Five Myths of Horse Show Judging

By Karen Waite
With Fair season in full swing, it seemed like a good time to reshare this post from a couple of years ago.  Feeling like “Judging Judges”?  Here are a few things to consider…
With show season just around the corner, like most of you, I’ll be changing gears as soon as the weather gets warmer than 40 degrees.  For most of my life the “gear change” was to get back into the show ring, and in that regard, not much has changed.  The last several years, however, I have been showing my horses less and less, and judging more and more.  Over the years, I have been blessed with some nice horses, and some great trainers, but I can honestly say that judging was the “missing link” in my horse show education, if you will.  I never really knew what showing horses was about until I started judging…and in light of that, and in honor of show season, I’m going to share what I have found to be (my) top five myths of horse show judging, in no particular order.  Others probably have their own list (and are free to start their own blog).

1.  If you win, it means the judge really “likes” you and your horse.

Sometimes.  But not always.  Occasionally when you win, you were the best of what was out there, so don’t let it go to your head.  Actually, you’d be better served to develop the ability to self evaluate your own performance and decide how happy to are with it.  It’s better for everyone.  And sometimes you get to see horses and riders that take your breath away.  Those are the best days.

2.  Judging is just “someone’s $5 opinion”.

Sometimes.  But not really.  There are specifications to each class and carded judges spend a lot of time learning those specs, honing their craft, and developing a system whereby they can make decisions fast enough for everyone to get through 150 classes by 6:00 pm.  There may be some opinion involved in separating close pairs, but usually that opinion is based on class specifications and not much else.

3.  Judging is really easy.  If you’ve shown, you can do it.

Wrong again.  Judging is one of the most physically and mentally demanding things I’ve ever done, with  the possible exception of running the Detroit Marathon (and I use the term “running” loosely, but I did finish before they took down the finish line, which was my goal).  Back to judging horse shows. It’s hot.  The days are long.  The potty breaks are few.  And every judge I know is dedicated to doing the best job possible based on the class specs mentioned above.  I’d agree that often times finding the first, second and third place horses is pretty easy, but after that it can get messy, and that is probably where opinion comes into play more than anywhere else.  In pleasure, for example, do I want to use the horse that lopes true, and drives hard off the hock when its because he’s running off, or do I want to use the one that listens to his rider, but maybe isn’t as high quality a mover as some of the others?  (Again, this decision has to be made in about 3 seconds, taking all other gaits into consideration as well, in 90 plus degree heat, and 200 % humidity.  Ok that’s an exaggeration I guess.)

4.  Judges don’t understand what it is like to be an exhibitor, show a Morgan, etc..

That would be tough.  I don’t know any judges who have never shown a horse.  Now, I will admit that some open horse show judges may have classes or breeds that they are more well versed in than others, based on their background.  I would get extremely frustrated, for example, when an older gentleman who probably hadn’t done a great showmanship pattern…well, maybe ever, didn’t appreciate the obvious skill of my superhorse and I.  But eventually I figured out that said gentleman probably had more years working with and evaluating western horses, or cow horses, or Morgans, than I’d ever dreamed of.  So when I became a judge, I told myself that I’d be a judge that truly appreciated showmanship and pattern classes, and the effort that goes into them.  Because I’ve been there.  I also told myself that I’d be a judge who learned to appreciate a great horse regardless of breed, color, or discipline.  I think most judges try to do the same.

5.  Judges want people to fail

Absolutely not.  Judges want to see people do their best, and treat their horses well, and work very hard to sort out talented horses and riders. That is what makes it fun.  Going back to number two, I’d much rather sort horses and riders based on positive things, as opposed to who had the fewest problems.  If you’ve ever wondered what goes through many judges heads it’s probably something along the lines of “Come on kiddo, nail that turn.  Come on horse, lift your back and lope like I know you can.  Listen to your little girl, do what she asks.” Image

I want to see those horses that take my breath away…and those riders who obviously love what they are doing…just like I do when I show.

10 thoughts on “Five Myths of Horse Show Judging

  1. What a great blog. I think #2 always insulted me the most. Always felt I put 100% into my judging and reducing it to a $ 5.00 opinion always seemed like a lie. Seemed to cheapen the top and make it easy for the other to just say, “its only a $ 5.00 opinion”. If you find the gate or the bottom you just might have more work to do. You saved the best for last #5. I never want to see someone fail. I would love to have 40 to 50 world class horses showing to me. I love it when you guys make it hard on me because you did such a great job. Great Job Karen…First class all the way

  2. I have always felt sorry for judges who have to stand out there all day and into the evening with little to no potty breaks and the extreme heat/cold/wind/rain. Sometimes on their feet all day wearing hot, uncomfortable jackets and boots. I think as an exhibitor we need to show respect to our judges as well as fellow exhibitors. As a 4-H leader for 16 years just on Monday nights for a few hours, I’d be hot, tired and had swallowed enough dirt to last me a lifetime, but judges do it for 8 to 10 hours or more!

  3. Very nice and so on target. You hit all the common myths every exhibitor and parent thinks when they are on the other side. I will be sharing this with my Equestrian Team members. It is invaluable advice and helps them see the other side so, perhaps, they might get a better understanding; you help to put them in your shoes. Thank you!

  4. I was a 4-H adviser and heard so many parents comment that the judge only picked certain riders because of the “Pretty clothes they had on”. It was quite clear that those riders worked very hard, had clean horses and was neat and clean. I had a judge announce that she does not pick winners because of their clothes. She told everyone at the show that that is the last thing she looks at if at all.
    It would be helpful if you can blog about this as well.

  5. Awesome article. As a former student of Karen’s, she has always been a great leader, educator and coach!

  6. My daughter is just getting in to showmanship, she is only 5 so she is starting as a lead line rider. This is really good information for myself to remember while she is out there as I have never been in the ring myself. Thank you for your words of wisdom šŸ™‚

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