Putting the science into dressage scoring

How much influence does the draw have on your dressage scores in eventing? Too much it seems!

Chris Burton and Noblis 18: something special (Image: Libby Law)
Chris Burton and Noblis 18 did a lovely test on Friday afternoon and deserved to be in the lead… but by how much? (Image: Libby Law)

Dressage isn’t a science when it comes to judging. The scoring is subjective, and while there has been a lot of training and improvement in judging standards over the years, whatever way you look at it, it still comes down to human judgement. And being human means that things are not always straightforward. Biases and prejudices come in, no matter how hard we work to keep them out.

At the recent Burghley Horse Trials, a number of riders were quite vocal about what they saw as poor judging. Our own Sir Mark Todd and Jonelle Price were two of these.

Sir Mark said: “I was disappointed after the dressage, not in the horse but in the way the horse was marked.”  Sir Mark was one of the first in the morning session on the second day.

Jonelle Price and Classic Moet had a great performance to go into 6th place (Image: Libby Law)
Jonelle Price and Classic Moet did a lovely test on Thursday afternoon. What would their score have been if they had competed on Friday afternoon? (Image: Libby Law)

Jonelle, who rode in the second session on the first day, was so annoyed with the inconsistent judging she took to Facebook, commenting: “Frustrating to watch Friday afternoon judging at its finest here at Burghley. No disrespect to the horses and riders that went this afternoon, but to have two of the first 53 combinations perform 40 or below tests, then seven of the last 17, is peculiar to say the least – and no, the draw is not in order of ranking!”

While we have all thought that Friday afternoon is the best time to get the best score, it was great to see some statistical analysis being done by Equiratings. You can check out their full analysis and article on this link; it is well worth the read.

They have crunched all the numbers, using a system where they worked out the average dressage score over the last 12 months for each competitor, and then calculated what the average score should have been at Burghley on that basis. There wasn’t a lot in it. Yes, Friday afternoon horses had a slightly better average than those on Thursday afternoon, despite there being a random draw. The draw could be influenced by those with more than one horse, as they get put at each end of it, but in this competition, it actually didn’t appear to make that much difference.

Equiratings then calculated the actual scores and found there was quite a discrepancy from what we could have expected on past performances.

Their findings showed that riders on Thursday morning at Burghley scored (on average) 4.2 marks penalty marks higher than their previous performance averages. Friday morning wasn’t the best time to go either (backing up Sir Mark’s statements), as the scores were 1.2 marks higher. The gob-smacking statistic was that Friday afternoon scores were 3.6 penalty marks lower than what was expected on past performances. This means that there was a 7.8 penalty difference, just because of the draw!

NZL-Sir Mark Todd rides NZB Campino during the CCI4* Second Day of Dressage at the 2016 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials (Interim-10TH). Friday 2 September. Copyright Photo: Libby Law Photography
Sir Mark Todd rides NZB Campino on Friday morning (Image: Libby Law)

Equiratings ask a good question about whether the balance is right in regard to the emphasis on dressage. From their article (which you really should read), the most compelling argument involves Jonelle.

“Comparing Jonelle Price and Christopher Burton at Burghley asks the question of balance between the phases. Burto was 18.3 marks ahead after dressage (an average of just 1.2 marks per movement). Jonelle was four seconds faster on the cross-country and had one fence down versus the four of Burto. Chris won and still had 4.7 marks in hand over Jonelle (who was third) so could have had a fifth fence down and stayed ahead of her.”

Under the current FEI proposals for qualifications, having four rails down in a four-star wouldn’t give you qualification under the Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MER) – these are used to qualify you for future events. This would mean that Christopher Burton would have won Burghley but would fail to gain MER under this proposal because of his performance in show jumping.

No disrespect to Christopher, who has consistently produced great dressage tests on many of his horses over the years. Of course we Kiwis want Jonelle to win a four-star, so we are showing our own bias, but we absolutely agree with Equiratings that there needs to be more discussion about  the balance and role of dressage in eventing.

Julie was thrilled with her horse and their performance, though a few more marks would have been nice! (Image: Libby Law)
Julie was thrilled with her horse and their performance, though a few more marks would have been nice! (Image: Libby Law)

We would also love to see the same analysis being done on the dressage scores in the “pure” dressage competition at Rio. The draw for that is not random; it is based on previous performance, so the last session always has the “stars.”  However, it did seem to result in inconsistent scoring. Horses who were expected to do well ended up getting marks that were perhaps above what was really deserved in some cases, whereas those “unknowns” appeared to suffer the opposite effect.

Definitely worthy of further investigation and discussion, but in eventing it seems that if you are sitting on a good dressage horse, and get drawn in the last session, chances are very high that you will end up doing pretty well, and maybe even have enough of a buffer to get you through the two other phases!