The Many Hats of a Horse Show Judge
By Lindsay Grice, Equestrian Canada coach and judge
I smiled, walking past the airport hat kiosk, en route to a judging adventure at an exhibition in Eastern Canada. I’d be wearing several hats and judging a kaleidoscope of classes at the show — equitation, road hack, reining, Western riding, working hunter, pleasure driving, driven dressage, conformation, showmanship, miniature horses… and more!
Those who judge multiple disciplines must learn to change hats frequently — scoring systems, terminology, penalties, class formats, and even judging location (standing in the ring, sitting in a booth, on bleachers, or in a golf cart). Because I love watching horses and riders, I enjoy judging them. I’ve come to respect all the colours of the kaleidoscope — the unique characteristics of each breed, and the range of tack, turnout, and traditions throughout riding styles.
Most officials can relate to the experiences of the riders they judge and know what it’s like to win and to lose. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
My first love has always been teaching, and I shrugged off the idea of horse show judging for years. Too much pressure, I figured. Factors sorted and decisions made quickly with little time for mulling. No room for re-dos or explanations.
Yet, as teaching has made me a better rider — more reflective and deliberate with my cues — judging has made me a better coach. From my judging experience, I direct my students to focus on the majors — sharpening credit-earning skills and avoiding penalties which tally up on the score sheet.
To separate my roles as coach, rider, and judge, I remind myself to stay in my lane and keep my hat on.
In judging multi-disciplines, I’ve gained appreciation for various breeds. A good horse is a good horse! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
Judge’s Sun Hat or Coach’s Visor?
I think it helps for a coach to be a muller. I’m not impulsive by nature. I think on things and turn them around in my mind.
Yet, as a judge I must assess what I see NOW. I can’t factor in potential and possibilities. That horse would be the clear winner if only… Wouldn’t that horse move beautifully if only… Often a performance problem lies beneath the surface. Discerning coaches zero in on the glitch and its source. Deeper than a simple equitation fix, glitches are commonly rooted in communication issues.
My coach’s heart wants to explain to competitors the reasons for their placings. Though I’ll invite questions, it isn’t a clinic. So, I live with the frustration that they may think, after the winners are announced, The judge didn’t like my horse.
Judge’s Hat or Riding Helmet?
Most of us sitting in a judge’s chair can relate to the experiences of the riders we judge. We know what it takes to prepare, to arrive at the show grounds early in the dark, and to navigate the warm-up arena and show ring traffic. We know what it’s like to win and to lose.
It’s the losing that’s made me an empathetic judge. I know what it’s like to make a pilot error that costs an important class — to ride through the rest of the class with grace when you’d like to excuse yourself. I know what it’s like to go off-course and feel the flush of regret during the long walk to the exit gate.
Alas, empathy can’t influence the marks on the judge’s card.
The Judge Doesn’t Like My Horse, and Other Postulations
As score sheets are refined over the years, subjectivity is squeezed out of the judging process. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
The refining of class score sheets over the years has left less room to factor in judges’ preferences. Scoring systems help define standards of excellence, average, and poor. Numeric penalties classify the seriousness of each fault. Dressage, reining, hunter, driving, and obstacle competitions each have their own methodology of rating and ranking horses and riders.
Obstacle competitions, dressage, reining, hunter, and driving classes each have their own methodology of rating and ranking horses and riders. Photo: Photogenesis/T. Osborne
I tip my hat to AQHA as leader in progressively squeezing subjectivity out of the judging process with every convention and judges’ conference. Score sheets for more than 18 AQHA class types, from equitation over fences to ranch riding, include menus of penalties for a range of rider mistakes and horse missteps. Movement and maneuvres are portrayed with distinct adjectives and assigned numeric ratings ranging from superb to satisfactory to substandard.
The rule book reveals that perhaps it’s not that the judge didn’t like your horse, but rather the penalty 5, wrong lead, or your horse’s head behind the vertical.
Does turnout — the spit and polish competitors are told to strive for — really count? Indeed, first impressions may start an entry on the credit side of the judge’s ledger. Nevertheless, the crispest braids and most current brands can’t outweigh a late transition or flat canter.
Do the whoops, whistles, or claps after the round, pattern, or test influence the judge? It may rattle a judge for a moment or two to disagree with the apparent crowd favourite, yet a review of the score sheet’s “story” validates the placing.
Western Hat or Sun Hat? Shifting Between Breeds and Styles
At exhibitions, one judges a kaleidoscope of classes! Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
Exhibition show programs include classes over fences, over obstacles, under saddle, in-hand, and driven. I nimbly adapt with a wardrobe change and (less nimbly) must switch scoring systems, terminology, and traditions. To keep these systems from tangling in my head, I review the rules and routines before every assignment.
Scoring systems help define standards of excellence, average and poor. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
Wrong leads, knocked poles, late transitions, bucking, and refusals are handled and scored differently according to dressage, reining, obstacle, and hunter rule books.
