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Insider Tips from the Horse Show Judge

By Cindy Hale

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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Horse Show Ponies

I’ve been busy. Horse show season has begun, and that means that I’m spending at least one weekend a month judging. I had a break during my last judging assignment while the jumping course was adjusted for the pony hunter classes. I took that time to gobble my lunch (a BLT with avocado) and also jot down a few horse show tips to share here on my blog. I figured you might like a few suggestions from my perspective in the judge’s booth. While I primarily judge hunter shows that stick to USEF rules, I think the general theme of each suggestion applies to all types of competition.

Five Friendly Tips Toward More Blue Ribbons

1. Know the procedural requirements for each class. As a judge I am charged with enforcing a framework of rules; otherwise it’s not a competition, it’s just a really expensive social gathering for horsey folk. Therefore, don’t get upset with me if I abide by the rules and you don’t. For example, you’ll be disqualified if your opening circle crosses the start line in a jumper class. I am not going to restart the timers and let you have a "do over” simply because you neglected to learn the rules.

2. Take responsibility for your horse’s turnout. Occasionally I’ll catch a rider about to start her hunter round with equitation boots still buckled to her horse’s legs. Or the English pleasure class will be filing through the in-gate and I’ll spot a rider who forgot to remove her horse’s martingale. Such "equipment malfunctions” are causes for elimination. Fortunately I’m nice about it and I have the announcer grab the exhibitor so the offense can be corrected. But many judges are less forgiving. Don’t rely on someone else to point out what you overlooked, and that includes your frazzled coach and your supportive but clueless Horse Show Mom. Take the initiative and double-check your horse’s tack to make sure it’s appropriate for your upcoming class.

3. Remember it’s a horse SHOW. Present your horse with pride. Recently there was a large hunter under saddle class where I was having a tough time deciding first place between two horses: a fancy bay mare and a black gelding. Both were great movers with long, flowing strides and impeccable manners. I finally gave the blue ribbon to the black horse. Why? Because he was immaculately groomed. The bay was clean and tidy, but the black horse’s coat glistened. I got the impression that I could run my fingers through his long, silky tail. His hooves were oiled and his muzzle and ears had been carefully wiped clean. He’d been prepared as a winner, and that’s how I ultimately came to view him, too.

4. Judges notice all sorts of little things. Attention to detail conveys to the judge that you’re serious about your performance. That’s important when it comes to determining the ribbons in a tough class. Like most judges, I have pet peeves that make me cringe. For example, don’t come into any class—especially an equitation or medal class—with dusty boots. It only takes a few seconds to wipe the dust from the warm-up ring off your boots. Make the effort. Like other judges I also notice twisted stirrup leathers, cavessons that are sloppily buckled over the cheek pieces of the bridle and disheveled hairdos. And while we’re on this topic, please take a damp sponge and wipe the sweat marks off your horse’s flank and chest. We’d all prefer to look at a damp, comfortable horse than a sweaty, itchy one. Honestly, it’s not that hard to make a good impression on the judge.

5. Be pleasant and practice good sportsmanship. Every judge has their own code of conduct toward the exhibitors. Some are aloof and very private; others like me are more open and cordial. While I don’t want to be ambushed on my way to the port-o-potty, I’m not above exchanging greetings or giving a pat to a cute pony. Yet despite the variety of demeanors among judges, I’m confident that all of us appreciate exhibitors who display pleasant attitudes and good sportsmanship. Speaking personally, I happen to like it when the fifth-place winner congratulates the blue ribbon winner. I also get a warm and fuzzy feeling when I notice someone paying extra attention to their horse’s needs, like fetching a bucket of water or dismounting and loosening the girth during long breaks. While these admirable behaviors won’t overcome a poor performance, it makes it more likely that I’ll look favorably on those exhibitors versus the ones who pout when they don’t win or who treat their horses like inanimate objects. In my opinion the only one who deserves to be treated like royalty at a horse show is the horse.

I hope these five tips help prepare you for the next time you compete. If you have any comments or other horse show suggestions, feel free to contribute. With our combined insights maybe horse shows will be even more fun for everyone… including me!

