by Mitzi Summers
I think that most horse people at one time or another have watched a horse show from the sidelines and tried judging the class to see if they agree with the judge’s results. They either congratulate themselves when their choices match, view the results with approval or disapproval, or, especially if they are novices and are just trying to understand horse shows, have no idea how the placings were determined.
When I am evaluating instructors for the Certified Horsemanship Association or Centered Riding, if I work with an instructor with an excellent “eye”, i.e., the ability to instantly recognize riding and training concerns whether positive or negative, I let them know that if they ever consider becoming a judge, that that is the first prerequisite. I have had several instructors and/or trainers question me on how to start judging. If they are exceptional horse people, I usually encourage them to start their judging education, as the horse community needs good, ethical, and intelligent judges.
When I first considered beginning the intensive and serious education necessary to become a good judge, I immediately found a thorough three- day seminar at the University of North Carolina with Don Burt, then the head of the American Quarter Horse Association. Mr. Burt had several other recognized judges to head up the program. We listened to lectures, viewed tapes, watched horses and riders that were brought in, and were tested verbally and with written tests. The last day we actually judged a show and our results were compared with the results of the judging staff. I was thrilled to finish in the top third in Western, all English, and Saddle Seat. I passed the mule and donkey tests, but my marks were not as high!
Several things that Don Burt discussed were things I will never forget. He talked about the absolute importance of ethics in judging. A judge cannot favor one breed over another in judging an Open show. They must not be mislead by “bling” — it is the performance of the rider and horse that we judge, not how much money they had to spend on equipment. He was also very much against the trend in western classes to have the horse have an artificially low head set and artificially slow gaits. He was not certain how this fad got started, but he stressed that it was not beneficial for the horse, and was usually obtained by abusive methods. He said that judges have to have the courage to pin down horses that were trained in this method. Something else he said that impressed me. … “Do all of you know that vacant look that a horse has in his eyes… is often a young horse, ridden too young and trained without empathy. Mark this horse down as if he got a wrong lead because you are making a statement that this is not acceptable.”
If your goal is to judge, it is an advantage if you have been an instructor for many years. Good instructors have to develop an “eye” for correctness. They need to discover things that are positive and things that need work in the student and their horse very early in the lesson. Otherwise valuable time and money is wasted. This ability is accelerated as a judge. I love the challenge. I need to be able in about twelve minutes to find the top six horses or riders in a group which often averages at least 25 horses.
A good judge should “scan” the class. She should look over her shoulder, behind her back, sometimes be in the center of the ring if she can and then move to the outside to observe outside aids and crookedness. You need to develop a system for keeping the entries straight in your mind. I will often jot down a color or characteristic to remember the horse or rider.
Judging is very subjective. It is your opinion. But it must be based on fact….what does a horse look like who is traveling well at the trot? Is the horse tense or relaxed? Is the rider competent, or relying on incorrect aids such as yanking on the reins or kicking? You need to judge what you see. I once had an earnest teenage ring steward poke my shoulder to inform me that for the 30 seconds my back was turned to a horse it briefly got a wrong lead. I had to kindly tell her not to let me know anything unless it was a safety issue…that if I did not see it something, it did not happen.
Another thing to remember is that each class is a new class. If the chestnut horse with four white stockings kicked at another horse in a class and was eliminated, the next time you see the horse it has a “clean slate”. You would watch the horse more carefully, as that is a safety issue, and if it kicks again it might well be eliminated from the show, but if you did not see the cause of the kick you cannot penalize the horse in the next class.
A judge has to determine the behavior of a horse in the ring and the cause of the behavior. If a horse comes in the ring with a red ribbon in his tail, ears back, and tail swishing and then kicks at a horse that is just nearby, that horse needs to be excused from the show. If, however, he is cornered and crowded badly by another horse and kicks in self defense, that has to be considered. If a horse is unsafe, and especially if the rider is in danger, the horse must be excused for the safety of the other contestants.
Another quality a judge has to have, and one that keeps many people from judging, is that you have to have a “thick skin”. You will be very popular with the people who win, and maybe not the favorite of the people who do not place.
If show management allows and time allows, I like to explain to exhibitors what they can work on to improve. Especially with young children, a judge can always find a positive to make them feel better; even if it is that their pony is the cutest thing you have ever seen.
Judges have to have principles, and you must stick to them. Call riders in who are abusive to their horses, otherwise you are sending the message that that behavior is acceptable. If you do not hold yourself up as an example of what is correct, and of what correct horsemanship is, then who will? You must realize that people will misinterpret your placings. I was judging at a fairly large show and as I walked past people on the rail heard a comment about my placings in the last class. “Oh, she does not like Appaloosas…that is why she did not place Speckles.” Since I like ALL breeds and ALL horses, I did respond, simply saying calmly that Speckles did not place because he got the wrong lead going both ways.
The best way to start is to do “learner judging” or to act as a ring steward. Find out the name of a judge in a local show. Ask them if you can work with them in the ring to learn. If the judge is amenable to this, then permission from the show committee has to be obtained. It is important to simply keep your own notes, as thorough as possible, and NOT to discuss anything with the judge until a break or lunch or after the show.
Find out about programs for judges. I have traveled to many seminars open to people studying judging for many different breeds and disciplines. The first time I was asked to judge a show that had pleasure Tennessee Walking Horse classes in it I accepted only because I knew I had time to attend several shows, “learner” judge, and purchase a book and DVD about judging that breed. You have to be prepared!
If you decide to become a “carded” judge, then you will be open to their particular education program. When you feel ready, volunteer to judge small shows, schooling shows, and 4-H shows. But be as ready as you can to do a great job. Every exhibitor has put in long, hard hours getting ready for their show, and they need to be treated with respect.
By all means, if you would like to judge, go through the steps to become one. You can reward good riding and training, and with your placings discourage bad horsemanship. It is a positive you can give back to the horse world.