Notes From the Judge's Box

Hey everyone!

As you may or may not have seen, I had the fabulous privilege of scribing for two days at the Alamo Dressage Association Spring show. Normally, I'm the one in the arena, but I was lucky enough to gain a different centerline perspective while we all wait, with baited breath, for the arrival of the Bomb hostage. I've been lucky enough to scribe for the past three years at schooling shows and rated. It's a lot of hand cramps, early mornings, and sacrificing weeks... But definitely made up for by the valuable knowledge gained by being able to spend time with judges and ask questions.

When I told you guys I was scribing, I got a lot of requests for "Top Five Pitfalls" of different levels or just general tips. I one-upped the requests and took notes for all the levels, included test specific comments, and arranged them for you guys. We'll start with intro.

Intro Level

  • Geometry and accuracy is the biggest thing I saw in the various intro test (A and B). Circles are 20 meters. Not 15 meters, not 27 meters. 20 meters.

  • Keep the march in the walk.

  • Utilize corners for preparations, however there are NO corners on circles.

  • Stay on the rail, in a relatively straight fashion, and straightness on the centerline is a good example of a solid foundation.

  • Walk steps are allowed in the halts at intro level. Easy points are to be square and straight.

  • Maintain activity with energy, but not rushing.

Training Level

  • "Lack of balance" is one of the biggest comments

  • "Falling or holding the shoulders." This typically follows a lack fo balance comment.

  • Open mouths = not accepting the connection and lower the submission score. Flashes, figure 8s, drops, etc. don't fix this. Judges can see the tension even if the mouth is strapped closed.

  • Head tilting/wagging. Pretty noticeable on circles, loops, straight lines, etc. Needs correct connection.

  • For Training Level Test 3, the loops were one of the worst ridden movements consistently. Not only were they not accurate, but they were not used to show off the suppleness of the horse, per the directives. There should be a change of bend through the body, not the neck, at the first 1/4 line, the centerline (X, not closer/farther), and at the next 1/4 line. Look at a diagram sometime.

  • For the stretchy circle (starts in Training Level Test 2), the directives say DOWN and OUT, not curling behind the vertical and holding over the back. It also mentions a light contact, so don't throw away your reins or hold your hands wide - it makes it that much harder to regain connection before transitioning back to a working trot. A consistent tempo must be kept with no significant speeding up or slowing down. It says a full 20 meter circle of stretchy trot, so why do riders insist on picking up in the last 1/4 of the circle? Show of your stretch to the fullest extent of the circle - allow 3-4 strides to regain connection. If your horse shows SOME stretch down and out, it's likely you'll get a 6.0-6.5, but ride it like the directives state and in a correct stretch to get easy points. It is a coefficient after all.

First Level

  • A lengthening at the trot and canter requires ground cover. Ground cover means bigger, longer steps. Longer steps means a lengthened frame.

  • TRANSITIONS. First Level is the first time you show lengthening of stride and frame at the trot and the canter. The transitions to and from that lengthened gait are a separate score. The horse might have a lovely lengthened trot/canter, but without showing any clear, recognizable difference between the working gaits and the lengthened gaits up and down, you will not get points for this. This is the biggest mistake I see in First Level riders and is the difference between a 70% and a 65%. Ride. Every. Movement. Show. Every. Transition. Even if you're lengthening is not great, show a transition to and from and you'll get points for attempting to show a difference!

  • Rushing/hurried/quickening tempo does not equal a lengthened gait. The horse must develop push and suppleness over the topline with reach in the steps. Second biggest mistake I see.

  • Same issues with First Level stretchy trot circles as in Training Level. Third biggest mistake.

  • Ride 15 meter circles accurately - I only saw once person ride a 15 meter circle accurately and she was the one who got a 7-7.5. If it's not accurate, no matter how nicely the horse is going, you will not score above a 6.5. Look at a diagram.

  • First impressions = the halt. There are no walk steps allowed in the down or up transitions to/from the halt. Drops a 7-7.5 down to a 6, depending on the amount of steps.

