A bit of a conundrum

(“The first two were short on harmony.”)

Judging, as you know, is an opinion. Sometimes the way we arrive at that opinion is carefully codified. Sometimes we are granted much more leeway in our evaluations. One such time is in the judging of dressage equitation.  Let me take you to the arena.
It’s an intercollegiate show with very small classes, the riders on horses which they have drawn by lot—not their own.

There are four entrants in this division. They are all reasonably competent “First Level 3 type” riders. They all deserve to be somewhere in the 70s.

I decide on an individual test to sort out the final placings, but rather than give them a specific pattern as normally one would, I say to them, “Now you each have 30 to 45 seconds to show me any dressage thing of your choosing that will impress me. Don’t just choose the hardest thing. Be sure it’s something that you think will work.”

Each of the first two choose relatively complicated patterns including leg yielding and canter. Their seats are good; they ride energetically; but the transitions are rough and hollow. The third rider’s pattern is flawless and uniformly accepting. There are some flaws in her position—a tendency to swing her leg back too far and lift her heel up into the horse’s side. The final performance is nearly as good as the third, and the rider’s position is more correct.

How would you score them? This is what I did. In order they were the fourth rider, then the third, and then essentially a tossup between numbers one and two. I explained to them that in principle I was very “pro-energy,” that in my mind the difference between pretty good and really good usually had to do with expression, elasticity, and buoyancy. But the quality which the first two were short on was harmony. This is the part of the relationship that wins the horse’s confidence and lets the horse and rider really perform as a team. I value it enough in this context that its presence helped me choose the winner.