“A good freestyle evokes positive feelings and emotions. The rider must sell his freestyle to the audience – and the judge is part of that audience.” Frequently acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on Musical Freestyles and the way they are judged, we were lucky enough to have German FEI5* judge Katrina Wüst attend the Bates National Championships. She judged a variety of classes – including the 2017 Pacific League Final in New Zealand - as well as presenting a seminar on the keys to a successful freestyle.
Wüst is a most interesting woman, having trained and competed her own horses to Grand Prix (she was a member of the German B Team in the 1970s-80s), and has a major in German and American Literature, as well as studying History of Arts in Italy. She stopped competing to spend time with her family – she has three children – and moved more toward dressage judging, gaining 5* classification in 2006.
She has judged many international shows including four World Cup Finals, and Championships (including the Europeans) on all levels from Young Horse up to Seniors. Wüst was also a member of the Dressage Task Force in 2009-10, which worked towards modernising the judging system.
As outlined in her seminar, she, along with software developer Daniel Göhlen (also GP rider and judge) has developed a system to revolutionise the marking of freestyle tests. Riders have to submit their floorplan before the show, mentioning all the difficulties they want to show –eg- movements, transitions, combinations etc. The difficulties are then rated following a code of points.
This information is run through special computer software, which then calculates the technical marks as well as the artistic mark for the degree of difficulty. This new system gives the rider the opportunity to point out all his hidden difficulties. This has resulted in greater transparency and accuracy in the assessment of freestyles, and will be used in the World Cup Final in Omaha.
Wüst lists the five ‘keys’ to good choreography: structure, originality, use of arena, balance (within the paces) and suitability for the horse. She says while every horse is better at some movements and not so good at others, it is important not to “show the weak points of the horse on a silver platter. The idea is to show the strengths, and mask the weaknesses.” Furthermore she explained what the mark for the degree of difficulty is based on, and how to objectify the mark for the music, first of all asking yourself whether it fits to all paces and to the appearance of rider and horse. If the movements are underlined by the music – even better!
Our conversation skates over many topics, from the improving quality of our Kiwi horses to Munich’s dressage scene… here’re some snippets of what she had to say.
On the Pacific League Final…
“Compared to what I’ve seen [when I was here] three years ago, good progress regarding the creativity and the choreography. Riders knew quite well what the horses are good at and showed it effectively.
“The degree of difficulty was generally well adjusted to the ability of rider and horse, which is better than trying too much and things going wrong. The music was fitting for most of them though for very high marks I would love to have still more emotion in it. You can catch the audience with the music - sure you can have it only underlining the rhythm but good music should make people dream a little.”
On understanding the conflicts inherent to dressage judging…
“I remember the first ten I have ever given, to a horse with a huge canter in the inter II, extended canter – he grew and grew and I thought ah now! That’s a ten! I want to give a ten. And the judge behind gave a 6 because the horse was crooked. Differences in marks can often be explained by the different angles that judges look at a presentation from but that is what people often don’t understand. I think we should work more together with the press and invite them to sit in with us so we can make it understandable what we do. “
And on striving to get it right…
“Judging ethic should be to get the right winner and to be fair. I am a little angry when there is so much discussion about the judges – I think we don’t deserve it. We mostly have the right winner; even if one judge makes a mistake at a big championship there are four others to balance it out.”
An experiment with removing the highest and lowest marks…
“I’ve done a lot of research about scratching the highest and lowest marks. But why should we? In ice-skating they [the judges] all sit in one line, they [view it from] the same angle. But here [in dressage] we sit around [the arena]. The half pass looks totally different from the front when you see the horses’ bend, or from the long side you see whether a horse is tight in the neck or not. Sometimes the horse has his tongue out for some seconds and only one judge can see it. Why take away his [the judge’s] marks? That is so crazy.
“I experimented after some shows taking away highest and lowest scores per movement - and the difference in the overall score was just fractions of a percent. Also, [this way of thinking] makes judges timid and they don’t go down or up [in their scoring] and that’s not good, I think.”
So it actually doesn’t make that much difference?
“No, it doesn’t. And why not say ok, this is what I see. For example: the shoulder in. I can see from behind that it’s not enough angle, maybe I give a 5 or 6. Then the judge at E or B says ‘oh it’s nicely cadenced’, he cannot see the angle clearly, he will give a 7, maybe more. That’s why we all sit around, it gives us a much clearer view than like all the ice-skating judges sitting in one line.”
On the importance of precision…
“I still feel there were some unnecessary losses of points in many classes here in New Zealand, for example a simple change has three to five walk steps, not one, or nine! Unnecessary losses – throwaway points actually. And that is the difference to the experienced young and junior riders in Europe; they ride precisely through every corner and from marker to marker. Not arriving in the middle of nowhere.”
Starting with the basics…
“There were some uneven horses. In this last class [one of the lower level tests in the outdoor arenas] there was one very uneven horse and I think it’s a question of the welfare of the horse to either take this horse out or to be really low with the marks and write down [on the test sheet] to have the horse checked out. Often inexperienced riders don’t realise that their horse is so uneven and it is our job to make them aware. Of course horses can lose balance for a few moments, which happens, but when I can identify on which leg the horse is uneven or lame then I think this should not be accepted.”
On judging the European Pony Championships…
“You can give tens to the good ones, often unbelievable in trot and canter! And the good ones win with nearly 80% because the ponies just have to have three really good paces, be correctly trained, nice on the aids and professionally presented by the kids – they don’t have to show piaffe or [anything] – they can just show themselves and be gorgeous, I love it!”
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