Traditions are those unwritten rules with which a judge should be familiar (We’ve always done it that way!), at least if one hopes for future judging assignments.
Switching between breeds and styles means switching hats, scoring systems, terminology, and traditions. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
For example, in the hunter/jumper world, hunters under saddle traditionally begin on the left rein and are never asked to rein-back. Judges ask riders to swivel their numbers, tied with string, for easier viewing after they reverse. AQHA judges are free to mix up directions of travel and gait calls. Hunters under saddle are required to back up. Numbers are slipped into plastic sleeves on both sides of a square fleece pad for much easier viewing.
A judge’s viewpoint may be from outside or inside the ring. Dressage, hunter, and jumper shows provide booths for judges. Stock horse judges stand for rail classes at ring centre, and on hot days we rotate as on a rotisserie in the middle of a beach. For the pattern portion of equitation, horsemanship, and showmanship classes, stock horse judges sit on chairs inside the ring with clipboards on laps. Obstacle events (mountain trail, Extreme Cowboy) are typically scored by following exhibitors on course from obstacle to obstacle, unlike AQHA trail for which judges stay seated.
Stock horse judges stand at the centre of the ring for rail classes, even on the hottest of days. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
The common thread weaving through all judging duties, regardless of breed or style, is a hierarchy of attributes helpful to evaluate entries. In appraising conformation, movement, individual jumps or maneuvres, I ask:
- Is it correct? On pattern, on lead, on rhythm? Within rules and meeting basic standards of performance soundness?
- Is it quality? Here, I’ll add descriptives such as cadence, softness, efficiency, self-carriage (not needing to be micro-managed or held in place).
- Is it special? The cream rises to the top. The memorable performance might display brilliance, a degree of difficulty, or an element of risk such as a tighter line, more speed.
Comparing Apples to Oranges… What’s a judge to do when diverse styles combine in the same class? At an open show, an Arab, Draft-cross, Quarter Horse, and pony may share the same ring. The hierarchy above helps to find common denominators among uncommon horses. I’d sift out the entries that are not correct: structural faults, mistakes, or irregular gaits. Then I’d look for quality, or the best example of its breed standard. Lastly, does any entry just make me smile and stand out as special?
Across the breeds, a good horse is a good horse. Judges seek a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot, and a three-beat canter (with exceptions for gaited horses). We look for balance and for body parts blending together. Ribbon winners have “lift” (lightness of the forehand). Accurate transitions, a straight line of travel, a round topline, an attentive yet soft expression, and a quiet mouth are ingredients for any credit-earning performance.
Related: Fitness - Get Ready for Show Season
Most judges would agree that hell hath no fury like a horse show mom scorned. Photo: Dreamstime/Calvin L Leake
Keeping current… Formally, every judging card carries requirements for updating and testing. Less formally, I learn from the experience of talented trainers and specialized judges who are REALLY good at what they do. Recently, I gleaned such experience from a respected Draft Horse judge. I asked lots of questions and listened to his stories. I heard the passion in his voice as he described the qualities he looks for in his winners. And I chuckled at the jargon (every breed has horse show lingo).
Challenges… Judging demands hours of strict concentration. I talk to myself to stay on course and to grant the same attention to the 15th rider as to the first. Bookkeeping under time pressure! The cream rises to the top and the mistakes sort themselves. Yet, I feel the squeeze to score and rank the mid-range entries before the next competitor begins. It’s reminiscent of that classic I Love Lucy episode when Lucy and Ethel can’t keep up with the conveyor belt at their chocolate factory “dream job.”
Lighter moments… A judge has to be nimble — adapting to unexpected weather, unusual entries, and unconventional variations on rule and tack violations: Wow, I’ve never seen that before. What am I going to do with that?
Sometimes the judge has to be nimble, literally. I’ve dashed from my booth or danced around in the centre of the ring pursued by a bee, while keeping my eyes on the competitor and my hands still making notes. Another dance move is the one to evade the showmanship horse, wide-eyed at the local fair (picture a shaken pop can) and now trotting straight toward me.
And although I’ve had but a handful of interactions with disgruntled exhibitors, most judges would concur: Hell hath no fury like a horse show mom scorned.
Keeping the big picture in mind… Responsibilities of horse show officials overflow the boundaries of assigning scores, penalties, and placings. We’re called upon to arbitrate disputes, guided by the letter of the law (rule book). Yet the spirit of the law is a better guide for grey areas. What’s the intent of the rule? What’s the best option for the horse’s well-being and the longevity of our sport?
Judges are reminded at every conference that it’s we who are largely responsible for perpetuating certain trends that have become distasteful to the public. In every discipline, competitors tweak tack and training techniques to get the winning edge (if a little is good, more is better).
Because I love watching horses and riders, I enjoy judging them. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Grice
Horse show judging is a continual learning, and occasionally humbling, process. But making a living watching horses and riders… For a once horse-crazy young girl — it doesn’t get better than that!
To read more articles by Lindsay Grice on this site, click here.