By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.
If you’re a 4-H member, the Horse Judge at your county fair is an odd combination of one part rock star, one part super hero, and a whole lot of Satan, depending on the day, class or minute…and each designation has the potential to change a child’s (or volunteer’s) life for the better or worse.
When others in the horse industry talk about 4-H Horse Judges it’s sometimes said with extreme reverence and other times said from a place of, well, something far less than reverence. The 4-H Horse Judges card for some is a starting point for something “greater”, “bigger”, more “important”…maybe a breed card (or multiple breed cards) or to promote an equine business of some sort…and that’s fine unless your ego becomes that “greater, bigger, more important” thing, and sadly, that happens occasionally. I’d submit though, that being a 4-H Horse Judge is one of the most important things one could ever do for or in the horse industry, and no matter how much you know, think you know, or have done in the horse industry, not everyone is qualified to do this particular job.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, when you’re a 4-H (or any entry level) Horse Judge, it’s not just a gateway for personal aspirations…you’re the gatekeeper for the future of the horse industry. And that’s probably the most important responsibility there is.
If you’re considering getting started in horse judging at the introductory levels, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Meet People Where They Are
The open show level is the “front door”of the horse industry…and by way of some background, it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, most people don’t grow up in rural or farm settings anymore. Roughly less than 2% of the population is involved in any form of agriculture, which includes horses. As such, often (but not always) people showing horses at the introductory levels are just getting started with large animals. Somewhere along the way, they obtained access a horse and decided to try horse showing, whether or not Dobbin really fits the part or wants to participate. Often, that also means parents (who also may not fit the part or want to participate) with little or no experience in the horse show world are willing to help their kids, volunteer, and so much more, because that’s what good parents do. Gates may not open quickly enough, show offices may not run smoothly enough, and/or kiddos may not be in the right place at the right time in the right clothing. Horses may be borderline unsafe, or may be even make an unexpected run for that particular border. Granted, in a 4-H situation, there are many experienced leaders who can help, but it takes a village, and at least for the day, you’re part of that village.
When you judge a 4-H Horse Show or other open horse shows, patience is your biggest virtue and it’s a judge’s job to politely and professionally do the best they can to keep everyone safe and support an enjoyable environment when possible. If this sounds like more of a circus than you can handle as a judge, then maybe this level isn’t for you.
Be an Educator
When you judge an introductory level horse show, it helps to approach the event as an educator. You are there to help teach people about horse showing techniques and traditions, and to keep them coming back for more. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, this may also mean learning more about breeds and disciplines you’re less familiar with, and recognizing the good in every one of them. Praise and reward that good and provide positive, respectful, constructive criticism when you can…and be open to learning yourself.
Often in the early going, exhibitors want to do well, but don’t (yet) have the tools to do so. This can be really frustrating for all involved, including the horses. As a judge, sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to hand them that tool, or teach them to use it properly. Do it as you are able, please. You’ll be surprised at how appreciated it usually is, if delivered in a helpful way.
Take Pride in Your Work
Judging introductory or open horse shows can (and should) be as much a source of pride as any major breed event, at least in my mind. Maybe even more so…if they have a good experience with you, they might just buy that “step up” horse, or consult the services of a trainer. Depending on your “day job” that trainer could be you, if you take your judging role seriously and professionally.
Develop and Support the Next Generation of Judges
If you’re an experienced and successful introductory level horse judge, one of the most important things you can do is help the next generation learn to be successful as well. Depending on where you are, not every state or association has an organized system for training horse judges, and as you have learned “judging ain’t easy”. You may reach a point where you no longer want to, or simply can’t stand for 12 plus hours in the sun. Presumably, you’ll want to leave the horse judging world a bit better than you found it. Teaching other judges is how you can do that. Help local horse judging teams, or take apprentice judges when possible. Share your hard earned knowledge. You won’t regret it, and neither will the horse industry.
By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.
This is for the ones who are just getting started, or even those who’ve been at it awhile, but can’t quite figure out how to get better. The ones who go to horse shows weekend after weekend, place 5th or 6th or 8th if they place at all, but keep telling themselves not to quit because they love it and someday it will come together for them. While that may be true, as the saying goes, “if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Not to mention the fact that sometimes people in this bracket blame judges, industry trends and the world in general for their misfortune. So here are a few tips to speed up the process from average to excellent.
1. Cones Matter-In pattern classes, the side of the cone you’re on throughout the run absolutely matters. When learning patterns, make sure you know what side to be on at all times. Also make sure you execute transitions between your horse’s muzzle and shoulder…anything later is too late, anything sooner too early. If a turn at a cone is involved, determine where best to stop to execute the next maneuver.
