For those of you who may have wondered how a judge came to be a judge, this article might help you to understand the process of climbing the judging ladder.  

The ‘L’ Education Program (or ‘L’ program) is where it all begins.  The ‘L’ (Learner) program is an extensive course in learning about judging dressage run by the USDF.   It consists of several weekends that cover rules, biomechanics (horse and rider), and judging methodology.  These learning weekends are open to ALL USDF members – a fantastic learning opportunity!  To continue onto the practical judging section of the program, including a final exam, you must have riding scores yourself which include a minimum of 2 at Second Level Test 3 of 65% or higher and at least one at Third Level or above of 62% or higher.    The focus of the program is Training through Second Level.  It generally takes about 1 year to complete the program.  Upon completing the exam an ‘L’ Graduate may then judge at schooling shows only, not at recognized shows.   If the exam is passed with a high enough score, ‘with distinction’  then the ‘L’ graduate may continue on and apply to the ‘r’ program… the first of the USEF recognized judges designations.

For the ‘r’ (recorded) judge program (‘small r’ as we call it!), a candidate must have ridden themselves at 4th Level a minimum of 5 tests at 65% or higher, in addition to graduating the ‘L’ program with distinction, and be at least 21 years old.  They also have to submit a minimum of 15 references, 12 of which must be from licensed officials.   Once the application is accepted by the USEF, and there is an ‘r’ program established, the candidate will start by attending a training weekend with review of the fundamentals covered in the ‘L’ program and practical judging with the instructor judge.  There are usually 10 candidates in a group to optimize the learning and to help keep the cost more reasonable.  In addition to the training weekend a candidate must then also complete rigorous apprentice judging weekends and sitting in (observing) through Second Level.  In the past, it was typical for each candidate to have to arrange apprenticing on their own at a recognized show with one of the presiding judges, which includes bringing your own scribe and arranging for copying of the tests from the presiding judge.  This is still done but now we try often to complete the apprenticing with at least a portion of the group at one time.  The group hires an instructor judge to work with them independent of the presiding judge of the show.  This method allows for even more interaction with the instructor judge and most importantly does not interfere with show management.  From the original training weekend to the final exam, also takes about one year to complete.  In addition to passing the exam, a candidate must be approved by the USEF Licensed Officials Committee.  They are then able to judge at USEF recognized shows through Second Level. 

To move on to the ‘R’ (registered) judge program (‘large R’ as we call it!), a ‘r’ judge has to have been licensed for a full 2 years.  They must have judged a minimum of 10 USEF recognized competitions, including at least 40 tests at Second Level Test 2 and/or 3.  They also have to have a minimum of 5 tests themselves of showing at Prix St. Georges or higher with 65% or better. In addition, 15 or more references, 12 of which must be from other licensed officials must also be submitted.   Then in similar fashion to the ‘r’ program, there is a training weekend followed by apprenticing, observing and a final exam.  With approval from the LOC, the ‘R’ graduate can then judge through 4th Level at USEF recognized shows. 

To apply to the ‘S’ program, (which is the highest USEF judge’s designation), a ‘R’ judge has to have been licensed for a full 2 years and have judged 8 or more recognized shows,  with a minimum of 40 tests at Fourth Level Test 2 and or 3.  They also have to have a minimum of 5 tests themselves of showing at the Grand Prix level (2 tests can be Inter II (A or B)) of 60% or higher along with the customary 15+ references.  Once there are enough candidates approved, usually 10, and a program is set up, there is a training weekend with an instructor judge followed by the apprenticing, observing and exam.  With approval from the LOC, an ‘S’ may judge through Grand Prix at USEF recognized competitions (not CDI’s).

To climb the Judge’s ladder from the start of the ‘L’ program through to the ‘S’ designation would most likely take a minimum of 8 to 10 years to complete. This is assuming that there are enough candidates to put a program together in a certain year.  If there are too few candidates and there is not a program approved, it can lengthen the time frame considerably. There is not a mandatory retirement age for USEF licensed dressage judges.    

If a judge has completed all of the above, and judged as an ‘S’ for at least 2 years, and they are under 55 years old, they may apply for approval from their own federation to continue pursuing FEI 3* status.  In similar fashion to the USEF designations, the FEI also requires a rigorous training program including shadow judging, observation time and final exam. One must be prepared to travel abroad for the final exam.  The same goes for moving onto the FEI 4*.  The FEI 5* status does not entail a program as such, it is arrived at by being appointed by ones federation.  FEI judges may judge at CDI’s, but only 5* judges may judge at World Equestrian Games and the Olympic Games.  FEI 3* and 4* judges must retire at age 70, while a 5* may apply for 2 one year extensions to retire at 72.  

In summary: 
‘L’ Graduate…..  judges schooling shows only…any level
‘r’…………………… judges through Second Level at USEF recognized shows. 
‘R’……………….…. judges through Fourth Level at USEF recognized shows. 
‘S’…………………... judges through Grand Prix at USEF recognized shows. 
FEI 3*, 4*,5*……judges CDI competitions.

See you on the Centerline!