Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke: The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke:  The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

At The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, ME

12/10/14

The state of Maine may not be thought of as an epicenter of dressage, but the staff at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms are working to change that.  With all-star trainers like Olympian Michael Poulin and former Young Rider champion Gwyneth McPherson heading the coaching team, and assistant trainer/organizer Jennifer Dillon pulling together equestrian A-list clinics, this facility is sure to make a positive influence on the education of dressage enthusiasts from across the northeast.

An early season Nor’easter didn’t keep attendees away from what was billed as the Five Star Symposium on Dec 9-10, 2014.  FEI 5* judges Gary Rockwell of the US and Stephen Clarke of the UK were invited to Pineland to help educate participants’ eyes towards the quality of performance.  Several talented riders, including Poulin and McPherson but also Jutta Lee, David Collins, Laura Noyes and Heather Blitz, demonstrated movements and performed complete tests ranging from Training level to Grand Prix, while Rockwell and Clarke provided scores and commentary.  This format meant that auditors could gain perspective as riders, trainers and judges, depending on their area of personal focus.  In addition, several USEF rated judges sat ring side and offered further comment/question to round out the experience.  As a representative of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program, I was able to attend on day two, bringing along fourteen of our program’s students.  We are most grateful to the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farm for this amazing opportunity.

Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.
Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.

Rockwell and Clarke banter like old friends do and were remarkably “in sync” with their judging and remarks, rarely deviating more than one point from one another.  Throughout the day, their feedback combined training tips with judging perspective, as well as insight into the theory behind why correct riding is the best kind of riding.

Transitions, Tension and Test Riding

As the day began, auditors were treated to the performances of a pair of talented four year olds, ridden by Collins and Lee. One horse demonstrated the 2015 Training Level Test 3, while the other rode the FEI Four Year Old test.  The USEF tests are scored in a traditional manner, with a comment/score given for each movement, while the FEI Young Horse tests are scored with overall marks given for each of the gaits, submissiveness and overall impression.

Let me start by commenting that any one of us would likely have traded the outfit we were wearing that day and offered to sit in our undies on the bleachers in exchange for a ride on either of these lovely youngsters.  The tests that they performed were scored in the 70’s and low 80’s by Rockwell and Clarke, giving those present an excellent picture of what a high standard of performance  and correct training looks like.

At these introductory levels, much emphasis is placed on the correctness of the basic paces. No matter how good a mover the horse is, Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that in order to show a horse’s paces to their best advantage, riders must perfect the transitions.  The quality of the transition will determine how well and how clearly the horse begins the next gait.  Even horses with “average” gaits can improve in quality with correct transitions.

On a related note, tension (mental or physical) will block a horse’s throughness and ultimately impede the quality of their gaits.  The judges remarked that tension in the canter is especially common in developing horses, and it is important that horses come into the gait with suppleness and swing.

One of the most challenging movements in the lower level tests is the infamous “stretchy circle”.  Judges are usually quite critical of the performance of this movement, with common mistakes including loss of rhythm/regularity, loss of balance, and failure to reach through the topline and down to the bit.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that it is important for riders to remember that the stretchy circle is not meant to be just a test movement; it is a test of the horse’s balance and throughness and must be incorporated into the regular work.

David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website, www.centerlinestables.org).
David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website, http://www.centerlinestables.org).

An interesting point came up as Clarke and Rockwell discussed the performance of Collins’ mount, Bojing.  This talented youngster already moves with the confidence and poise of an experienced campaigner, but occasionally showed his youth in certain moments of the test, particularly in terms of showcasing his full power.  Clarke and Rockwell remarked that in training a horse from day to day, riders can get in the habit of doing things the same way they always have.  However, the result of good training should be a horse that changes and develops, and it is important for riders to remember that with this growth may come a need to moderate an aid—perhaps to change how it is given, or the intensity of it.

We would be treated to several additional examples of this axiom as the day progressed.

Although the demonstration horses performed fairly good halts during their test rides, Clarke and Rockwell remarked that at the lower levels, the squareness of the halt is less critical than the overall obedience, submission, steadiness and straightness as seen from “C”.  Once these qualities are maintained, it will become easier for the rider to ride the horse from back to front to achieve a square halt.

One additional discussion which emerged after watching the first few horses perform was related to the choice of bit for individual horses.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that horses who demonstrate “mouth” issues are usually also holding internal tension; this cause must be sought and addressed before the mouth issues will resolve.  According to the judges, riders who constantly change bits to look for a solution to mouth issues are sometimes overlooking the most common one—the rider themselves.  Asymmetry, weakness, lack of balance and lack of coordination in the rider can all manifest as mouth issues in the horse.  Therefore, if the horse has an issue in the mouth—look to the rider first.

