In the last show I had the good learning opportunity of doing 4 tests in the same level (okay so two were training level, and two were western dressage basic level but they are basically the same) in front of two different judges on the same day. By looking at the scores this should give me a pretty good baseline of what we can do acceptably and what needs work. I actually was super nerdy and started a spreadsheet categorizing all movement scores and coming up with graphs etc. but that's a post for another day.
There were certainly some movements where I could see/feel the problems for myself and 100% agreed with the judges' criticisms (e.g. canter transitions). However, there was one movement that I thought was a strong point but yielded us marks that were surprisingly low to me. That is the free walk.
Kachina has a good clear four beat walk. She was a forward moving trail horse before I got her and that pretty much means she can free walk with the best of them. She generally has clear overtrack and the walk feels marching and like it's going somewhere. In past shows we have sometimes bungled the free walk by breaking into trot for a stride or two (usually my fault). This summer I have done a lot of practice going from free walk to medium walk and back again which has reduced the breaks in gait considerable. I also have sometimes had the comment that I need to give her a looser rein. I generally hold the reins near the buckle, but the fact that Kachina does stretch out her neck a lot and that I have short arms means that we don't always have a lot of slack (and I don't want longer reins because they would be too long most of the time). At this show I made a particular effort to correct this lack of rein loop by holding my arms as far forward as they would reach.
In general, I was happy with our free walk at this show. I did five free walks in total (Western Basic Test B has two), and I was saddened and confused to find out that our free walk marks and comments were:
5.5 - more stretch more rein
5.0 - allow horse to stretch
6.5 - keep straight on track
5.5 - not enough stretch
5.5 - show more stretch
For a movement that always has a double coefficient, those scores hurt. Also, the comments suggest a serious and consistent deficiency, but one that I don't understand (except for the comment about staying straight, I know we did a bit of a zigzag on that one).
I don't have any video, but the photographer did capture multiple photos on the short diagonal of free walk that earned us a 5.5 and the "not enough stretch" comment (note, I did get permission from the photographer to use these watermarked proofs):
I feel like I look a little silly with my arms so straight like that, but to my eye I see a horse who is giving a significant stretch and a rider who is allowing the stretch. The judge clearly did not agree. I feel like I must be missing something (especially with similar feedback from both judges). Can you please enlighten me as to what is wrong with these photos and/or what the judge is looking for in the free walk?
For comparison sake please look at this image to see what a more normal head and neck position for Kachina is (and how long the rein bight is).