  • Why sit at First Level? Just because you have the option to doesn't mean you should. Most riders do not have the independent, developed seat to sit well enough to not impede a horse's natural movement at first level. Yeah, sitting on centerline to halt makes sense if it helps keep your horse square and straight, but typically sitting only interferes with the forward, active energy and connection a horse should develop to do well at First Level - especially at the trot lengthenings.

  • Ditto about spurs... Really no need to use them, especially as a JR/YR or on a young horse...

  • The turn onto the centerline (First Level Test 2) needs to be an accurate 10 meter half circle.

  • In leg yields, the horse's body should be parallel to the rail it is moving towards. Head tilts are easily noticeable here - the ears give it away.

  • Simple changes (First Level Test Three) through the trot: must be centered OVER X, only 3-4 steps of trot. The transition should be straight on the diagonal (changing early is better than losing the canter balance and falling out of the gait).

  • The canter loops (First Level Test Three) must touch X and show balance/cadence, not an over bent neck to keep the canter.

  • Keep the horse balanced in the 10 meter circles to better prepare for the halt over X - not a coefficient, but ride it like one and don't hold the horse on the inside rein. No walk steps in/out of the halt. Because you're halting parallel to the judge, they can see the loss of balance. Must be immobile (3 seconds), connected, and evenly balanced over all four legs. (First Level Test Three)

  • In the leg yield to and from X, it seems like the one from X back to the rail is typically harder for most horses with lots of trailing haunches, falling over the shoulder, and over bent necks. Give yourself a meter before X to prepare for the change of bend and straighten the horse out before moving to the leg yield back. (First Level Test Three)

Second Level

  • Incorrectly balanced horse. The horse at second level much show some ability to begin to carry weight behind. Without that, the rest of the movements are very difficult for a horse heavy on the forehand. First big mistake.

  • "Needs power" in the medium trot. The horse needs to be able to take weight behind and develop more push and thrust. Some lengthening of the frame is still okay. Still needs clear transitions to and from. Will only be a 6.5. Second big mistake.

  • Shoulder in: "not straight/consistent on rail" "haunches out" "Too much neck bend/too much angle." Most common comments.

  • Haunches in: "not straight/inconsistent" "Shoulder out" "Not enough bend through body = leg yielding." Most common comments.

  • The rein back must have an accurate count of steps, a square halt, immobility (3 seconds), and diagonal pairs when stepping back. Should be a smooth, problem free movement. Adds to the submission score.

  • The free walk in general. For all levels. Much show march, reach over the back, and some taking of the contact when given. Just like in the stretchy trot, you shouldn't throw away the contact. The horse should gently chew the contact out of the hand, and stretch maximum down and out. Easily lost points here at all levels.

  • "Needs engagement" a common comment at Second Level. This means the horse needs to carry weight behind, articulation of joints, and self carriage.

  • Turns on the haunches are coefficient movements. It's better for one to be too big than to lose the walk rhythm. Shortening the stride doesn't mean losing the four beats, it just means, literally, collect the walk. Common trouble: a horse stepping out, pivoting, and losing the rhythm. Third big mistake.

  • The counter canter serpentine (Second Level Test Three) is a coefficient. Ride it like one. Most people do not ride it accurately or correctly balanced. It doesn't have corners, it touches the rail, the horse isn't over-bent to the lead it's carrying, and the cadence/balance should not change. There's a reason they put it after the medium canter! To see if the horse is balanced and strong enough to return from the medium to a collected canter, do counter-canter loops, then stay balanced for the simple change. Ride every step of each of these movements, including the transition to and from the medium canter.

  • Simple changes in Second level common mistakes: not straight, trot steps, and not establishing a walk between leads. There are NO trot steps in a simple change and a clear walk rhythm (2-4 steps) should be proved between the leads.

I have notes for Dressage EQ classes, FEI young horse classes, Third Level and Fourth Level, as well as the FEI classes PSG, I-I, and I-II. I'll be posting those later this week. Until then, hopefully you find these tidbits helpful in your training and if you have any questions or something is unclear, please feel free to comment or message me on Instagram!

All my love,