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Reader Comments

Cindy Hale    Horse Channel, CA

5/9/2012 8:01:46 PM

OH, I LOVES ME SOME APPALOOSAS! JUST ASK MY SISTER AND MY BEST FRIENDS. NEVER MET AN APPY THAT WASN'T INCREDIBLY ATHLETIC. MANY OF THEM MAKE WONDERFUL JUMPERS, TOO... IF YOU'RE EVER INCLINED TO GO THAT ROUTE!

Cindy and ~Luna~    Rockford, IL

4/30/2012 3:26:49 PM

After 30 years of being away from the horse world because life intervened, I have recently purchased my first horse...an ApHC leopard mare that is IMHO just gorgeous! I am not polished or qualified enough yet to show her, but I'm working on it, and these tips are certainly going to help. As usual, Cindy, good job!

CINDY HALE    Horse Channel.com, CA

4/27/2012 12:36:35 PM

AS ALWAYS, I LOVE READING YOUR COMMENTS! :)

HEIDI, YOUR POINT ABOUT ALWAYS THANKING THE JUDGE AT THE END OF THE DAY IS A NICE ONE. I HAVE TO ADMIT, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT WHEN I'M HEADED TO THE SHOW OFFICE AFTER THE FINAL CLASS, USUALLY SEVERAL EXHIBITORS-- WHO ARE NOW HALF-WAY TRANSITIONED FROM SHOW CLOTHES TO BARN CLOTHES-- GO OUT OF THEIR WAY TO THANK ME FOR THE DAY. HONESTLY, I HAVE NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE OR WHAT THEY WON, BUT IT REALLY IS NICE TO BE THANKED FOR OFFICIATING.

ON THE OTHER HAND, IF I WERE TO BE BOOED AND GET STALE DONUTS TOSSED AT ME ON MY WAY TO MY CAR, I'D PROBABLY FIGURE I HADN'T DONE A VERY GOOD JOB, LOL!

ALECIA, I'M GOING TO GUESS THAT THE JUDGE'S COMMENT ABOUT YOUR NICE HAIR-DO BEING THE REASON YOU WON WAS MOST LIKELY A POOR WAY OF SAYING THAT YOUR POLISHED APPEARANCE AND OVERALL TURNOUT WAS THE TIE-BREAKER IN A TOUGH CLASS. SERIOUSLY, IN SOME CLASSES THE NUMERICAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE FIRST PLACE WINNER AND THE SIXTH PLACE PERSON COMES DOWN TO A COUPLE OF POINTS. SOMETIMES THERE WILL BE SEVERAL ROUNDS SCORED IN THE 80'S SO I HAVE TO RESORT TO DECIMAL POINTS. FIRST PLACE COULD HAVE A SCORE OF 88.5 AND SECOND PLACE COULD BE 88. THAT'S WHY THE SO-CALLED "LITTLE THINGS" CAN MATTER.

AS FOR THE BARREL RACERS AND GYMKHANA FANS, I ADMIRE YOUR SPORTS! DID YOU KNOW MY VERY FIRST COMPETITIONS WHEN I WAS A KID WERE IN BARREL RACING?

TODAY I WOULD EQUATE THE BARREL RACING MINDSET WITH THE ENGLISH RIDERS WHO DO JUMPERS INSTEAD OF HUNTERS AND EQUITATION. JUMPERS ARE JUDGED OBJECTIVELY: WHO JUMPS CLEAN IN THE FASTEST TIME. PERIOD. YET STILL, EXCELLENT HORSEMANSHIP SKILLS AND GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP GO A LONG WAY TO BEING SUCCESSFUL--- AND WINNING FRIENDS--- IN THAT TYPE OF COMPETITION, TOO.

Heidi    Naples, FL

4/27/2012 11:04:25 AM

Excellent tips. My daughter and I both compete in Hunters & agree with your comments above. Another thought? I was taught to always thank the judge after your classes. Unless they are in a skybox with no access to competitors, it is good form to thank them for their time no matter how you placed. Most will give you a word of encouragement or advice to help you out the next time around which can be very useful!

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