2. Leads Matter-Know your leads, and if your horse takes off on the wrong one, FIX IT. None of this awkwardness thinking the judge doesn’t see you. They do. Better yet, learn to set your horse up to take the correct lead before departing at all.
3. Diagonals Matter-Just like leads, learn to take the correct diagonal and if you don’t, switch to the correct one ASAP. This will factor into your placings in Equitation especially, but it’s a good rule of thumb regardless.
4. Your horse’s condition matters-Even in those classes where the horse is more of a prop to demonstrate your skills (Showmanship, Equitation etc.), their overall health and condition matters. In addition to the fact that an underweight horse looks bad for the horse show industry as a whole, a thin horse may have a more difficult time handling the stresses that naturally come with showing. Understand body condition, and how to safely add (or remove) weight as needed, because when it comes right down to it, if I have to decide between a close pair, I’m using the one that looks healthiest most likely.
5. YOUR condition matters-Comb your hair and make sure your clothes fit and your hat is clean and shaped. Showing a horse is a bit like a job interview…and that means putting your best foot forward and making a good impression. Ask for help from someone who seems to have it together if you’re not sure on this one. Bobby pins and Aqua-Net are the unsung heros of horse showing for all involved.
6. Thinking Matters Just as Much as Riding Sometimes (Sometimes Even More) When you’re first starting to show or even ride, you’re often just glad if you achieve the basics without an accident. If you walk, jog and lope and stay on throughout, sometimes that’s a win in itself. But after that, you’re going to need to learn to develop two things: ring etiquette and strategy. And both of these things require the ability to think about more than just yourself. Learn how to safely pass other horses, and think about what you’re doing while doing it. Actually ride your horse, and strategize when you’ll ask for what in a pattern class.
Trust me, I recognize that showing horses can be stressful, but learning to manage that stress, think through what you’re doing, and make good choices is what makes the difference between the middle of the pack and the top. The day you learn to think in the pen and help your horse make good decisions is the day you’ll start winning.
By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.
A week or so ago, I judged an open show. I mean, it was sort of an open show, but also, sort of an Arabian breed show at the same time, which is pretty cool. It also had some half-Arabians, and some Pintos and a wide range of things, but mostly of the non-AQHA persuasion. Typically, when Arabians show at open shows, they wind up showing against stock type (AQHAish) horses and then sometimes things can get messy. If you use an Arabian, then the AQHAish people get offended. If you use an AQHAish horse then the Arabian folks get offended. Anyway, not the point of this story AT. ALL. Back to the matter at hand. I judged an open show that had A LOT of very high quality, non-AQHA horses, among other things. And that is where I had the chance to “meet” Damian. (Note: Typically when you meet someone while judging you don’t actually meet. You just interact for a few seconds).
Damian is a young man somewhere in the 12-13 range, and as you can see in the picture, he was READY for Showmanship. He looked sharp. His horse looked sharp. Everybody was SHARP, SHARP, SHARP.
They came in and started their pattern, came straight to me just like I was looking for, and set up pretty quickly. This pair was headed for the top of my card. And then it happened. Damian’s horse took notice of the fact that there was an Arabian halter class happening on the other side of the arena. And if you’ve ever witnessed a breed-type Arabian halter class, you know that those folks put the SHOW in Horse Show. It’s not the sort of library-esque halter we sometimes see…oh heavens no. It’s a PARTY! Hooting, hollering, tails flowing, horses jumping about…it’s an equine extravaganza. And suddenly, Damian’s horse decided that it looked like it was more fun “over there” and he jumped BIG-TIME.
Damian’s horse let loose with the kind of spook that would have had many adult exhibitors crying UNCLE. But you know what? Damian handled it. He quietly, cooly, professionally reset his horse balloon (after it landed). I didn’t say anything. I just waited. Damian didn’t say anything. He just reset his horse. And the two (or 3) of us continued on. Like the very best of horsemen, this 13 year-old handled the situation, got back to business, and what do you know, his horse did, too. And they trotted out like nothing ever happened…like there was no house…I mean horse…party next door.
In retrospect, if I could have given this young man a prize, I really would have. But given the rules of the Showmanship game, big spooks are kind of a “no no”. I can’t really let that go when there were so many other exhibitors whose horses did NOT suddenly realize that things were getting real “over there.” But let’s face it…Damian probably earned (and received) the best reward of the day. The knowledge that he could handle it for himself and his horse when things got rough…that he could save the old lady in the hat (that was me) from getting clobbered, by taking the leadership role and putting things back together.
