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FEI 5* Dressage Judge Katrina Wüst Shares Arena Perspectives on Dressage Scoring

Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Friday, January 20, 2017

Katrina Wüst at M at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival

Sitting with prominent worldwide FEI*5 Judge Katrina Wüst at M and then at B on January 12th, the very first day of the 2017 Adequan® Global Dressage Festival series, I learned that sitting with a dressage judge proved enlightening. Understanding the biomechanical aspects of a performance in the high performance competition arena takes the judges thousands of hours of careful study in honing their craft. They travel the world, spend their days sitting in booths judging, often discussing their observations with one another and the riders themselves. Being a judge is not merely a calling, it is a lifestyle. The question is, are we really utilizing the judges in order to learn and improve or are we unknowingly dismissing them because we do not want to take the time to understand?

Seeing the class through her set of eyes I learned that often ‘I really don’t know what it is I don’t know.’ Until mentored by such an expert in the field, I can only assume I know the correct mark for every movement. Until her judging skills pointed out the missing basics within the intricate maneuver, then I could open my eyes to see the biomechanical strength or weakness in the different athletes’ performances and further my education.

Wüst candidly shared how she arrives at the scores from the different points of view. “Judging a rider and horse is different from, let’s say, judging an ice skater. With ice skaters, the judges can line up together to score because a vertical, two-legged performer’s executions will look the same from any point around an arena. A horse on the other hand is a rectangular figure that might look different from all directions. That's why it is so important that we sit around the arena." She gave a specific example, “A half-pass looks totally different from the front than from the side. From the front, a judge can see if the horse is tilted or not bent enough whereas on the long side the judge will have a completely different view, maybe that the horse is short in the neck, making the marks vary in a certain range.”

She revealed a preference for sitting in a specific area, “I particularly like judging from the long side because it’s the same view as the spectators, the public. We’re at the same angle. I can judge a lot more from there; from the quality of the paces to the tightness or good shape of the neck.”

Indeed, each judge’s view affects the scoring of a performance. For instance, if a shoulder-in is shown on four instead of three tracks (as the FEI Rules clearly state) perhaps only one judge can see this error; other judges might see the cadence and self-carriage. “Even if it looked brilliant,” Wüst explained, “and I was the only one who saw the shoulder-in on four tracks, then my marks would be lower than all the other judges.”  

Judges sitting at an arena’s E and B midpoints share the same view and should be close with their marks while H, C and M positions sometimes have different inputs and might have different marks, which is why one judge may score a performance differently than the other observing judges. There are lots of different things a judge can see from the different angles including a horse’s open mouth from E and B, but not at M, C or H. It is preferable that the judge almost always gives a remark or comment on a movement scoring lower than a 6.5 so the riders will know that their horse lacked bend seen on one end of the arena compared to the sides of the arena. And, if possible, many judges also like to give positive or encouraging remarks.

Rider to Judge Communication

FEI riders are invited and encouraged to ask questions of judges. There are no FEI rules stating that conversations between riders and judges are forbidden. Wüst invites, “Riders can always be encouraged to come up to me with their sheets and ask any question. I will give them my opinion and ask their opinion. I am open. If I did make a mistake, I will confess it to them. I will say why I was a little bit strict with a score and enjoy the discussion. It is good for our sport. We need this for our sport. We are not enemies but partners in the same sport we all love. And that is really important that we can have these exchanges of opinion in conversations. I encourage the riders to seek me out.”

She continued, “We work much more with riders and trainers in Germany. It’s always a good exchange of ideas. We can also learn from the riders and trainers. We can school our eyes and they can begin to understand what we are seeing.”

Also allowed in the USA, please note that USEF Rules (GR 702) requires a rider to find the TD or show management first in order to get permission to speak with the judge at the US national competitions. 

An Analytical Rider

Wüst pointed out, “The rider or trainer need to think in a very analytic way to see and remember their mistakes so they can be aware of what movements need work for more points. My job as the judge is to tell the rider why I went down with that mark. For example, there was a horse and rider in the medium trot that made a large curve instead of a straight line. I could see it from behind and it’s my job to say, ‘Not on a straight line.’ It is important that he knows where that one judge went down, while the others did not, and to be aware where the lower marked judge sat so the rider will not make that curve again to lose points unnecessarily."

