Friday, May 27, 2016

Ask the Judge

Questions about Dressage
With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor and a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges between 15 and 20 dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers’ questions about dressage.

Dear Amy,

I just imported a lovely 4-year-old warmblood. I was interested in trying the Young Horse tests. Could you tell me how these are different from standard dressage tests and who is eligible to enter?

Sincerely, Too Linda


Dear Linda,

Congratulations on the purchase of your new horse. I am glad you are considering entering the Young Horse tests, which are a great way to introduce horses to the competition arena. In these tests, your horse can gain experience while competing against other horses that are only his own age. There are separate tests for 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. The only requirement to enter a Young Horse test is that the horse must be the specified age on January 1 of the competition year. This means that this year, you and your horse will be eligible to compete in the 4-Year-Old class.

The 4-Year-Old tests are roughly equivalent to First Level tests and they are performed individually in a 20-by-60-meter arena. They have from 14 to 18 movements. Some examples of movements that you would see in the trot are 10-meter half circles, lengthenings, serpentines and the stretch circle. All trot work may be ridden rising or sitting, unless otherwise stated on the test. In the canter, requirements include the 15-meter circle and canter lengthenings. No collection is required at this level.

The Young Horse tests are performed the same as standard dressage tests, but they are evaluated differently. Unlike in a standard dressage test, each movement does not receive a numbered score. Instead there are five overall categories that you will be judged on. They are: Walk, Trot, Canter, Submission, and General Impression. You will be scored on a scale of one to ten with decimals to the tenths. You will also receive a final, overall score.

Another difference is in the way your results are presented to you. In a regular dressage test, you may pick up your scoresheet after the class is over and examine it in private. In the Young Horse test, you are invited to stay in the ring after your final salute. The judge will then verbally present your scores in each category, along with a brief commentary and analysis of your horse’s gaits, training and potential. Spectators are welcome to listen, making the Young Horse test educational for them, for you and for your horse.

Here is what the scores mean: 9-10 is for top horses with good training; 8 is for good horses with good training; 7 is for good horses with a few mistakes; 6 is for good horses with big mistakes, or an average horse. 5 and below is for serious problems, or horses without enough potential excel in dressage.

If you are riding in a 4-Year-Old test, you should be in a short jacket and wearing protective head gear. Your horse must be ridden in a snaffle bridle. Other dress and equipment requirements follow the regular dressage rules.

What are judges looking for in a 4-year-old horse? According to the FEI judge’s guidelines, they want to see natural balance and engagement, willingness to go forward with impulsion, willingness to accept the rider’s aids and minimum negative physical or mental tension. “Uphill tendencies” are a bonus.

Let’s look at the five categories and how they will be scored. (Adapted from the FEI Guideline for Judges)

The Walk: the judge will be looking for rhythm, relaxation, activity and a ground-covering stride. The horse should be going freely forward with a clear four-beat step. The topline should be relaxed. 

The Trot: the judge will be looking for rhythm, regularity, natural cadence, elasticity, looseness, suppleness, a swinging back and the ability to bend the joints of the hindquarters. There should be a clear moment of suspension in the gait. 

The Canter: the judge will be looking for rhythm looseness, suppleness, natural balance, an uphill tendency, and the ability to bend the joints of the hindquarters. The gait should be a clear three-beats with a definite moment of suspension, and the canter should be the same in both directions. 

Submission: the judge will be looking for contact with the bit, obedience, straightness and responsiveness to the aids of the rider. This category is about the education and the rideability of the horse, and assesses whether he is on the right path in his training and at an appropriate level for his age. 

General Impression: this category assesses the horse’s talent, potential and presence. The General Impression is about the quality and natural ability of the horse: horses that get a high score would be ones that demonstrate the potential to be successful at the highest levels. For this category, the overall performance is more important than the details of the test.

The Young Horse tests are intended to evaluate the horse’s potential and are not about the rider. These tests were developed to showcase horses with the talent to rise to the top, but they are also a fun and informative way to get a horse started on his competitive career.

Not all shows offer Young Horse tests as a separate class, but it is often possible to ride a Young Horse test in a “test of choice” class. In addition to being a great introduction to showing, a Young Horse test is a good way to prove that your horse is training at an age-appropriate level. I highly recommend giving it a try.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.