I’m a soft touch when it comes to volunteering at dressage shows. My favorite job has always been ring steward: I get to watch the warm-ups and most of the rides. I’m occasionally pressed into service to read a test. And I come as close as I’ll ever come to my childhood dream of being a traffic cop. With clipboard in hand, I boss people around–and they THANK ME for it!
Lately, though, I’m beginning to prefer scribing: I get to sit down all day. I dissect our sport by figuring out what the judges are looking for. I start to see patterns to their pet peeves and bugaboos: This judge HATES horses that work haunches-in to avoid carrying themselves; that judge LOVES to see more energy. I see how test movements connect (or, unfortunately, don’t connect). I sharpen my eye. On rare occasions, I get to comment. (When an involuntary “WOW” popped out of my mouth at a First Level horse’s trot lengthening, the judge said, “Exactly. Write that down.”) And as a volunteer, I know I’m helping out.
Want to try it? Great! But as a competitor and a scribe, let me tell you that, to be good and enjoy the experience, you need:
Sharp hearing. Hey! Don’t laugh. Judges aren’t horse whisperers, they’re test whisperers. They are absolutely allergic to having their scores and comments overheard by riders or spectators. So they’re never, ever loud. They quickly become sotto voce when a rider ventures closer to the judge’s stand than, say, B and E, and they go absolutely ventriloquist when a rider halts at C. The lips don’t move, sound does not emerge–but the words must appear on paper. Complicating this sound deficit, of course, are the external vagaries of horse-showing–howling wind, pounding rain, gear-grinding water trucks, crackling public address systems and piped-in “background” music that’s anything but. Your ears have their work cut out for them, as does your willingness to do what it takes. During freestyles at a recent show, the music blasted so deafeningly–the better for the riders to hear it–that I ended up with my head snuggled cozily on the judge’s shoulder.
Speed. “Write fast and use lots of abbreviations,” one judge told me as we started Fourth Level, where movements come faster than lemmings pouring over a cliff. “I give LOTS of comments.” (Of course, for every judge who speaks volumes, there’s the judge who confines her- or himself to two or three pet words for which you could almost use rubber stamps–“supple,” “active,” “obedient.”) Some judges are “every man for himself.” Some are solicitous. “I’m on Movement 27. Are you?” And some–they’re fun–are tour guides. “Now we come to the second shoulder-in. Let’s see if it’s better than the first.”
Speed, by the way, does not mean sloppy. As a competitor, I can tell you that I love a scribe with…
Good penmanship. It is, after all, a form of communication. I am not talking textbook Palmer Method here, just something that a normal dressage nut with a high school education and 20/20 eyesight can decipher. Good tiny handwriting is even better: The boxes are smallish to begin with, and they shrink progressively as the movements increase from nine (USDF Introductory Test 1) to 38 (FEI Grand Prix).
Is it penmanship overkill that I bring my own tiny-tipped pens, extra-fine Pilot V-Balls or Pilot Precise Rolling Balls in black or blue, plus red for marking errors? Maybe. But then there’s my straightedge. It’s great for upper-level tests: I pull it down the page, one box at a time, and so never accidentally skip one of those teensy-weensy spaces assigned to a big, important movement. The straightedge is also invaluable for drawing lines to demarcate clearly the walk, trot, canter and passage/piaffe work in the freestyle tests. This is necessary because it’s you, the scribe, who must jump around finding movements and writing scores as they appear in the choreography. As one judge said during a series of freestyle classes, “You’re truly the one doing all the work.”
Knowledge of the tests. Knowing where you have to write like mad and where (usually during the walk work) you have a bit of a breather is a real advantage. And when movements start coming one on top of the other, being able to see that you and the rider are indeed on, say, the half-pirouette left is a major help. (If you’re just starting a scribing career, by the way, put that upper-level stuff on hold, at least for a while. Get your feet wet with the lower-level tests and move up only as your confidence and comfort level increase.)
Multi-taskability. No scribe just sits there and writes. You orchestrate. You check that the number on the next rider matches the name and number on the lineup and on the front of the test in your hand. (I always turn the test over and write the number in the upper right-hand corner, too.) You remind the judge of which class and test she’s judging and when both change–there’s nothing worse than knowing it’s your fault that she incorrectly rang somebody off course. You mark errors. And you check how to do it before starting because, in spite of the rules, every judge is different. Some want errors marked in red; black is fine with others. Some want the word “error” written on the movement; others want the minus number in the right-hand margin. Some want YOU to carry rerrors down to the totals; others want to do it themselves; still others say that’s the scorekeeper’s job.
You hand the completed, signed test to the runner (surreptitiously checking for the judge’s signature on the front). When the judge starts to look faint–judging is devilish hard work–you ask the runner to bring a Power Bar. You may, once in a blue moon, get to express your opinion. (“A 6,” said one judge. “Or 7. What do you think?”) You will be appreciated. (After I calmly executed our first test together–the 32-movement Prix St. Georges–with nary a fluff or bobble, the visibly relieved judge, who didn’t know me from Adam, turned and gave me a jubilant high-five because she knew we were gonna be A-OK.) And sometimes…oh joy…when the judge is busy finishing her written remarks, she may ask you to ring the bell for the next ride.
Now, what’s not to like about that?
This column originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. If you’re interested in reading or calling a dressage test for a rider–another volunteering option Kip mentions here– see judge Janet Brown’s explanation of how to be a helpful and effective caller in the January 2008 issue.