dressage judge

Q&A: A dressage judge’s comments and their meanings

British Dressage List 4 judge Rebecca Chalmers explains the meaning behind common judges’ comments and how to use your score sheet to maximise your marks.

Expert contributor: British Dressage List 4 judge and UKCC coach Rebecca Chalmers.
Approved by Gil Riley.

If you’ve ever tried your hand (and hooves) between the white boards, you’ll understand the sometimes frustrating, and even disheartening, experience of trying to interpret your score sheet. 

We sit down with dressage judge Rebecca Chalmers to find out what the most common judge’s comments really mean and how to use your score sheet to improve your marks.

Q. Who is Rebecca Chalmers?

Rebecca Chalmers is a British Dressage (BD) List 4 judge, BD-recognised and youth coach, United Kingdom Coaching Certificate Level 3 coach and British Horse Society Coach. With more than 30 years’ experience training horses and riders, Rebecca is known for her consistent results with all types of horses and ponies, and works with horse-and-rider combinations of all levels. 

‘Being quite small, I’ve been involved with a lot of native ponies and horses that aren’t your typical dressage horses,’ she says. ‘Although not every horse or pony is ‘designed’ for dressage, I’d like to think that, through correct training and being accurate, owners can still earn good scores and be competitive.’

Q. What are dressage judges looking for at each level?

Rebecca explains what she would like to see at each level:

  • Intro: A forward, four-beat walk, a balanced two-beat trot, and the ability to ride shapes and transitions. Transitions need to be fluent and accurate, and the horse should have beginnings of suppleness and correct rhythm.
  • Preliminary: This is the same as intro, but canter is also required. It’s not a good idea to compete at preliminary level until you have a round, three-time canter. Fluency through transitions and more accuracy are required at this level. 
  • Novice: Now we want to see the horse in a more consistent outline that goes from the hindquarters to the bridle with suppleness and bending in the right direction. Don’t over-ride the medium trot as your horse will lose balance. 
  • Elementary: We want to see that the horse has enough collection to do the movements including a simple change (canter to walk to canter). Everything needs to be sharper and on the aids, with a bit more collection. 

Q. What’s the most difficult thing about judging?

Judging isn’t for the faint-hearted. It takes a lot of concentration to watch and mark a horse and rider’s performance. 

‘Writing the collective comments is the hardest part,’ says Rebecca. ‘You want to be honest, but encouraging at the same time. The positive comment is always the first comment that comes into my mind, but then I have to tell the rider what I think the horse and rider should be working on next and that can be hard to do in a short space of time.’

Q. What are some common dressage judge’s comments and what do they mean?

How many times have you read the comments on your dressage sheet and not really understood what they mean? Rebecca explains some of the common terms used and what they really mean:

  • Losing balance – this normally means the horse is falling on their inside shoulder. 
  • Lacks suppleness – suppleness comes from being equal on both reins, so crookedness on one rein will prevent suppleness.
  • Rhythm – this is to do with your paces, so if your horse doesn’t have a four-beat walk, for example, you will lose marks because the horse’s rhythm isn’t consistent. 
  • Impulsion – this is the pushing power that develops into suspension when the weight is taken from the forehand to the hindquarters. Lacking impulsion could be where the horse is on its forehand or lacking energy. 
  • Contact – this means there isn’t a consistent, elastic connection. Contact should be soft and steady, and the horse encouraged to seek towards it.
  • Straightness – a horse is straight when they are working on two tracks and the hind legs follow in the same track as the front legs. It could be that the hind legs curl in during canter because they aren’t working towards a connection and are losing impulsion. 
  • Submission – it sounds like we want the horse to submit, but I’d rather use the word ‘acceptance’, where the horse accepts the rider’s aids. Horses that spook or ignore the rider’s leg will be lacking submission. 

Want to find out more? Check out these great training videos.

Q. What’s an example of an unhelpful comment?

‘Some of the most unhelpful comments I’ve had on my own score sheets include “horse steps too short and quick” and “could show more lift behind in the canter, but showed good trot work”,’ explains Rebecca. 

‘These were for my 13.3hh Highland pony who was working comfortably at elementary level. So, in the first instance it was contradictory and secondly, he is a Highland and only has little legs, so the comments weren’t at all useful! When I’m judging, I prefer to focus on the individual horse’s positives and what the rider can do to improve.’

Q. How can riders prepare for competitions? 

Preparing your horse for competitions, such as the Petplan Equine Area Festivals, begins with your training at home. Here are Rebecca’s top competition and training tips:

  • Be accurate – ensure your movements and transitions are made in the right place.
  • Ride supple corners – having a gentle bend in the horse’s neck and asking them to step under prepares you for the next movement.
  • Work on the things that come up in the test long before the test. If you are going out at intro, look at the intro tests, look at the things that come up and incorporate those in your training.
  • Don’t go out until you’ve got it in the bag. In other words, don’t go out at a level until you can do everything in that test with ease. Be training at home at a higher level than you are competing at.

Do you have a baffling judge’s comment that you need help deciphering? Why not share it on our Facebook page and see what other riders have had written about them?