This week I watched the handy hunter round of the USHJA Hunter Derby Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. But I wasn?t there. I was sitting with a few friends, glass of wine in hand, and watching it on the USEF Network, first on my Iphone and then on a friend?s Ipad (when the crowd became too numerous to watch it on the Iphone screen).
The picture was almost like watching on TV (before HD-TV!), and there were only a few pauses or stutters in the coverage?it was quite the technical marvel. Once I gotten over feeling awestruck by the wonder of it all, I contemplated how much technology is changing our little equine corner of the world and wondered about the effects.
The biggest thing that struck me was that in subjectively judged sports, like hunters or dressage, the pressure on judges to ?get the result right? is about to become nearly crushing. Within moments of the round of one of the top finishers, the internet was on fire because, while the horse had clearly broken to a trot in front of one fence (heck, I saw it too, on a tiny screen with wine glass in hand), it received scores that indicated that either the panel of six judges seated all around the ring had missed it entirely, or they?d decided to overlook it?in clear violation of the rules as written.
What happened' Well, one scenario suggests judging incompetence, and the other malfeasance, at what is meant to be the biggest showcase of the sport?s crown jewel class. Neither is good.
The judges, as an old mentor of mine used to say, had best pull their socks up, as it's going to be a bumpy ride. There was a time when a questionable judging call was, at best, seen only and whispered about by a few dozen onlookers, or, at worst, mentioned in the pages of a niche publication.
But in this brave new media world, thousands upon thousands of people around the world could judge your judging. So I suspect that the days of the standard replies??You had to see it in context? or ?You just don't understand the nuances??are going to fall on progressively deafer ears. Armchair quarterbacking gets a lot easier when you're watching the game in real time. Look at football.
Dressage has been dealing with this issue a bit longer than the hunters. Scrutiny of dressage judges has become an even hotter topic than ever as a result of greater global audiences for big events via live streaming, but they still don't have it sorted?despite a seemingly endless stream of meetings, conferences and committee rulings.
To me, the answer has always seemed pretty easy?if you judge to the standards as written, people might still disagree with you, but at least they?ll accept your decision. They very likely might not understand the nuances, though.
Similarly, the riders will have to become a lot more aware of their image beaming out amongst the masses. As I write this, a top rider/trainer at the USHJA competition is being discussed after having what looked like a hissy fit on course. His horse jumped in badly at one line, and he then harshly pulled him out of the second element and retired before leaving the ring in a huff.
Whatever microphones they had on the field couldn?t pick up what he was saying as he exited the ring, but he was gesticulating wildly at officials and at something in the ring?not an attractive visual. And I suspect that in this format, which lacks the multi-screen editing of most TV sports broadcasts, the director couldn?t cut to another shot. In live streaming, you see what's happening. And without immediate context from the commentators there on the grounds about what was going on, to the casual observer it looked like a silly temper tantrum. In later press quotes the rider explained his situation far more clearly and professionally, but the folks who only watched the feed now have a pretty negative opinion of him.
So perhaps, just like the characters in ?The Truman Show,? it's time for our riders to get their actor on. You may have just had a huge, flaming disaster on the biggest day or your life, but you're in front of the world, so you?d better plaster a smile on your face and pat your horse when the cameras are rolling, because you're still being judged, even if the scoring is over.
I didn't watch the live streaming of the recent Olympics, because the feed was too big for my rural Internet collection and the buffering got too annoying. But I suspect there are a few judges and riders still feeling the burn from more than standing too close to the Olympic torch.
I generally think that shining a light on dark corners is sanitizing and healthy. And that any sport should be able to hold its head up when that light is turned upon it. But the tricky thing is how often a person?s ?memory? of what they saw, even if it was moments before, is usually faulty. I've read emotional descriptions of incidents, but then when I've seen the video myself, seen nothing like what's been described. For instance, I once read an account that claimed a rider supposedly ?lifted their whip above their head and swatted the horse three times one side and two on the other,? but when I saw the video I saw the rider reach back a give the horse a strong swat behind the leg once, without ever bringing their hand above their waist.
Police will tell you eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, so as we go forward in this digital age, the need to watch and verify becomes even stronger. Which leads to more people watching, which increases pressure on the riders and judges.
So be careful out there?we'll all be watching.