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Making SENse of the SEN Scoring System

An Editorial
by Christy Howard Parsons
Change never comes easy in the traditional sport of saddle seat equitation, or for that matter in the horse business. Since the Saddle Seat Equitation Numerical Scoring System was introduced in the fall of 1999, it has been met with discussion by proponents and critics. It may have been uncomfortable along the way, but most judges who have used the system walk away impressed and wanting to use it again.

An experienced Arabian judge, Carol Stohlmann, who was first exposed to the SEN system at the 2001 Morgan Grand National and who didn't have any preconceived ideas, was very complimentary of it.

“The SEN system is very fair,” said judge Stohlmann. “By scoring each element of the pattern as it occurs, the error of 'recency' doesn’t occur. That is, one mistake in a pattern doesn’t overshadow the whole pattern.”

Gary Garone, who has used the SEN system at two shows in 2001 (All American Classic and Kentucky Fall Classic), also is in support of the system. "Overall I think it is a very positive step. I'm behind it. It isn't necessarily perfect - there have been problems - but I don't see why we can't iron out the kinks. We need more practice with it and we need to walk in more prepared than maybe we have so far."

Scott Matton has been a strong proponent of the SEN system as well. He stresses its ability to allow judges to watch the horses and judge what they see rather than to spend their time in bookkeeping, which can be substantial when there are numerous sections and pattern work involved.

Lynda Freseth and her son Jeffrey Williamson developed the system drawing on similarities from a numerical system originally designed by Nealia McCracken. Obviously Freseth has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to developing the system and to its implementation. In the face of problems at some of the initial horse shows where it was used, Freseth and her son, Jeffrey, have committed to travel to all events where SEN is begin used for the first time. Both of them will be present at the American Royal and Jeffrey will be involved in center ring to ensure that all goes smoothly during the finals.

"I first got started with developing this system when I saw the numerical system at New York [McCracken's system]. I liked it, but I wanted a system that didn't drop scores down equally. So we added the different brackets. I loved the idea of segmented workouts, but I wanted to change a few things. I got so involved in the computer aspect of it because the computer takes care of implementing the rules. It takes care of weighting the various phases at each of the finals even though it's different in the different finals. The computer will even give out sample workouts that are legal for the different age groups that are already segmented," explained Freseth.

It is hard to fault the system’s methodology. The system was designed as a completely numerical system utilizing numbers to express the opinions of judges.

Within the rail work, the goal is to minimize the bookkeeping that is necessary by the judges. The only responsibility of the judge is to categorize the riders from top to bottom into three brackets. The brackets represent the judge’s opinion of grouping top riders together, average riders together, and below average riders together. Within each bracket, the riders are put into an order as well. Then the numerical formula is added by the tabulator to, in fact convert those opinions to a numerical system. The judge scores the general level of competition by setting the top score, and the formula drops down set amounts within each bracket and a greater amount between brackets. Thus, each rider receives a numerical score for their rail work from each judge.

For example, if the rail work accounts for 100 total points, the SEN system dictates that the formula drop three points between riders within brackets and seven points between brackets. If 10 riders are in a class and the judge put three riders in the above average bracket, four riders in the average bracket, and three riders in the below average bracket, and the top score in the class is a 90, then the riders would be scored as follows: 90, 87, and 84 for the above average riders; 77, 74, 71, and 68 for the average riders; and 61, 58, and 55 for the below average riders. Judges do have the option of putting all riders in one bracket, or no riders in any one bracket, based on the performances they see in front of them.

The system is even more useful for scoring workouts or patterns. The planned workout is separated in advance into segments (which theoretically may be weighted to represent the level of difficulty within the pattern, but which in practicality are usually weighted equally). Then the judge scores each individual segment, generally on a 1 to 10 scale, for the quality of the performance of that segment.

This prevents a judge from scoring an entire workout harshly because of a mistake committed at the end of the pattern. It also helps a judge to determine how much a serious mistake should affect the total score of the workout. For example, if a rider misses a canter lead, he or she may receive a zero on that segment of the workout, but it would not necessarily affect other segments of the workout score.

As a former certified public accountant and an admitted numbers person, I respect and appreciate this new scoring system. Perhaps the thing I like best about the system is the ability to involve the crowd in the process. By announcing a rider’s pattern scores from each judge immediately after their pattern, the crowd knows instantly how that rider did, even if they are not an equitation instructor. If you’ve ever been to a rodeo or a jumping event, you can appreciate how much easier it is to stay in the action when you know what each rider has to beat to be in the lead, or even in the ribbons.

In an industry that suffers from a lack of crowd involvement this is a critical benefit. We desperately need a way to boost crowd attendance and involvement and feedback is clearly an excellent way to do just that.

I also think that by posting the scores, riders themselves can learn from their mistakes. They can see exactly how much a mistake within a pattern cost them. They can see how their rail work stacked up to their competitors, and whether rail work or pattern work is the area they need to concentrate on for future improvement.

Anytime we give riders feedback, and take the perceived potential for “politics” out of judging, I think we are a step ahead. Kids and parents will stay in this business longer if they see judging as an opinion which they can understand and even learn from rather than a subjective decision perceived to be based on who their trainer is or what horse they are riding.

