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Vet and head judge: "The competition format has to change" 

Foto: Trine Bjørn Puggaard

"Our competition format is currently based on something that has been around for years, and it's time for a change."

This is the opinion of head judge and veterinarian Hans-Christian Matthiesen. In this article, we take an in-depth look at the current competition formats, the challenges the judges face, and what an alternative format could look like, if we are to secure the future of dressage. 

Equestrian sports have received a lot of media and TV attention over the past year. It is necessary to make some initiatives and changes if the sport is to continue. Danish Hans-Christian Matthiesen believes, that too many of the riders he sees at competitions struggle to fulfill the requirements for dressage:  

"The goal of dressage is to make the horse look like it's doing things by itself. As if it looks like the rider just sits still and does nothing. And that's far from the case with most people."  

The challenge lies in changing the overall competition culture. Where, unfortunately, the welfare of the horse is not always the priority. The experienced veterinarian believes that: 

  • Better control and updated guidelines for the judges, 
  • optional equipment, 
  • an assessment of each rider's warm-up, 
  • and completely different classes 

could be a better alternative to the competition culture and format we have today. 


"Equestrianism is conservative"  

We can ask ourselves if the solution to opting for horse welfare at competitions exists, why do we not just change it? Hans-Christian Matthiesen believes it is because the equestrian world is conservative. 

"Equestrianism, by tradition, is very conservative. It is an old and traditional sport, and we actually ride around in something that looks like old military uniforms, and many of the exercises in dressage come from things that were handy to perform if you had a horse in the military. This indicates a slight conservative direction within the sport, and it takes a long time for things to change.” 

Tradition can be a positive thing, but it can also be a hindrance, explains the vet. A traditional and conservative sport can prevent a progressive and open-minded approach to new initiatives. 

According to the experienced horseman, this can be a challenge when the general public has realized that equestrian sport requires change. 

Hans-Christian Matthiesen justifies the need for a change in the current competition formats by stating that competitions are unnatural for the horse. No matter how we look at it, it is far from running around in a field with friends. 

He believes that neither the conditions, circumstances, nor being ridden are natural for a horse. This is exactly why it is so important to create the best conditions and make it as comfortable and natural for the horse as possible when we do attend competitions. It is difficult to balance mastering the fine interaction with a horse, but currently, the judge sees too many nervous and stressed horses on the competition circuit. 

Foto: Trine Bjørn Puggaard

Who is Hans-Christian Matthiesen?

Born in Denmark, Hans-Christian Matthiesen has been a veterinarian at Hørsholm Hestepraksis for more than 20 years. In addition, he is chief judge at the FEI and president of the international officials, judges and stewards. For many years, he has been a team veterinarian, chef d'equipe for Junior and Young Riders and now trains dressage judges at national and international level. On the sidelines, he sits on the board of Hestens Værn (a horse welfare organisation). And this summer Hans-Christian Matthiesen will be the head judge at the 2024 World Cup Final in dressage in Saudi Arabia.

Is it the judges' responsibility?

It is difficult to place a responsibility when it comes to horse welfare in equestrian sports. But many people have pointed their fingers at the competition judges. The FEI's chief judge agrees: 

"As a dressage judge, I am willing to take on all the responsibility that I can bear until my shoulders collapse."

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

He emphasizes that judges need to be better at observing the horse's conflict and stress behavior, regardless of the class they are judging. "As judges, we need to take these things to heart. I believe that we need to be much better at looking at the big picture, and the overall impression. And that needs to be reflected in the way we score.

Hans-Christian Matthiesen believes that the judges' guidelines need to be adapted to a more contemporary format. 

"As a judge, we have some rules and guidelines that we follow, and grade based on. And many of them are simply outdated. Hopelessly old-fashioned. It's such an old-fashioned description of how things should look.

Hans-Christian Matthiesen explains that it can feel like a limitation when he does not have enough tools to act with, and it also leads to frustration for the dressage judge. He expresses that he sometimes feels like his hands are tied behind his back.  

"I don't have the tools to be able to say: 'hey, the horse was really stressed when you came in, that is not okay, you only get 50%'." 

Hans-Christian Matthiesen is doing what he can in an attempt to improve horse welfare in the competition arena. "I write to all [riders] now if the horse is grinding its teeth, swishing its tail too much, if they have a whip and spur marks if it is very sweaty, and if it looks stressed. And in all the courses I teach for judges, I encourage them to write it down too.

"Most of the other judges think I’m crazy!"

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

The head judge with his many years of veterinary experience explains another challenge. "A lot of people don't realize it, but if I write 'whips his tail violently'’ and give a lower grade, it can make some bad person think that the horse needs to be treated with Botox around his tail. This way the horse can't whip his tail and won’t receive lower grades at competitions.”  

Unfortunately, similar issues are seen with horses that have contact or bit issues. Horses that walk with their mouths open have their nosebands tightened and horses that do not lift their legs 'high enough' find that the rider puts on longer spurs. Having this knowledge as a judge can make it difficult to comment on conflicting behavior. Therefore, he phrases it very carefully. "I don't condemn the rider, but comment on it. Dressage is difficult enough in itself." Hans-Christian Matthiesen explains. 


Should equipment be optional? 

"I am in favour of equipment being optional."

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

In some countries, it has recently become optional whether you want to wear a double bridle or a snaffle at competitions. But it is not yet the case at all levels internationally. Hans-Christian Matthiesen is in no doubt that Denmark needs to take the lead when it comes to optional tack at competitions. And this is not only regarding the bridle. 

