Phiskie joins rank of elite judges

HORSE MAN: Timaru man Bill Phiskie usually rides all five of his horses, including Casper, each day, when he is not judging at international three-day events.
HORSE MAN: Timaru man Bill Phiskie usually rides all five of his horses, including Casper, each day, when he is not judging at international three-day events.

Bill Phiskie is more likely to pack his best suit and tie than his riding kit when he heads to an equestrian event these days, and chances are he will need his passport as well.

Phiskie, a Timaru police officer, has been riding horses since he was 5. After first riding the neighbour's pony, the youngster convinced his farmer parents to buy him a pony. What followed were years of competing at pony club events and A&P shows.

These days he is still likely to be at equestrian events, but not often as a competitor. Last month he was selected as one of the two New Zealand eventing selectors; he still clerks at race meetings, and increasingly is judging at the world's top international three-day events.

His judging role had him in France in October, Australia in November, and there are a list of events already in this year's diary.

And it is all a very long way from his first judging assignment 30 years ago.

"I was competing at Winchester and they were short of a dressage judge and asked me to judge," he says, recalling how he judged in his dressage attire, a far cry from the best suit and tie required for his international judging assignments these days.

Over the years Phiskie worked his way up from judging at pony club and A&P shows, through to national events and then completing his international judging qualifications.

Now when the phone rings it can be an invitation to judge anywhere in the world, judging those at the top of the sport.

The Etoile de Pau was one such event.

He was judging the two-star class, usually the same riders as in the higher four-star event, but competing on an emerging younger horse, or their second horse.

Riders from 18 countries took part with 55 of the 63 riders having competed at the Olympics three months earlier.

There have been judging assignments in Thailand and at a national junior event for emerging riders in North America.

"The judging is pretty daunting," he said, explaining that by the time the courses and jumps were all checked out, it could take judges six days to judge a three-day event.

"The first prize was € 105,000, [NZ$166,000 at Pau]," he said, recognising the impact a judge's decision could have on a competitor.

The judge's role can also be physically exhausting.

"There can be 35 movements [in the dressage test] and 55 horses."

While the judge's decision is final, riders have the right to ask for an explanation of their marks.

"It is a real challenge. You can be held to account, have to justify your marks."

And there is no hiding from the riders. A riders' meeting is held before the event at which all the judges are introduced. The judges are also highly visible through much of the event, as they judge from the side of the dressage arena and can be seen in the judges' box at the showjumping.

Among those competing at Pau was Olympic three-day event gold medallist Michael Yung.

Didn't Phiskie feel under pressure judging him?

"No, he's a very professional guy, at that level they are all very professional."

It is still a sport where the class structure is strong, with it being very obvious at the top competing level, especially in Europe.

And with class comes etiquette. Expect the president of the grand jury (judging panel) to wear a bowler hat. The competitors will still salute him as they go out to compete.

"The riders' turnout is immaculate," Phiskie comments, explaining why judges will undertake their duties dressed in suit and tie for both the dressage and showjumping stages. Something a little less formal is acceptable on cross-country day when judges use a range of transport for getting around the course.

But not all countries have an equestrian history. He refers to emerging countries such as Thailand.

"They don't seem to have the rapport with their horses, they treat them like a motorbike," he explains, mimicking powering on the throttle.

While his appearances at international events are starting to mount up, Phiskie admits he has his sights set even higher. He would like to judge the four-star events of which there are only a handful in the world including the Olympics and the Badminton Horse Trials.

There are a couple of big international events coming up, the World Equestrian competition in Normandy in two years and, of course, the Olympics come around every four years. Just who will get the nod to judge, at least in part, will depend on the individual judges' performance over the coming months.

While his judging and selector roles mean Phiskie does not compete a lot these days, he still rides most days as he has five horses. Several have to earn their keep, as he rides them in his clerking role at race meetings from North Otago to Mid Canterbury. Another horse, Hamlets Ghost, is being trained for the role after being sent back to New Zealand to retire after a successful racing career in Hong Kong.

Phiskie has to resit his judging qualifications every three years, something he might need to do several times, considering the International Federation for Equestrian Sports has an upper age limit of 70 for its judges.

The Timaru Herald