Does the SEN judging system eliminate politics in judging? Of course not. However it does help instructors to explain to riders how judges’ decisions were reached, rather than merely the “it was political” excuse.

There is no question that the methodology of the SEN system is good, but with the problems and confusion that have occurred so far, one does have to ask “What’s wrong?” Why does there continue to be questions during and after the events about how the competition was scored?

At the UPHA Pleasure Challenge Cup National Finals in Indianapolis, there were problems in both the senior and junior finals. In the junior class, the scores input after phase I did not match the scores announced to the audience. The error was not discovered until after the competition was over. Thus the rider who was announced as the reserve champion was actually third, and the third place rider who should have been reserve missed her chance to take that all important reserve victory pass.

Going into phase II of the senior challenge cup, the eventual winner was ahead by several points. The judges had not yet turned in their cards for phase II when they conferred and called a workout between two riders despite the fact that the scores had not yet been tallied to determine if a workout was required. Under the SEN system, the only time a workout is called for is when the total points are equal.

The final results worked out to be the same, but there was obviously some confusion among the judges and had the results worked out differently there would have been problems.

At the recent Morgan Grand National, where the SEN system was not the official scoring system (MOS was used) but the individual judges chose to use SEN to put their own cards into order, there was confusion. It turned out that a scribe had made a mistake and not added in one segment of the pattern score, according to show officials. When scores were reissued following the competition, they were much different than the scores announced immediately following the pattern and there was certainly some misunderstanding. These are just some of the examples of the problems which have arisen with the implementation of SEN.

How can all these problems continue to persist? SEN proponents insist that these are not problems within the system, but are implementation issues. Nevertheless, concerns are mounting. Can we come up with checks and balances on the implementation of this system before we give up on it? More likely the problem lies in the implementation of the system. It is still very new for show management and for most judges (and scribes), and while Lynda Freseth, Scott Matton and other proponents of the system understand all the implications in detail, these few people are not everywhere the system is in use. Invariably questions arise and mistakes are made. If this judging system is to continue and to advance the future of our breed and the sport of equitation, it is critical that it be implemented fairly and consistently. Show management MUST understand how to implement the system or have a “SEN” administrator on hand to handle the questions which crop up.

Perhaps the UPHA Equitation Committee should appoint trained “administrators” to travel to shows where SEN is used to minimize those questions, those problems. Perhaps we need more education of the horse industry, within trade publications or with fliers at horse shows so that more people understand the system.

Brent Jacobs raises a valid concern relating to these problems. "I think there is too much room for human error within the system. By the time you consider the scribes, the people holding up the scores, the person inputting the scores into the computer [not to mention the judges and the announcer], there are so many people involved that there is a strong likelihood that errors will be made."

Add to that possibility for error a slight rush to try to hold up a number in front of a crowd, and you increase the likelihood of errors, even if you also increase interest in participating and spectating.

Beth Snider, who is a professional horse show secretary and tabulator, also has concerns about the system. "I think we have struggled because the UPHA gave horse shows this system and told them to use it without necessarily considering whether there would be staff accommodations or time accommodations to implement it correctly. At a smaller horse show with a staff of six or so, using three as scribes and one as a tabulator, taxes the entire system."

Cindy Boel, who was the instructor of one of the riders in the junior competition at Indianapolis, addresses the concerns. "As a UPHA Board member, I stand behind the system. We voted to use it and I'll stand behind that. I think parts of it are wonderful - particularly the segmented workouts.

"I am not a computer person, but I am concerned that there have been mistakes at most horse shows where it has been used. I find that very distressing. I hope the problems can be alleviated. Maybe the glitches can be fixed by not allowing the tabulation to continue until everything is correct," said Boel.

Freseth has already begun addressing problems. In terms of questions upon implementation, Freseth and her son have committed to attending all horse shows where SEN is used for the first time to address questions and concerns. They have also begun modifying the program to not only highlight inconsistencies on input when they occur, but to prevent the tabulator from continuing to the next screen until those inconsistencies are cleared up.

"There is human error in any judging system. There is human error in MOS. We are implementing checks and balances to eliminate as many of those errors as possible," said Freseth.

Overall, the opinions of everyone that I talked to echoed many of the same concerns. It's a good system, but we have to address its problems. In Gary Garone's words, "We're a pretty intelligent group of people. I see no reason we can't work out the problems."

Is the SEN scoring system better than its predecessors? In my opinion, unequivocally yes. Is it foolproof? Obviously not. The true test of whether the system survives lies in its ability to be implemented consistently and communicated clearly.

I urge each of you to watch the equitation finals at the American Royal. Take the time to watch the individual workouts, check out the cards at the show or in the Saddle Horse Report’s wrap up issue, and attempt to determine how scores were achieved. Then ask questions. Participate in the poll on following the Royal. Write us letters to the editor with your questions or comments.

Back in March of 2000, we presented our first story on this subject explaining in detail how the SEN system worked. We have reported on the challenges at the horse shows where it has been used, and we will continue to do follow up stories as the system continues to evolve. Write in with your suggestions for improvements. Challenge yourself to understand SEN and then spread your understanding to those who have not invested the time to do so. If it helps at all, in keeping riders in the business, in attracting audience participation, in helping judges to do a better job judging horse shows, ultimately it will benefit all of us.

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