You must have been living under a rock for the past few weeks if you haven’t heard about Shelley Browning and her unenviable dressage riding in California recently.

I have never seen a social media storm like it. These were, after all, dressage tests lasting only a few minutes, and nobody died.

The ongoing furore even outweighs the worldwide angst over poor Splitters Creek Bundy who broke both forelegs in a 120km Abu Dhabi endurance ride on February 5th, 2015. Social media concern at that time led to sharp but short action by the FEI and the Emirates federation. But desert racing remains as riddled with cheating, doping and death as it was three years ago; so, dressage friends, don’t expect outrage over Del Mar to promote some meaningful change any time soon.

Videos of Browning in two national Intermediaire II tests show a lumpen, unbalanced rider steadying herself with the reins throughout, using her whip and kicking while wearing spurs, with her schoolmaster Vorst D bucking from time to time; even the official live-stream commentator was lost for words.

Fierce criticism has been aimed at the rider, naturally; at her trainer; at the “system” in general and at the judges for not disqualifying instantly – Browning was eliminated belatedly after her second test for using whip and reins in one hand, but notably not for abuse. Some have almost called for canonisation of the stoic Vorst D.

There has also been outcry about the outcry. Many, quite rightly, deplore the insidious growth of cyber-bullying. Others chastise the blogger Erica Franz for flagging it up in the first place.

When watching dressage, I am often baffled why overtly bad riding is not comprehensively hammered by the fearless awarding of very low marks.

Experts spend a lot of time debating the judging system, but do they ask the general spectator what confuses him most? If you drive at a steady speed 10 miles up a straight highway, the eighth mile will compute and feel exactly as long as the fourth mile – because it is. But in dressage, each incremental point from seven upwards gives the impression of being a larger unit of measurement than the one before.

In tests at any level you’ll often see the lesser combinations clustered around the late 50/lower 60 per cents, with the better ones nudging the late 60s/early 70s and then the Charlottes, Isabells and Lauras in the 80s and beyond.

Folks steeped in dressage will appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the scoring system. But what these differentials also signal is that the also-rans are at least three-quarters as mark-worthy as the top-placed riders – even when the latter are so exceptional they might have been riding in a whole different contest and you would have given an 11 if you could.

There is a contradiction in subjectively assessing an overall performance by dividing it into many tiny chunks and considering them all in isolation. To deal with that, dressage provides a long established and universally agreed scale of marks, each with clear definitions.

So it shouldn’t be disproportionately more difficult to achieve an eight over a seven than it was to obtain a five over a four. But that can’t change while it seems taboo for judges to delve into the zero to two range more than once or twice per test (zero being “movement not performed,” one “very bad” and two “bad.”)

It is unlikely Shelley Browning scored fives (“sufficient”) for every single movement. More likely she got some threes (“fairly bad”) and fours (“insufficient”). So to average 51 per cent, some sixes and sevens and maybe even an eight must have dished out too – meaning parts of Shelley’s test were, incredibly, deemed “satisfactory,” even “fairly good.”

I am sure judges in general don’t consciously do this, but they often give these impressions. First, that they hover around four to seven when judging also-rans, in the knowledge these riders will end up around 60 per cent and thus pose no threat to the leading cadre. A 60-something mark also means no offence or needless upset is caused to the mass of riders propping up the show circuit. Second, that judges check the start list and leave enough eights and nines in reserve to isolate the genuinely worthy winners and top-placed combinations.

To get back to abuse, this is harder to identify than social media would like to think. Are we sure Shelley’s riding was deliberate, calculated abuse, or a succession of clumsy accidents, or just part of everyone’s learning curve – and we’ve all been there. I feel awful, in hindsight, for the horses who endured untold hours on the lunge while I struggled without reins and stirrups in a bid to improve my seat. Luckily for me, that was so long ago mobile phones with cameras were still a figment of the imagination.

Not every national federation views abuse in the same way, either. Last month the Austrian federation imposed a hefty five-year ban on a veteran jumper for diabolical riding following social media outcry. The tough stance taken by the national federation rather let the FEI off the hook from intervening, even though the incident occurred at a CSI.

At the other extreme, while USEF does allow elimination from national dressage for “use of illegal equipment, non-compliance with protective headgear rules, not wearing a number, cruelty and abuse or leaving the arena without the judges’ permission” it clearly did not agree there was abuse in the Browning case.

Following the outburst about poor standards amongst younger jumping riders by Albert Voorn, the Bernhard Maier ban, and now Del Mar, 2018 so far has focussed much attention on the ease with which the talentless can parachute themselves into upper level horse sport. Horse & Hound got a comment from USEF in which we learned USEF “does not have rules in place regarding riding standards or qualifying requirements to move up the levels.” They wouldn’t be the only ones, alas.

Having spotted a possible case of abuse, it is also mighty hard to secure any kind of punishment under FEI rules beyond a straightforward field-of-play elimination and/or a yellow warning card. I speak with small authority on that topic, having personally lodged the first and only protest in history to the FEI Tribunal from a member of the public, against horse abuse on the field of play (Cuckson & Higginson v FEI, September 2014).

But, in fact, we might not need to worry about the way to deal with abuse in dressage, intentional or otherwise, if the truly bad riding was realistically marked. Riders whose ambitions far outweigh their ability would soon reconsider their position (in both senses) if mortified by scores of 20%.