My role as an elite performance coach in many sports means that my absolute goal is to enhance sport & performance. I NEED to know how & why things happen, it’s the way I’m wired.  In sport we should never stay still or settle, we should always be looking at improving processes & the systems we work by. With a goal of long-term, continued success (or form) evolving faster than the competition is perhaps the only real sustainable advantage.

So although I’m sure many will find this article contentious & for some, uncomfortable reading, I think it’s important to say. Dressage is an equestrian sport that might not be the most entertaining for some, but delving into the detail and precision of it is something that I’ve found fascinating.

We’ve known for years that the human factor in the judging of dressage can be inconsistent at best, totally bemusing at worst. To be fair, judges spend a lot of time working at parity and make no mistake it’s a tough job! In an attempt to get better, I’ve often spoken with judges to understand their viewpoint.

The fact is, backed up by significant neuroscience, that the human brain cannot be objective. It is predisposed to opinion and bias, something that it does quite readily by design in a very automatic (subconscious) way.

For instance, when meeting someone for the first time you are quite literally forming a first impression. But away from your conscious thoughts, deeper, more primal sensory parts of the brain are observing many different factors in deciding a “gut feel”. Consider emotional intelligence, for instance, where you are interpreting facial expression signals, voice patterns and tone and even language used. All that in less than 10 seconds of a greeting and handshake.

I’m probably risking a backlash in writing this, but in order for the sport to continually progress I believe that this human insight should be heard.  In my work I have watched and analysed countless dressage tests. I’m not an expert from a technical perspective, but I know enough of the basics. More importantly, I do know that the perception or “feel” that a rider has is nearly always different (sometimes significantly) from what we observe from the ground. But the best way of looking at this is through several scenarios;

Scenario 1: a judge has marked a horse before.

Once a memory has been created, your brain will automatically refer to that memory when represented with the same picture again. This is part of a recall system designed to save time and “fill in blanks”, because there is a huge amount of data to process. Your perception can therefore become slightly varied depending on whether the previous experience was a positive or negative one.

Scenario 2: the judge trains a rider.

Every judge has to make a living, and every step is taken to make sure that this only happens at the lower levels. Over the years I’ve made the effort to speak to judges and get their thoughts rather than just being critical or negative. In this scenario, the judge can be placed into a difficult situation. Not wanting to be seen favouring a rider, a judge can hold back marks so it can have a negative rather than positive effect. Further, the judge/trainer has memories of what the horse is capable of in the training environment where it might be more relaxed for instance. Knowing the combination’s potential will also have a subconscious effect on how the test is perceived. And before anyone denies this, I’ve heard this from several judges.

Scenario 3: a certain judge has a preferred “way of going” in a test

I’ve worked with enough riders at the pointy end to know that they will look at who is on the ground jury and will adapt the way they ride a horse in a test. The same combination will deliver the same test varying expression or outline for instance, at two different competitions. Again, this is not an attack, but every human brain will develop a belief around what it sees, and if the degree of competency or expertise increases in this particular field, variables will increase. When we’re talking about horses in a dressage test there is so much sensory data for the judges to interpret that, well, they can’t! And so they will focus on the aspects they are more naturally drawn to. As a result, one judge will be prioritising similar (but not identical) data to another.

There are further scenarios and I’m sure others will come up with more, but I’ve used these to explain the point. I’m aware that a lot of training is done in an attempt to achieve parity, but the question is what can be done about this?

Are governing bodies aware of this, and should this information be taken on board and factored into judge training?

Absolutely, because as with any mental training, drawing personal preferences into the conscious brain and making an individual reflect on their own thought processes will facilitate a more consistent cognitive processing.

Perhaps at more of the bigger competitions, both in dressage and eventing we could employ 5 judges with 2 scores to be dropped?

Either way, neuroscience is now proving something that we’ve always known about. The fact is that our brains are designed to show bias and dressage needs to embrace and understand this.


©2022 Jon Pitts


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