Is Judging Corrupt or Just Inaccurate?

Mon, 11/12/2007 - 00:00
Wayne's World

Even at the top of the sport, we all complain about bad judging. We think that judges decide that we are a “64% or a sub 70% combination” or that they somehow predetermine what our score will be no matter how well we do (part of me thinks there may be a grain of truth in this – even if it is only subconsciously done). Or that if we are famous, or the most famous at the show at least, that we will be rewarded with a better mark. Is this true? Or is it just that our current marking system is archaic and inaccurate?

Personally, I believe the current system is anachronistic. It makes us like look a model T-Ford in a world of Porsches. Look at the scores in figure-skating or gymnastics where they regularly score near excellence ie our equivalent of a 10. The FEI Dressage Committee may not have recognised this problem but it needs to fix it – now!

The current system

It does not only affect the riders at the top of the sport it has just as big an effect on the everyday dressage competitor.

For example, take a rider that achieved a solid 62% to 64% all year. Over the winter she makes considerable improvement only to find that she is still “rewarded” with 62% to 63%! How can this be?

To understand this, we have to look at how judges judge according to the current marking system. Take a normal horse, ie one that has basic paces for a 6 or a 7 or somewhere in between. Few have movement for a 5 or less or for more than a 7. So when a judge looks at a combination they start on a “this is a 6 or a 7 trot or canter” and move up or down on how well each movement is performed.

Now look a little more closely at what happens. Let’s say that the horse has a trot for a 6.4 – or 64%. With the current system, all of its marks will start on a 6 – yes, 60% – it has to be rounded down to a 6! If it moved for a 6.6 (only 2% better) it would start on a 7 or 70%. A 10% difference!!!

Judges mark what they see

The truth is that the judges judge what they see but have to mark within the system. Even the judges can see that there is little between the horses but in our system it is 10%.


The solution is simple, judges need to give half marks. For example, they could give a 5.5 or a 6 or a 6.5 or a 7. With this small improvement they will be able to reward much more accurately.

Wider issues

The impact of such a gross marking system is even more profound than at first appears:

  1. Significant progress is not rewarded– as in the example above, even two horses that are only 2% apart can be judged a 10% difference. 
  2. So how accurate is the final mark? When you get a final score of 66.2% this should come with a degree of accuracy ie 66% + or – 2% (in maths, these are called error bars and they tell you that the final result you get is not an exact number just an approximation). Again, take our theoretical rider on 65%. If she is rounded down by the judge, it will be a 60% test so the whole test could be 5% lower than her “real” score of 65%. If she is rounded up it will be a 70% test ie 5% higher than her real score. So in this extreme case, the score should be 65% + or – 5%. In reality, the difference is probably only 1% or 2% but that still makes our scoring system inadequate when the winner can win by a very theoretical 0.001%.
  3. Having more judges around the arena does not fix the accuracy – I have heard it said that with 5 judges that they “even out” the score. What they mean is that some judges give a 6 and some a 7 so that you can get the “right” average. This is just not the case. Judges are trained to give the same score for what they see so in general they will give the same mark. When they don’t, it is either because they have a different viewpoint or they got it wrong. If they got it wrong, then the average is still not right – two wrongs do not make a right, even in dressage.
  4. How accurately can judges judge? Can they do half points or can they do quarter points? Can they do tenths of a point? Well, I believe the answer today is that half-points is very doable. Quarter points is more difficult (the Dressage Committee should be working on how we do this) and tenths of a point is just not possible. In ten years, I believe we will be having the 01% debate or it will be already implemented.
  5. The safe 6 would become a safe 6.5. Would a “safe 6” move to a “safe 6.5”? Judges are often criticised for only giving a 6. A lot of competitors say they only know how to award a 5, 6 or 7, so most of the time they end up giving a 6. In my view, they do not give a “safe 6”, it is the only mark they can give, at least most of the time. Introducing the half mark would allow judges to reward performance more accurately.
  6. High scores are restricted – in most other Olympic disciplines, the athletes get close to the perfect mark. When the non-dressage world looks at our sport they must think we are so bad at it – even the best in the world can only get 77%! The half point could take us 5% closer to excellence.


Half points will dramatically and considerably improve our sport: it would be more accurate; fairer to the horse, the rider and the trainer; make for a better sport; and it will even allow the judges appear more reasonable and demonstrate their competence.

The FEI Dressage Committee needs to examine this in detail and take action from the top – inaccurate judging is not the main problem, but the marking system is!

I would love to know what you think and if you feel this would help you. Please let me know your view on this subject at