Mura Love and a rider at the Markopoulo Mesogalas Olympic Equestrian Centre in Athens, Greece.  CREDIT: May 14th 2023

New Zealand now has its first Level 3 FEI Para Dressage Judge, one of only 14 in the world.  Mura Love has made history being the first New Zealander to achieve this FEI qualification, after five years of working in the field of International Para Dressage. The promotion allows Mura to primarily judge riders as a member of the Judging Panel at several International Para Dressage Events around the world, including President of the Ground Jury, Foreign Judge, or Ground Jury Member.  He is also an active FEI Level 2 FEI Eventing Judge and FEI Level 2 FEI Dressage Judge.

To achieve eligibility for this status, Mura completed criteria set out by the FEI before taking the three-day exam which is an intense experience examining all aspects of Para Dressage, judging, jurisdiction roles and responsibilities. A big part of the criteria is Shadow Judging all Grades I to V. This was achieved at the Nordic Championships in Drammen in Norway and Hartpury Festival of the horse in the UK.  Also, he served as a Ground Jury member at Boneo, Australia (twice in 2022), and in Sydney and Mannheim in Germany in 2023, and having successfully completed and passed the Exam in Lexington, USA was transferred to FEI Para Dressage Level 3.

Mura says it has been a long journey, mostly due to the disruption of covid halting all overseas travel to and from New Zealand and sanctions posed on many international Equestrian events in the Northern Hemisphere.  However, a lot of prior experiences judging Internationally before and after covid served to establish and support the last five years toward achieving FEI Level 3.

“You judge alongside FEI level 4 Para Dressage judges (Olympic and World Equestrian Games Judges) and they then assess your judging ability and understanding. The process of going over your [judging] sheets comments and marks is very rigorous and quite measured, with a small margin of error.  They really want to see that you are consistent with the standard and expectation for each level of competition,” he says.

ESNZ Para-Equestrian Manager Sam Jones says she is delighted Mura has achieved success at such a high level.

“We are very fortunate to have Mura as such a strong supporter of Para dressage in New Zealand. His passion and commitment in upskilling his FEI judges Level to 3 will be of huge benefit to our Para community and hopefully inspire other judges to upskill as Para judges,” says Sam.

Mura describes his journey from Gisborne to the international stage in his own words:

Horses have been in my family for generations. Everyone in my family rode, and some still do. We often go on family horse rides to the beach or places of interest when we’re at home together.

We were part of that generation that made your own fun together. Because we all had horses and enjoyed riding as a family it was a big part of our lifestyle, we just ventured out and did all sorts of things.

It was an idyllic lifestyle growing up in the coastal settlement of Whangara, located halfway between Gisborne and Tolaga Bay. We have such a strong sense of identity and belonging to Ngāti Konohi, a subtribe of Ngāti Porou and knowing your heritage from this place is quite special. Whangara is also well known as the home of the movie, Whale Rider, as Paikea who sits astride the whale is our common ancestor.

I was riding and competing like most keen people in Gisborne, however I can’t remember much about Dressage back then as most people went jumping. I went on to have some Dressage lessons with the late Heather McNeil who was passionate about two things in life:  horses and Dressage. We forged a great friendship and Heather has been the biggest influence on my understanding of horsemanship and Dressage. From there I got involved with supporting the Gisborne Dressage Group and Shirley Hyland, who was AJO at the time, approached me to see if I’d like to do some judging and that was the beginning.

Mura recalls his introduction to Para Equestrian judging:

 I became involved in Para judging by chance, while attending a dressage Judges seminar at SIEC (Sydney International Equestrian Centre) New South Wales, Australia.

A well-known Olympic Level Australian Para Dressage Judge Jan Geary who I met there encouraged me to pursue Para Dressage.  And back home in New Zealand, former ESNZ Para-Equestrian Sports Manager Judy Alderdice was instrumental in following on with that initiative and was a huge support mechanism creating the pathway for me toward FEI International Para Judging.

Judy gave me the opportunity and the motivation so we could work together to make things happen.  I didn’t come from a background of Para apart from knowing some of the athletes competing in Dressage.  But when you’re on a pathway you’ve got a plan and a goal, you just get involved and become immersed in the discipline, because – like all sport – you need to understand it within its entirety so you can grow and develop a depth of understanding.

Cold, and staying calm with 25 horses and no writer:

One of my first experiences toward becoming an International Official was Shadow Judging at an International Para Dressage event in Belgium at a place called Waregem, and you are reminded that you must be prepared for anything and everything.

I remember arriving at the Hotel and then at the event. I met a lot of people but didn’t know anyone.  On the first day at the show, they said, “this is your judge’s box next to B” it was this little box like house with a little window in the front and was freezing cold. 

The organisers said, “we don’t have a secretary (writer) for you, so you’ll just have to complete all your own sheets comments and marks”. There were around 25 horses to Judge. Reminding myself that this was an exam, I set to work and managed to get all my comments and marks down although it didn’t help that all the announcements were in a foreign language as well, so I really had no idea what was happening. You learn to act quickly, efficiently and use your wits … it was testing!

Mura says the FEI are welcoming toward Kiwis: 

 The course director in Lexington for the seminar said to me, “it’s really great to see that somebody from New Zealand is actually bringing a voice to the international stage” and in spite of the geographical challenges and other factors, it gives New Zealand an international outlook of what an international standard looks like for our riders at home here.

Most importantly, we’ve (NZ) has got a voice in the world now for Para Dressage at an International level. Through Europe, UK, Asia and USA, to mention some of the bigger countries, in all these places we bring experience, knowledge and standards back to our own country to help move things along and get a stronger perspective – not just to foster the sport but also inspiring others to follow.

Based in Clarkville, North Canterbury Mura finds the time to ride his Grand Prix Dressage horse:  

I think it’s important if possible – even when you’re judging – if you have the opportunity to ride as well.  You don’t have to compete, but you can go ride and train, and remember how things feel.

Also, to be reminded of how hard it can be to get everything correct, and equally how amazing it feels when it all comes together.  Judging often teaches you how things should look, riding gives you the opportunity to feel and create what you want it to look like.  It’s good to spend time with the horses they are such generous animals and fun to be with. I think it’s quite important for lots of different reasons.

It is also encouraging to see others get involved in judging and has advice for those who want to judge at higher levels.  It’s definitely possible.  You must give yourself time to discuss with others what you want to do and then make a tentative plan, so you have a starting point.  Nothing happens without some sort of discussion and planning. There are also some good people in the sport that you can reach out to and most are willing and want to help.  If you want to progress up through the Levels then the planning has got to be in place, so you have a pathway.

Mura will be home for a couple of months, then he has some other invitations to judge back in Europe while also working on FEI upgrading 4* Dressage level 3.