Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ask the Judge

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, a USEF R judge, and a USEF S judge candidate. She is qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fair Lane 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.

Do you have a question for Amy? Send her an email at, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I am showing in Novice Eventing Test B. My question is this: How do you judge the canter departs? It says canter “between A and F” and “between A and K.” Where exactly are you expected to make the departure, and how much does the canter after the departure count? My friend says that the score is for the departure only and that the canter itself does not count because there is no labeled scoring box for it, but this does not sound right to me. Is this true? 

Dear Canter,

This is a great question for all dressage competitors. Everything you do in the arena is being appraised. It is important that all riders understand what the judge is looking for and how he or she arrives at your final score. At the lower levels, including all Novice eventing tests, the canter departs are regularly asked for between the markers rather than at exact letters. This allows the greener horse and/or rider a chance to have more preparation to make their transitions on demand. Before we talk about scoring for this particular movement, let’s review the number scale that dressage judges use. Scoring goes from 0 through 10, including half scores (7.5, for example.) Here are the numerical scores and what they mean:

0 The movement was not executed 
1 Very bad
 2 Bad 
3 Fairly Bad 
4 Insufficient 
5 Marginal 
6 Satisfactory 
7 Fairly Good 
8 Good 
9 Very Good 
10 Excellent

This can be a very difficult scale to understand. If you are getting sixes and sevens, this means you are on the right track and the final score of your test would probably be between 30 and 40 points, which will put you on good footing going into the jumping phases. Scores above 8 are hard to attain; if you are regularly getting 8s, this would make your dressage score in the 20s or below. This would likely put you at the top of the leaderboard before the jumping phases.  

In the canter departs required in Novice Test B, you are permitted to make the transition anywhere between the designated letters. As far as the accuracy goes, you could earn a 10 no matter where between the two letters you pick up the canter. Being centered would be very impressive however, so striving to make the depart exactly midway between the markers is most desirable.

The placement of the departure is only one small part of how your score is determined. In this case, placement would be considered a “modifier.” In the transition, the main criterion is the “essence,” how your horse gets into the canter. Your judge will be looking for willingness, promptness, steady connection to the bit, balance, and, of course, the correct lead. The directives in your test state “calmness and smoothness of depart.” Some problems include your horse speeding up before the departure (running into the canter), getting the wrong lead and not making a correction, not making the depart between the two letters (a very delayed canter depart) or not getting the canter at all.

Your judge will take the training scale into consideration with every score. Once your judge has arrived at the score for the essence of the canter, then the modifiers will come into consideration. These may affect your score from plus or minus .5 to 1 point, or possibly more. Modifiers in this case include the placement of the departure and the quality of the canter on the long side after the canter depart until the point where the next movement begins. On the long side, your judge will be looking to see if you are able to maintain the canter and correct lead while assessing the canter’s quality, balance and tempo. The gait should be a clear three beat and the horse should not fall on his forehand or quicken his pace. The rider needs to keep connection, with the horse remaining steady to the bit and straight from nose to tail. Common faults include the horse overbending its head, neck or forehand to the inside or outside and the haunches swinging in. 

Unless something extreme occurs (bolting, bucking, breaking the gait, strong resistance to the bit) the modifiers should have a minimal effect on your score, but they will have some. The formula your judge uses to derive every score in your test includes: B: Basics: gaits, impulsion and submission C: Criteria: essence: did you get it done? M: Modifiers: the small stuff; the “connecting tissue” between the movements So, to arrive at a number to put in the scoring box, the judge uses this formula: B+C+/-M=Final Score In conclusion, in Novice Test B, you should promptly attain the correct lead as centered between the two letters as you can, keeping in mind that the depart alone will not determine your final score. And yes, to answer your question, the canter down the long side most definitely will be included to determine your final mark for this box, so strive for a cadenced, balanced canter with your horse calm, relaxed and straight from head to tail. I hope this gives you a better understanding of how judges evaluate your performance. Remember, everything you do in the arena is being evaluated and every stride you take will affect your test and score. Doing your best and presenting an impression of harmony and ease no matter what the test or the level will put you in the best position to achieve your dressage goals. Good luck!

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