This lesson will carry him through the next horse show (or the one after that), when he’ll probably win big…or in the wash rack when his horse decides that the Loch Ness monster is clearly coming up the drain…or anything else that requires an immediate flight response from the horse and a calm, cool reminder from Damian that “No…we’re OK, I’ve got you. You come with me, horse, and I’ll take care of you.” And that prize will reap many more rewards than a blue ribbon ever could.
There really aren’t prizes for the things that matter most, but there should be.
By Karen Waite, Ph. D.
In the last few weeks one of my (least) favorite topics has come up several times…that of the “participation trophy” and the fact that the world is obviously doomed to fail because some organizations have chosen not to place kids (gasp), but to focus more on learning and motor skill development instead. It happens in soccer, and yes, sometimes it happens in the horse industry, especially in lead line and walk trot classes. While I typically don’t say much about placing the littles one way or the other when I’m judging where it’s legal to do so, I’ve gotten to a point in life where I must say that maybe, just maybe, PARTICIPATION TROPHIES AREN’T THE PROBLEM. The problem is that people don’t like to (or don’t want to) do hard things. Case in point: Western Riding and flying lead changes. I suppose you’re wondering how I have gotten from Lead Line to Western Riding quite so quickly. Buckle up. It’s probably going to be a bumpy ride for a minute here, but suffice it to say, I’ve given this a lot of thought.
In my state, as with many others, failure to perform 4 or more flying lead changes in Western Riding results in a DQ at the 4-H level and has for 15 years. Throughout that entire 15-year period, people have howled and carried on such that many shows have simply chosen to ignore the rule because “kids can’t do flying lead changes” and given that fact, it really does become pretty complicated to score if you’re using the 70-point system. Those little scoresheet boxes don’t have enough space for all of the penalties that accompany inability to perform flying lead changes, on that point we can agree. But let’s think about this for a second…(legal) Western Riding should be the pinnacle of training. It is one of the most challenging classes in the western performance world. It absolutely IS difficult…but it’s not impossible. With time, patience, and good instruction, and some TRY young people with some riding time could learn to do it and their horses probably could too. And last time I checked, most classes in a show bill are optional. If I don’t have a horse that jumps, I don’t go in Hunter Over Fences. No one bats an eye.
Now back to lead-line and walk trot for a minute. (Told you it would be bumpy). I hear people complain regularly about how we should be placing kids under the age of 9 lest they grow up to be elitist, or Communist, or some other sort of “ist”. I’m not sure I’ve seen any research to support this theory, nor have I actually seen a high school basketball game where score isn’t kept, but for whatever reason many folks seem to think that a few years of not being placed negates the following 10+ years of a more traditional, competitive system. But the problem is that it is actually about as tough to place kids in Lead line and Walk Trot as it is to score less than ideal Western Riding, for vastly different reasons.
The majority of kids in the Leadline/Walk Trot phase are little (obviously) and cute (even more obvious). Most of the time, they are happy to be there, unless the show schedule is interfering with nap or snack, and they are happy to pose for pictures. At this stage they are often just getting started with their show career, and their bewildered parents are trying to figure out how to get child and horse from point A to point B without a wreck. And sometimes the horses chosen may or may not be the best option…they’re simply available. Of course, there are those “2 percenters” whose parents are trainers or riding instructors, and whose horses have been selected by the best minds and the hand of God as safe walk trot horses. But there is that other 98 percent to consider, who are just navigating their way into the horse industry.
From a motor skill perspective, being little and wobbly can cause some serious issues. Sometimes these kids are so little that their legs don’t reach past the saddle pad, and so wobbly that they need to balance on their hands or whatever else they can snag. Which means that steering can become a non-issue. Consequently, some horses find this sort of facial freedom an invitation to take off with the rest of their horse friends for a romp around the show pen. All of this can make for questionable equitation at minimum, and more excitement than anyone really needs. Unfortunately, the 5-6 year-old set hasn’t always installed a solid emergency plan in their brain as yet, because they are still thinking about that snack. In the midst of all of this, judges are often asked to place these kiddos, because clearly if they don’t do well they’ll have to just “work harder.” Work harder? At what? Growing legs and a cerebellum? As a result, I’m more comfortable with the cute factor. All cute. All can be first. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be sorted into piles of “You’re enough” and “You’re not”, and to “work harder.”
But wait just a second…”work harder”? Why should they bother? No one expects them to do it in Western Riding. No one asks them to reach higher for that class at all. We just change the rules so that they don’t HAVE to do hard things, learn the skills, develop their abilities. They can simple change their way through life, and the world will allow them to not work quite so hard after all. They can earn Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and edit their photos so only the good parts and the successful days show…not the days of dirt and dust and fight to “do better”.
So you see…maybe participation trophies aren’t actually the REAL problem after all.
It’s that time of year again!
to explain it,