.5. The problem is that once a horse is a 6.5 it is almost impossible to get above that, no matter what happens on the day.

The need for a Code of Points
Almost everyone, including judges, agrees that we need some sort of Code of Points. The most straightforward approach is to use our existing system, which awards a 10 for excellence, and standardise the deductions for faults/errors and grade of execution. The benefit of this approach is that the fundamentals remain the same. With this level of clarity, the judges will automatically be more accurate and consistent.

Every movement should start on a 10…
That every movement should start on a 10 is simple logic. Until the judge sees the horse, what deduction can be made? Each movement has between 25 to 60 different qualities to be assessed. Until a deficiency in these qualities has been observed the movement is excellent. It is only when the horse completes the movement that the judgment can be made.

Starting on any other number doesn’t work well…
If we don’t start on a 10 and chose some other number such as a 7, the argument is that judges can look for ways to be positive by adding, as well as deducting, marks.

However, if we start on a 7, what have the 3 points been deducted for?  They won’t be the same reasons for every horse. Some horses will be highly precise but lack impulsion or be a little irregular, whilst others may be more extravagant but not as precise or have a contact issue. Fundamentally, there is no such thing as a standard deduction.

With up to 60 different qualities to be judged, it isn’t remotely practicable to do it this way. It is a lot easier to make 2 or 3 deductions for observed faults.

We could try to standardise the deductions by saying that the 3 points are for “brilliance” (possibly a combination of impulsion and collection?) – that would make 30% of the test for quality of movement.  This would mean that a horse trained to excellence cannot beat a great moving horse that makes serious mistakes.  Dressage is meant to be about training not just quality of the horse – so it can’t just be brilliance.

A well-defined Code of Points, assumes excellence from the outset.  When you come down the centre line at the start of a test you are on a 10 until the judge sees a shortfall.  This approach has been taken in other Olympic sports, such as gymnastics and ice skating.  It is simple, it works.