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So You Want to Be a Dressage Judge

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Written by Sue Weakley

FEI 3* judge, trainer, clinician and competitor Bill Warren knows first-hand about the life of a dressage judge. He started the journey into the world of judging while in his 20s and he’s currently in the process of earning the 4* distinction.

“The life of becoming a dressage judge is a long process, depending on how far you want to go and it’s not for everyone, but you don’t know until you get involved whether you are going to want to do it or not,” Warren said. “The education part of the “L” [learners] program is fantastic but, at this point, many decide the life of a judge isn’t really what they want to do.

“The hours are long,” he explained. “You are sitting in a box, on a chair for a lot of hours and sometimes not in the best conditions. You might have rain, you might have cold and wind and, at some shows, you might go and the entries are light and everything is peaches and cream and then, you might go to a show that’s super busy and you find out how mentally and physically exhausting it can be. It’s not for everybody and judging fees are not going to come anywhere close to what a professional can make training or doing a clinic. It’s not bad money but you are not going to be able to live off it.

“Everyone asks me, ‘Then, why do you want to do it?’ Because I’ve been a rider, a competitor, a trainer,” he explained. “I think I have a lot to offer and it is a way for me to stay on the top end of the sport by being able to travel and judge in other parts of the world. Even if I can’t offer a great score, I can offer some insight in my comments. We are trained in this country to be generous with comments.”

Warren encourages trainers and his students to sit through parts of the “L” training program to glean a better understanding of what judges are looking for and, perhaps, to continue with the judges’ education. But, it’s not for the impatient. The road from the USEF “L” program to FEI 3* judge takes a minimum of 11-12 years. The “L” program alone includes several sections to complete before taking the examination that must be passed with distinction before graduating to the “r” program. There are similar requirements up through the levels including earning qualifying scores as a show competitor. An “r” judge must have ridden at Fourth Level, an “R” judge must be competent at the Prix St. George and the “S” judge must be a proven Grand Prix competitor. Once a judge has cycled through the USEF program, the FEI designation is the next step, and the application to be an FEI judge occurs only after the USEF approves the application. Once earning the 3* judge distinction, it takes another two years before one can apply to be a 4* judge and the jump to 5* is even more difficult.

“There is no program,” he said of graduating to the 5* distinction. “The FEI decides who will be appointed to 5* and they only allow so many judges per country, so just because you have your 4* doesn’t necessarily mean you will receive your 5*. They want someone who has judged some pretty important competitions and who is highly experienced.

“It’s a lengthy process but we have a very good education system for judges,” Warren said. “Other places in the world envy us because we have such a good program.”

Warren would like trainers to know that judges strive to be on the riders’ and the trainers’ side. “We don’t sit and wait for things to happen just so we can hit somebody with our remarks,” he said. “I have to judge what I see. It’s not a judge’s job to tell them how to fix it.”

This is where the trainer steps in and it’s their responsibility to help change the results next time around.

“If riders get low marks, the trainers then have to figure out how to help the riders bring those marks up and not keep doing the same performance over and over again,” he said. “We want things to go well. We want them to succeed but, if things are not up to par, we have to let them know. It’s not because we are negative or mean, we have a standard and that standard has to be met; otherwise we can’t give good marks. Trainers have to step up to the plate too and help their riders bring their test performances up to that standard.”

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