Gait Distinctions, Soft Rein Backs and Head Tilts

2015 Third Level Test 3, 2015 Fourth Level Test 3 (and boy, is that test ramped up!) and the FEI Prix St. Georges tests were demonstrated by Poulin on a client’s horse, Blitz on the young stallion Ripline and McPherson on an older campaigner, Flair.  Again, all three horses demonstrated quality tests and allowed auditors a clear picture of what is expected at the given level.  Clarke and Rockwell began asking riders to stay a moment longer in the ring with these older horses, in order to repeat certain movements or to demonstrate particular points.  What became clear through the feedback provided by the judges is that, for these medium level horses, continued attention to the finer points allows for an increase in the quality of performance.

Rein back is a movement that appears in tests starting at the Second Level.  Horses should halt quietly, and then step backwards without visibly losing balance, dropping or raising the poll, or stepping sideways.  It is actually quite an unnatural movement for the horse and requires a great deal of submission.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if there is restriction in the reins during the rein back, the horse will brace against this and drag their feet.  Instead, the rider must learn to execute the rein back with a soft hand.

Turn on the haunches and walk pirouettes also appear at these levels, which led to a bit of friendly US-UK terminology debate. Clarke explained that the term “turn on the haunches” is an old military movement that has nothing to do with maintaining the rhythm or regularity of the gait, two qualities which are “must have’s” when performing this movement in the modern arena.  Therefore, Clarke insists that a more correct description for a “turn on the haunches” is really “large walk pirouette”, which is actually a classical dressage movement.  Rockwell simply shrugged his shoulders and sipped his coffee at this. No matter what you call them, the horse must maintain a clear four beat rhythm and the rider must be especially careful to not allow the horse to “stick” behind.

The three talented horses which demonstrated the middle level tests were also able to present auditors with three different levels of proficiency with the medium and extended gaits.  Often, riders “push” for so much in their medium gaits that there is not a clear difference between it and the extended gait.  However, Clarke and Rockwell admitted that judges must also partially take the blame for this, because they sometimes too harshly score a “normal” medium trot.  So of course, this led to a discussion of what exactly is being expected in each of these paces.

Clarke and Rockwell explained that in the medium gaits, there is a soft, quiet opening of the steps with no loss of roundness or throughness.  Extended gaits, by contrast, are the “utmost”, and need to be more than the medium.  For those of us who ride horses with limited natural gaits, it is best to really go for it in the medium gaits, and to accept the comment of “not much difference” in the extended movements.

Blitz and Ripline had to execute a challenging movement in the new USEF Fourth Level Test 3—the shoulder in on the center line.  From “C”, the judge commented that the horse was not correctly bent and the movement was not clear.  From where we sat on the side, the movement had seemed okay.  This was a great example of how a judge can only assess what they can actually see (review the “Judge’s Notebook” section below).  Rockwell had Blitz repeat the movement, this time being certain to keep Ripline’s hind legs on the center line, with the forehand only to the side of the line.  Once the letter “A” could clearly be seen between the horse’s hind legs, the angle and bend of the movement became more correct and the score was adjusted accordingly.

Occasionally during their tests, each of these horses had demonstrated a slight head tilt which negatively impacted the score for that movement.  This led to an interesting discussion of where in the horse’s body submission to the bend begins.  In a horse that is accepting the aids correctly, the ribcage gives to the rider’s inside leg and the horse steps to the connection of the outside rein, allowing the rider to then be “free and easy” with the inside rein.  When the horse doesn’t move off the leg appropriately (and therefore lacks true submission to the bend), the rider will use the inside rein more than they ought to, which begins the head tilt.

The Elite Levels:  “It’s from another planet”

Auditors were in for a real treat after the lunch break, when Lee returned with Glorious Feeling to demonstrate Intermediate A, and Laura Noyes rode her own Galveston in the Intermediate B.  However, the finale was not to be missed, and 2012 London Olympics alternate team members Blitz and her own Paragon elicited multiple “10’s” from the judges and the now infamous comment, “It’s from another planet” (in reference to Paragon’s extended trot).  I must admit that my note-taking fell off the page a bit during these last few rides as I was so mesmerized by the horses’ performances.

Clarke and Rockwell discussed the meaning of a horse “being on the outside rein” as the effect of how much control and influence a rider has with the outside rein, versus the amount of weight the rider feels in the outside rein.  This sense of connection to the outside rein is a must have requirement in order to execute the rapid changes of bend, balance and pace required in these elite level tests.

Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.
Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.

Less experienced riders tend to focus on the head and neck of the horse, and as riders gain experience, they learn to look through the whole body to see the lift through the topline and engagement of the supporting muscles, which then allows the poll to come to be the highest point with the nose just in front of vertical.  These confirmed FEI horses demonstrated this correct balance clearly and showed how this much power can still be soft.

Earlier, Clarke and Rockwell had emphasized the importance of constantly checking in with how the rider is using her aids as the horse grows and develops.  With Galveston, Noyes delivered an accurate and fluid test that had many good (“8”) and very good (“9”) movements.  However, the judges felt that the horse still had more to offer and that Noyes was not quite asking enough.  By changing the balance between her forward leg aid and restraining seat and rein aids, as well as modifying the timing of the two, Galveston began to produce an extended trot which elicited a collective gasp from the audience.  Surely Noyes knew this trot was in there, but now she has new tools to play with in order to develop it further.

