The High, the Low, and the Ugly

(“Figure skaters and gymnasts get perfect tens.”)

Sending students off to a schooling show can be nerve-wracking. Generally I am not fearing for their lives or I wouldn’t let them go in the first place. But trying to interpret their scores to them, particularly when doled out by an unrecognized judge, can be difficult.

Occasionally they will be beset with a newly anointed L or small “r” who is insecure enough to need to demonstrate that she misses nothing and therefore tends to make a five her baseline score. Experienced riders who know how well they are doing as they go along blow these results off. A novice with an easily crushable ego can be devastated!

More often at schooling shows we run into judges who artificially inflate their scores. I once encountered a woman who had been recruited to judge just the Intro tests. She confided that she had given each rider at least one 8. “Everybody must be good at something,” she explained! Less extreme but more common is the judge who wants to be sure the riders all have “a good experience” (and perhaps ensure that she will be hired again). This might be all right if scores existed in a vacuum, but overly high ones lead to a false sense of security and set the rider up for a big disappointment when she’s confronted with reality at a recognized show.

Back in the day when I used to go to USDF conventions it was popular to bemoan the negative PR effects of “low” scores – especially in international competitions. At the ’76 Olympics the winning score in the Special which (in those pre-freestyle days) established the gold medalist was only 76%, and few of the competitors broke 70. “How can we showcase our sport to the general public,” the complaint went, “when figure skaters and gymnasts get perfect tens and our best riders can only eke out three quarters of that?”

Promoters wanted higher scores. Judges would plead, “But that was only worth a 62!” My solution was simple – although obviously ignored: Let the judges keep scoring as they did and then multiply the final score by a coefficient of 1.2. The judges keep their dignity. The riders get a 72 instead of the 60. Everybody’s happy!

That was not how it all played out. Horses and the competitions did, in fact, get better and higher scores became deserved. And at the same time judges got braver (even at times euphoric) and the problem solved itself.

In the Big Time everyone understands what scores mean. With my students coming back from their schooling show adventures, I am not always sure if that’s the case.