Most eventers recognize a licensed official as their judge, technical delegate or cross-country course designer, but many haven’t considered how these officials found themselves in those roles. The path to becoming licensed is often long, undulating and expensive, and yet these individuals do it to keep the sport alive for years to come. In this series, we explore what exactly it takes to become a licensed official. Next we look at an Eventing Judge.
Michelle Henry grew up in Fresno, California and joined the local Pony Club at age six. After her first successful cross-bar jumping lesson, she announced to her mother, Loris Henry, a now retired FEI 3*/4* event judge and current “S” dressage and “S” event judge, that she wanted to jump and do dressage. Michelle grew up immersed in the sport of eventing, and under the tutelage of her mother and four-star rider Derek diGrazia, she was a successful Young Rider and competed through the Advanced level with her horse Jack.
Michelle Henry. Photo courtesy of Henry.
In 1995, she was ready for a change. After her graduating from Fresno State University with a degree in Mass Communications and Journalism, and following the disappointing loss of her advanced horse, Henry moved to Virginia. She was there for nearly 20 years. Following an internship at the Chronicle of the Horse, she began a career as a proposal/marketing manager for large government contracting firms, and was later hired by the Department of Defense and spent two years in Iraq.
"Working with three and four star generals on a daily basis gave me perspective on what's important, how to problem solve and prioritize quickly in a fast-paced environment, and how my role on the ‘team’ was important to the overall mission,” she said. “I find myself using these lessons daily, and especially when officiating.”
A busy work schedule left little time for horses, but at the suggestion of USEA CEO Jo Whitehouse in 2009, she first considered becoming an eventing judge.
At 38, Henry applied to take the first of three required USEA Training Program for Event Officials (TPEO) seminars. “The first course is a dressage course,” she said, “and our first day focused on the horse’s biomechanics. It was an in-depth look at how a horse’s muscles and skeleton move and work together to create things like bend, suspension, engagement and impulsion. I loved this aspect – it really takes things to a granular level. Now when I say things like ‘tight in back’, as a comment on a test I’m judging, I see the tension in the back muscle, in part because of these wonderful diagrams and videos. They are incredibly educational.”
Before the second dressage seminar, candidates were encouraged to spend time scribing and sitting with judges at local shows to better familiarize themselves with the vocabulary they were using and the scores they were giving.
USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.
Henry explained, “The second seminar is designed to test the class for their strengths and weaknesses. The first day candidates review numerous videos of each of the dressage test movements - both good and not so good moments – and then the class discusses them together as a group. Later that day, each candidate sits in a line together and as a live horse performs the various movements of a test and each candidate, one by one takes a turn yelling out their score for the movement being performed at their turn.”
She continued, “You’re not expected to be perfect every time; you’re still learning at this stage. But I won’t lie: it was hard being put on the spot at times, especially when you weren’t sure, you were wrong, or you flat out missed something, like a horse resting his right hind before trotting out of a halt. But you get better and better the more you do it!”
She said that as a licensed judge, in a competition situation, things move fast and, as we all know, not always the way the rider intended. “As a judge, you have got to be confident to know what you saw and how to score it,” she emphasized. “Getting to your scale takes a lot of practice! My recommendation to others is to do more apprenticing than required. At the exam, the dressage phase of the test is conducted by a top, USEF “S” dressage judge to ensure consistency.”
The third and final seminar for a judge’s education focused on the cross-country and show jumping phases of an event. Henry said that candidates discuss things like terrain, safety, new technologies in course building, obstacles and keeping course standards the same across the country, how to properly measure fences, dangerous riding, medical response and what to expect, permitted equipment, stopping points and the procedures to follow, the importance of each official’s duties, the importance of team work, as well as existing and recent rule changes.
Diagrams and lessons-learned scenarios are also used to stress the importance of the rules, and each candidate receives hands-on training to use the electric timers as well.
“As you can see, becoming an event judge requires much more than just knowing dressage,” she said. “When you are asked to be President of the Ground Jury, you are ultimately responsible for the ‘final rulings’; you work with your team of officials, but that last call comes down to you. This means you make the call if, for example, a jump may need to be pulled from the course midway through due to weather. The licensing exam is designed to ensure that you’re capable of handling all of these responsibilities. You’ve got to be diplomatic and willing to work with people for that part of the job.”
Words of Wisdom for New Candidates
Henry attributes extra time spent apprenticing to her success. She said she spent two to three weekends a month, for a year, doing her apprenticing work. She took her “r” Eventing Judge and Technical Delegate exams together and passed in 2010; in October 2016, Henry passed the “R” event judge and now intends to take the “R” TD exam in August 2017.
When asked which qualities she thinks lend themselves to judging, Henry said, “It takes extreme concentration and you have to be decisive. When you see a movement you have to know that it’s a seven; your vocabulary and numbers need to be accurate and precise. A test is fluid, it’s constantly moving, so you need to give the score and comment and keep going, and you have to be able to do it for eight hours straight!”
She also pointed out that judges can’t let the tough times or a long day get them down, since competitors are relying on them. “You have to be able to be sharp for the whole day so that you’re fair,” she said.
To anyone interested in judging, she said, “Start now! Map out how far you want to go with your licenses, (r, R, S, and FEI), and your path to get there. It takes passion for the sport and commitment, but it’s doable!”
From the Judge’s Box: A Few Pointers for Competitors
• Hold your halts for at least three seconds when you salute.
• Ride through your corners.
• Watch your geometry.
• Rebalance before your transitions so your horse is better balanced after the transition.
• Show clear definition in downward transition to a working “gaits”, when medium or lengthening is required.
• Don’t forget to review the new, 2-point deduction rules, now in effect, for things like whips, boots and bandages, and time allowed after the whistle has blown.