In these tests, Clarke and Rockwell discussed the critical importance of preparation for movements and the use of transitions and corners to aid in building up the required power and correct balance.  For example, in the sequence changes (the four, three, two and one tempi’s), the rider must come onto the diagonal and create an uphill balance in the horse and then release into the first change, as opposed to trying to push into them.  The medium and extended trots are also a release of stored energy that has been built up in advance; if the rider has failed to build the energy, she cannot magically create the power required for these paces at the letter itself.

Blitz and Paragon were truly inspirational to watch.  At 18 hands, the chestnut gelding would command attention no matter what, but the incredible sitting in his piaffe/passage, the ease of his tempi changes and of course the unbelievable power and control demonstrated in his extended trot were simply magical.  I think everyone there knew we were watching a special partnership.

Clarke and Rockwell of course have seen (and judged) this team before, and both remarked on the tremendous growth in the horse’s confidence.  “Whatever you are doing in your training program—keep doing it,” commented Clarke.  The judges said that for so many horses, no matter what, the muscular growth acquired through consistent training will help them develop the confidence to do the movements.  For a Grand Prix horse, learning the movements themselves is only a beginning.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if you are lucky, it takes five years to develop a horse to Grand Prix, and then another two years to put it all together in the arena. So much of this development comes down to the strength of the horse in being able to correctly do the movements.

Judge’s Notebook

As a (2007) graduate of the United States Dressage Federation’s “L” judge’s training program, I can assure you that the view from C is one that comes only after years of dedication, effort and growth in terms of developing one’s eye, skill, vocabulary and clarity.  While I am lucky to be invited to judge at local schooling horse trials and dressage shows, I am not sure that I will ever feel fully qualified or up to the commitment of pursuing the dressage judge’s license.  Completing the “L” program has helped me to interpret judge’s comments on my own tests with better clarity and also to know that most judges truly want to help the competitors to be better. I have an immense amount of respect for the challenge that judges face in their role.

Clarke and Rockwell represent the pinnacle of judging, and I was completely impressed with how they came within one point of each other on nearly every movement, with similar comments.  As adhering to the training pyramid will lead to a horse with correct basics, these gentlemen show that the progress judges make through their own training helps to refine the eye and to create cohesion and consistency in a subjective discipline.

Throughout the day, Clarke and Rockwell offered insight into the role and mind of a judge, both by actually scoring/commenting on the tests being performed and also through their discussion of each performance.  In addition, they fielded questions from the audience.

Here are a few of the “judging notes” I picked up throughout the day.

  • Judges must actually use the entire scale to reflect what they are really seeing. During the course of the day’s rides, we heard Clarke and Rockwell say everything from 3 to 10.  I must admit, I find it hard to get out of “six-ville” when judging, so it was exciting to see the quality of performance which elicits higher marks, as well as the fact that these elite judges will forgive minor mistakes (like a small stumble).
  • One of the main purposes of the Young Horse classes is to educate the public; this is especially true in Europe, where such classes will draw a large crowd. In the YH tests, judges want to see a relaxed, confident horse which is being shown in a natural balance.  Horses may have three super gaits naturally but the training must still be correct, and the young horse must not move artificially.  The Four Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Training/First Level; the Five Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Second/Third Level and the 6 Year Old test is roughly equivalent to USEF Third/Fourth Level.
  • When a horse is actively teeth grinding or tail swishing during their work, it is important to look at the overall picture and to not immediately interpret this as a symptom of resistance; judges should not automatically deduct points. Frequently if there is tension in the horse there will be additional cues.  Not every horse that grinds their teeth or swings their tail is being resistant.
  • The collective marks are meant to be a summary of the overall test. Therefore, a test whose movements are full of 5’s and 6’s should not have collective marks that are 7’s and 8’s.  Errors in the test should not affect the rider scores in the collective marks.
  • You can only judge what you can really see, not what you think or assume is happening. This was especially clear when the judge at “C” and the judge at the side had different marks or conflicting comments.
  • To arrive at a score, the judge must consider all of the qualities that they like (positive) versus those things that were negative. The judge must ask, “where is your eye drawn to?” and start there.  Beware the generic comment (“needs more impulsion”).  If it needs to be said, try to be specific (“needs more impulsion at ‘K’”).
  • The rider is responsible for the submission score and the overall performance of the horse that day; therefore, a rider may receive a different mark for “rider” from the same judge on the same day for different performances or different horses.
  • If someone comes into the ring, takes a risk and pulls it off (for example, they really went for a big medium trot), give them the points. Otherwise, why would riders ever bother to take risks, and the result is boring dressage.

    A dressage judge's job is never easy....
    A dressage judge’s job is never easy….
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