The Overall Picture - The Training Scale and a Happy Horse

“It’s not only the quality of the gaits,” Wüst imparted, “but also the way of training. We have the training scale which of course is the rhythm, most important, the suppleness, the contact, including the mouth and whether the horse is uphill or not which means whether the horse is taking the collection. All the elements of the training scale are influencing the whole picture.”

“It’s important that a judge even between two movements is thinking about how the horse moves and whether the horse is a happy athlete, a very important component to the overall picture. We look to the face, to the mouth, to the ears to the eyes of the horse and that all forms a general impression. The good thing in dressage is that this state of training or general impression normally doesn’t change. When a horse is well trained, it comes into the ring on the aids and doesn’t change in these five minutes. It can change by tension, but if a horse is well trained you can really see the good training. Good training pays out in the test.”

“It also goes the other way, if a horse is badly trained, on the forehand, leaning on the bit, that normally also doesn’t change in the test. For us as judges, it’s very important that we have the general impression from a correct fulfilment of the training scale. It's for the welfare of the horse, that baseline.”

The Judges are Hard on Themselves

Judges are actually very hard on themselves when it comes to scoring appropriately. In sitting with Katrina in the booth, I saw that she sometimes looked at the marks of the other judges in relation to her own. I observed that while she was lower than the others in the Prix St George test, she was a little bit higher in the Grand Prix test in a consistent manner. I also observed the group of judges seeking each other out after each class for a discussion to clarify with each other on a strange move a horse made within a movement and what score and comment each gave for it. Though the judging in Wellington was very consistent the judges are constantly willing to learn and discuss and constantly caring for their craft. 

About Katrina Wüst

Katrina grew up in Western Germany in the Dusseldorf area and at a young age was quite a successful rider in the 1970s on the German B Team. Because the University in Munich was the only university to offer American Literature as a main subject, she moved to Munich to study German and American Literature. “Munich was such a beautiful city, though it was quite hard for me as a rider because the main sport is in the North and West of Germany, in Dusseldorf area, Hamburg area and Frankfurt area, so I had to drive quite a lot to get to the big competitions (about an 8hr drive). It’s not far compared to the USA, but it was also not easy.”

“I had my own barn in Munich and barely had it perfect before I had my first child. I still rode, but gave up competing for quite a while to raise my children.”

“I was also quite successful with my daughter. She rode in the German Pony Division, a big deal in Germany, on a wonderful palomino pony stallion. She was quite good in the German Pony Championships together with Jessica Werndl and Kristina Sprehe. It was a lot of fun going around with her and teaching,” Katrina acknowledged. “She’s now a lawyer and doesn’t compete at the moment.”

Wüst soon wanted to be more involved in the sport and began the path of becoming a judge. “I began judging on the lower level in the 1970s because as a rider I was annoyed with the very old way of judging at that time, especially on regional shows. I liked and understood the good judging, but not the bad judging and I wanted to make things better.” She continued, “When I had my children, I wanted to stay in contact with the sport. That's why I started judging in the 1990s. At the end of the day, I felt that the sport gave so much to me and I wanted to give something back. That’s why I really am travelling around the world to get to some of the up-and-coming countries, also in Eastern Europe. I think it’s important to give clinics and seminars to help the riders to get better and that’s really important."

Continuing, she explained, “I love giving seminars to judges and sharing my experiences. I think it’s important that judges are well educated in the judging principles and the current rules and regulations. It’s so important to the riders because they pay so much to compete in the sport, with money, time and dedication. It is really important that the judges are educated as well as they can possibly be educated. The riders deserve to have good judges. Judging and riding worldwide is on a good way.”

“I fiercely defend our judging system. As you could see, we are from different angles and sometimes have different opinions for good reasons. The riders will understand the judging. It’s much more fair to have these five experts. If for some reason one judge should be different, it is the other four who compensate for that judge. I cannot think of one big championship with the wrong winner. Our system is very flexible and always the good riding pays out.”    

Being a judge is not merely a calling, it is a lifestyle. It’s important for riders, trainers, and dressage specialists to find some time to converse with the judges, to ask them questions and to have biomechanical discussions. In utilizing one other’s life work, we can only bring a benefit to one another.

A special thank you to Katrina Wüst, not only for her judging but also for her continuous work as a leader in building a bridge with the riders, the media, the spectators and the entire sport.