I recently returned home from the USEF Festival of Champions in Chicago where I watched some of the best Dressage riders in the country. Being there purely as an supporter, I observed what I have seen at almost every Dressage show- competitor resentment towards the scores and judges. I believe by improving our understanding of what dynamics are in play here, we can shed light on the sport that we love rather than tear it down.
Dressage is a little bit like basketball. Lebron James is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He is also one of the most competitive. The four time MVP and olympic medalist is not only known for his incredible skills on the court but also for how he reacts to the referees throughout the game. Lebron is often seen begging and pleading with the refs to sway them in his favor. A call in Lebron’s favor is never questioned, however, a call against him draws expressive protest. His competitive nature is palpable on and off the court. The best Dressage riders share the same competitive fire as Lebron. Because they want to win, their opinions about the judging are often biased.
In Basketball, referees have huge implications on the outcome of the game. Refs can sway a game's outcome based on the calls that they make. In Dressage, the Judges verdict is massive. Because of this, in order for our sport to thrive we need good quality judging. That said, good judging does not equate to generous judging.
It’s common to hear competitors talk about the judges they will be riding in front of. In these conversations you hear a bias for judges that have awarded high scores in the past. The generous judge is better, right? This is natural from a competitive standpoint. The best Dressage riders are competitive like Lebron James. They want big scores. However, discrepancy and bias in judging causes problems for our sport.
Post-ride conversations often contain resentment towards the judges. The problem is that this negativity spreads, eventually affecting the subjective nature of the sport. Dressage will always be subjective. However, we should not let our competitive nature muddle the sport. Instead we should embrace the subjectivity and use it as a tool to better our riding and sportmanship.
As competitors, naturally we will have biased opinions because we want to win. Just like Lebron. However, realizing this bias can help us recognize places of improvement, become better riders and thus better the sport of Dressage all around. Equally as important is to generate positive sentiments toward our sport.
We should strive for excellence but also be humbled by judgement. Dressage needs competitive riders, but more importantly its needs a positive community in which to thrive.