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The Carriage Commentator




As the 2023-2024 British Indoor Driving season is well underway, Minta addresses what judges should be looking for in the P & P, and offers some great tips for competitors too - November 2023

We’re at the end of November, the British indoor season is well under way and most regions have had two or three events.  Competing as I do over a few events, and having many of my clients and pupils competing even further afield, the feedback I’m getting is that there is some inconsistency when it comes to how the Precision and Paces phase is being assessed.  This is an area that regularly comes up for discussion and has been highlighted over the last decade.  So the question remains, what are the judges actually looking for and what are they basing their judging on?

This year’s P & P test is actually a really good ‘questioning and checking’ test. To drive it well and to be able to deliver a consistent and correct set of movements is not easy unless you have really understood what is being asked for and trained correctly to achieve this.  To help all involved, the Indoor Driving website has a clear explanation of how to drive the test voiced by Caroline Douglas which accompanies an ariel video showing Amy Matthews going through the motions. This is a great tool for the competitors, but I do ask myself if the judges have also watched the footage and do they understand the breakdown of the test? 

With the diagrams and instructions on the test sheet, the shapes are there to be seen and should be straightforward.  Some of the diagrams might show some of the bends as being a bit too angular, but all in all it’s not rocket science.  However, there seems to be quite a bit of discussion about outside wheels and where they should be, and it always amuses us to hear the in depth discussions down to the last cm!  Is the outside parameter of a shape or circle the outside wheel, pony or pole with a pair?  (Usually pony / centre of the turnout in my book).

Back in the day when the indoor format was conceived, the reason the P & P was set up (rather than having conventional dressage) was to encourage more of the driving fraternity to come and have a go, not be put off by the word ‘dressage’.  It worked and for those who possibly didn’t have the best moving or well-schooled equines, they could gain marks by being perfectly accurate and still be in on the hunt, which meant that different types of driving turnouts could join in, have some fun and potentially place well.

But like anything that grows in popularity, indoor driving has become intensely competitive, so nowadays the drivers fine tune their accuracy and their way of going.  With the P & P, there is no doubt that this has happened, and the majority of drivers have really raised their game which can only be a good thing.  The standard bearers not only bring their older, more experienced animals to compete, but they are also using the indoors circuit to bring on their young animals.  Equally, it remains a great opening format for new drivers who use these events to introduce themselves to the sport of driving trials and it is a perfect schooling ground for the future.

But are the judges approaching it in the same way? Talking to a variety of them so far this season, it seems that some are less sure of what’s required as there are no guidelines laid out for them to follow as P & P judges.  Perhaps the time has come for them to understand that they should be using the same approach as outdoor dressage judges, using as their basis the scales of training – but only judging the bits they are asked to judge, so keep to the paces if that is your job for the day!

Breaking it down further, the paces part of the job covers the complete frame and not just what the legs are doing so it follows that a pace can’t be ‘correct’ if it’s not coming through from behind and forward into the hand – and this needs to be remembered. There are a number of animals through either their conformation or the fact they are just out having fun and are not trained/schooled in a correct outline and moving forward in the hand, who seem to get the same marks as a nicely schooled and balanced animal that bends correctly and is soft and supple through its back.  While on the one hand this could be construed as being encouraging, it is equally galling for those who have correctly going animals if the difference isn’t reflected in the marks and this could actually negatively impact them and discourage them from trying to improve and move forwards. 

Also, while talking to the judges I asked them where the drivers are losing marks. The responses were very telling, especially from those who were looking at it with a professional eye.  From this, here are a few pointers for us all to take forward in trying to up our game and rather than slate the judges, it aims help you to go out and show them that you are taking note!

  • Keep consistency with the pace throughout the test
  • Ensure the working trot is WORKING which means swinging through from behind
  • On the corners ensure the bend is the way you are going and the pony is not held outwards, which makes the inside shoulder lead and then fall in
  • On the straights, the body needs to be straight, and the paces rhythmic and balanced
  • The lengthening is just what is says a few steps of lengthening – not a rush. The frame of the animal needs to be retained and not allowed to run with the nose poking out and down, running flat footed
  • The circles need to be round with bend in the direction of going
  • The walk transition needs to be smooth and stepping through, while tracking up
  • The halt needs to be 4 square and for the prescribed time
  • The rein back should be lateral and bold, and the correct number of steps
  • The transition to walk should show stepping through from behind
  • The transition to trot needs to be stepping forward up into the hand while swinging through the back
  • Most marks are lost on the halt/ rein back, but also on the deviations as they are on the diagonal, so many animals start speeding up thinking it another lengthening and therefore don’t retain that swinging, consistent working trot

Another factor to consider is that the surfaces at the different venues can impact the way of going.  Deeper surfaces will cause more drag so it’s far more difficult to retain that swinging forward and balanced pace, but it’s the same for everyone so the judges must assess in the same way – it might just mean that overall, the numbers awarded will be lower.

On the precision side of things, the feedback has been varied but the best precision judges are those who understand shapes and measurements,  sometimes from other backgrounds and professions, although it’s imperative to have people who understand flow of a horse and carriage.

Top Tip – For those who are finding it hard to grapple with the shapes, transpose the test onto graph paper, draw the grids to include the vertical centre line and the quarter lines, and the lines across the arena from marker to marker.  Then draw the circles with a compass and ensure that the deviations have that bend and flow though X.  Remember that the majority of movements start with the horse’s nose, not halfway along the body, and the halt is the front axle on X and square, and the straight lines should be exactly that (straight) and on point.  Proper preparation for each movement ensures a clean transition – use your corners and half halts to help this.

Also ask yourself if you are new to judging these types of competition to consider who are the best judges are and perhaps talk to them – use this as an opportunity to learn and grow as a judge.  Don’t forget that it’s not only the competitors who should walk the arena before the test but so should the judges – you will get a better feel of where the shapes and transitions should take place if you do this.  And don’t forget with the now very popular VSE (Very Small Equine) classes the expectations are the same, and a well-schooled and balanced VSE is entirely possible.  This sort of exercise actually improves their longevity by building a stronger body.

And finally… although the movements come quite quickly, it would be so helpful to the competitors if a short comment could be added to the sheets.  The sport has evolved enough now that the comments would be hugely beneficial, as well as making the judges accountable.

Perhaps the time has come for the indoor committee to get together with British Carriagedriving and see if their judges can join in the BC judges’ training programme.  Regular Zoom training sessions would also be very helpful not only for judges, but also for the competitors and trainers, so that we are all singing off the same hymn sheet.  All involved owe it to the competitors to deliver fair, professional and well trained officials, who can expect good horsemanship, with well trained and safe, effective driving from the drivers. 

For the Indoor Carriage Driving UK – Precision and Paces Tests ( click here