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It was my great pleasure to spend this past weekend scribing all three days for the Spring Dressage Jubilee at Caledon Equestrian Park. Thankfully I scribe much better than I ride, and always enjoy the chance to watch dressage and learn from the judge I'm paired with. There's no better way to realize what you do wrong in your own tests than sitting at C and watching dozens of rides from the judge's perspective.
Three days is a LOOOOOONG time to spend locked in a a tiny hut with a stranger, so when scribing for a multi-day show it's important to choose your judge wisely. The right judge not only makes the experience educational, but also fun. Luckily I was matched with Rene Huyge, a true gentleman with a great sense of humour who never seemed to mind answering my countless questions during breaks and generously encouraged me to develop my eye,
I've got some overall thoughts about the show to share, along with some specific tips and tricks for riding a better test - things we all know but somehow fail to remember when we enter the ring at A.
The fact this show even exists goes in the "good" column. Kudos to EMG Group for taking over the running of these shows and ensuring Ontario dressage riders have the opportunity to compete at this world-class facility.
Over three days I saw horses and ponies of all shapes, sizes, colours and breeds, and riders of all ages and abilities. Dressage is for every horse and the entries this weekend reflected that - from Western dressage and National Pony Cup classes, to Walk Trot through Grand Prix.
Looking at test sheets from all the different rings, it was great to see judges using the full spectrum of marks. There were 9s and there were 2s, sometimes on the same test!
It was disappointing to learn that the level of volunteer support needed to run a big show like this just wasn't there. Kudos to the many CEP staff members who gave up their weekend and stepped in at the last minute to help. Aside from the very busy pros and coaches, I think almost everyone at the show, either competing or supporting a rider, could find the time to volunteer a few hours over the weekend to run tests, hand out ribbons, or add up scores. This is probably a topic for a blog post of its own - what would it take to get you to volunteer? Would a discount on future entries help? Any other incentives? If you haven't volunteered at a show, why not? This issue goes far beyond this one competition to every show across Canada.
I saw very little ugliness at all during the weekend - no rough riding, no abusive coaching, lots of positive support from fellow competitors. As much as I love sitting in the booth though, the experience always makes me relieved to not be skilled enough to judge. So much pressure and so many factors go into assigning every score!
If you get a score you don't feel you deserve don't take it personally. It's one moment in time and it's based on what the judge saw in that moment. Another judge may see the same thing and mark it quite differently. That's part and parcel of a subjectively judged sport, unfortunately.
While some judges do mark lower overall than others, I can say with 100% confidence that every judge wants to give a good score. They want to see you ride for an 8 or a 9 and are disappointed when a bobble or mistake brings that mark down to 5 or 6. Every judge I've ever scribed for has rooted for each rider to succeed.
Tips and tricks for better scores
Test after test I saw riders losing marks for simple mistakes - the same mistakes I make when I go into the ring too. Especially at the lower levels, accuracy is EVERYTHING, as there's not much else to be judged on. Pay attention to the details as much as you can and your scores will go up.
Find centre line and try to stay on it. Sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how many people enter at A two metres off centre line and stay there.
Use your corners well. If a movement starts at F or H, for example, use the corner before to ensure you begin the movement right at the letter. If you start your diagonal line or shoulder-in three strides past F, you're giving away marks.
Get to X. In all the tests with loops to X and back to the rail, perhaps 3 or 4 riders actually hit X. This is one error which is glaringly obvious from C so really pay attention when in the show ring - chances are your ring at home is a slightly different size and it may not feel quite the same, especially with all the distractions of show day.
Circles don't have corners. Sounds obvious too doesn't it? Really work to show a difference between the arc of the circle and the corner when you are going large - this will also help with your circle size and shape.
Circles have to be not only the prescribed size, but also placed correctly. A 20m circle at B or E can't go all the way to the P-V line. Find a marker on the fence that’s at the outside point of the circle and use it as a guideline.
Free walks and stretchy trot circles need to show way more stretch than I imagined. Watching your test videos back can be helpful here - personally I’m always surprised that what I thought FELT like a good stretch was actually quite minimal when I watch it after.
Go forward - really forward! Especially at the lower levels, having that energy and activity often is the difference between a 6 and a 7 or even higher. It also really helps with a spooky or looky horse.
Use your time before the bell wisely. Again, this is a great time to really make your horse go forward and not give them time to spook or get distracted. Canter if it helps get your horse energized. It’s also a great time to find your markers on the rail that will help you ride the most accurate test possible.
Don’t sweat it if things go wrong. Riding at shows is not like riding at home and sometimes the easiest things at home become nearly impossible to achieve in the show ring. Judges and scribes have seen every mistake under the sun and they have nothing but empathy for riders when they just aren’t having a good day.