"Spurs or no spurs - it should just be completely voluntary."

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

Hans-Christian Matthiesen believes that it should be completely voluntary what equipment the horse wears when at a competition. "If you want to use a snaffle, double bridle, or ride bitless, you should be able to. Even if you want to ride a dressage class in a saddle pad, that should be fine.

The chief referee says that he knows it is a hot topic. He believes that the rider, who is with the horse daily, knows what works best for the horse. Therefore, it should be the rider who chooses the equipment for competitions, rather than fixed and uniform rules from national or international equestrian federations. Within reason, of course. "No one should be competing with a bicycle chain in the horse's mouth."  

HC dyrlæge
Foto: Trine Bjørn Puggaard

Hans-Christian Matthiesen does not see the argument in favor of not being allowed to compete in the equipment of your own choice. He believes it could reduce conflict behavior in some horses if you, for example, were allowed to remove the noseband or one of the two bits. He explicitly advocates that if the horse and rider can perform the same exercises with the same level of refinement in the equipment they prefer, he doesn't see the argument for having to use any other tack. Hans-Christian Matthiesen emphasizes that research in the field should define the guidelines. 

Why a greater freedom of choice when it comes to equipment at competitions is not yet available, may be found in the traditional sport. There might also be a hindrance within the existing riders and trainers. 

"They may be afraid that a tendency could occur. Where you think that if you ride with a double bridle, you are being cruel to the horse.

Hans-Christian Matthiesen acknowledges that some people may think that if you ride without a bit or bridle and perform the same program as someone with a curb bit, then you are kinder to the horse. Instead, it should be an individual matter, and as long as the horse is comfortable with the equipment and the riding. As long as it does not exhibit conflict behavior, no judgment should be made based on the equipment chosen. 

The warm-up should be judged  

The progressive veterinarian has endless suggestions on how we can change the competition formats to improve horse welfare, and he's not afraid to touch the otherwise sacred warm-up.  

"I'm in favor of the warm-up being part of the competition. I think it's insanely important."

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

"We cannot in any way defend, when we are dealing with a live animal, that horse welfare is only those five and a half minutes in the arena." Therefore, the head judge believes that the warm-up should also be part of the competition and the overall score. He suggests that a mark should be given for the warm-up.  

As a member of the board of a horse welfare organization, he receives a lot of photo and video material that does not comply with the guidelines set by the equestrian federation.  

"I can see from the material that it's almost always from the warm-ups or daily training, and that's where we need to have some control!"  

That is why he believes that the warm-up should count towards the final grading of a dressage program.  

"If you ask me, there should be a judge sat at the warm-up and you should get a mark for your warm-up.


Hans-Christian Matthiesen has repeatedly had people come up to him and ask him how he could award such high scores to a given horse and rider. They tell him that the warm-up may have looked significantly different and may not have been completely horse-friendly.  

He has also observed horses entering the arena, drenched in sweat, and then drying off in the five minutes it takes to ride the program. And he asks himself: "I wonder what that warm-up was like!" In theory, the five minutes in the ring should be the hardest five minutes where the horse performs at its best, but if the sweat dries off in those five minutes, you have to assume that the warm-up has been somewhat harder than the program itself. 

HC portræt
Foto: Trine Bjørn Puggaard

According to Hans-Christian Matthiesen, judging the warm-up courses would in practice work in such a way that you bring a given grade from the warm-up course, which is announced when you enter the competition course. This means that the final percentage is a combined assessment of the warm-up and the program.  

By checking and rating the warm-up, judges could get a more honest insight into the horse's well-being while riding at a given event. But it would also allow for the possibility that a team that has had a good warm-up but a poorer ride in the main arena, could place reasonably well when the final percentage is given. 

Introducing a score of the warm-up would also send a signal to the rest of the world. The equestrian world is taking responsibility and shying away from the poor horse welfare often appearing in the media recently. 

New classes at competitions?  

New guidelines, free choice of equipment, and a score for the warm-up are not enough for the progressive horseman. He further suggests that we should develop completely different and new competition formats. Classes with exercises that show the interaction and skill between horse and rider should be available. 

"If our new competition format is called ‘horse in harmony’, then I'll be the first to stand up and vote in favour of having it at the Olympics!"  

Hans-Christian Matthiesen expresses that a "harmony" class should not replace jumping and dressage, but that there is a need for some innovativeness. The entire interaction between horse and rider must be recognized at a higher level and therefore also at the major competitions. 

The head judge suggests a format where the rider and horse after a ridden programme go out and take off their equipment and come back in in a halter and perform some exercises. This way, it would allow the judges to judge the interaction between the horse and rider and not just the five minutes that a dressage program takes to ride. 

Introducing such classes could cause a stir because 'that is not what we usually do'. And maybe some will feel threatened by a new kind of competition culture. But there is also a likelihood that it would open up a lot of new participants. 

"Imagine if 50,000 riders suddenly came to these classes, with or without the usual equipment. That would be fantastic for the sport!"

Hans-Christian Matthiesen

Maybe we should return to the initial reason why we are involved with horses in the first place. For most of us, it probably started with a love for horses, where socializing and bonding with them was crucial. It was about the diversity of doing different things. Exploring, learning, laughing, and crying with our horses. Have we become too stuck in the mindset that we have to excel in a certain discipline, class, or with a certain horse to be successful with our horses? 

It can seem like there is a lot of pressure, expectations, and an element of money in the equestrian world that may not be entirely positive. Perhaps we need to take a step back and remind ourselves why we are spending all that time, money, and worry on an animal. 


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