Losing Doesn’t Mean You’re Bad (and Winning Doesn’t Mean You’re Good)

246507_309397709150429_2062996370_nWhile judging a recent horse show, the following thought occurred to me. “Just because you don’t win, doesn’t mean you’re not good.” I was in the middle of trying to sort out a very nice western pleasure class (settle down folks. It does happen.) and I realized that even my potential bottom horse had a lot of things going for it. Sure, he didn’t appear to want to “play ball” so to speak, but he was a high quality mover that I could tell had won quite a few classes before. The same was true for places 1-5, to be honest. Every one of them was using their hocks, was consistent through their topline, and minded their manners. I ultimately went to the amount of knee demonstrated (less was more, for this breed), and stride length, to separate them. It was a judge’s dream class in many respects.

While driving home, I got to thinking about how some of the riders who were in the lower end of the placings might be (at minimum) wondering what they could have done differently. To be honest, the answer is nothing. At that particular moment in time, with that set of horses, under those conditions, I made decisions based on knee and stride length for the most part. There is nothing you can change about that. In a class full of world champions, someone has to be sixth. It’s just the nature of the game. As long as a judge can justify the placing based on (in this case), movement criteria spelled out in the rulebook, it is what it is. It doesn’t mean your horse is bad.

As I continued to mull things over, (Judges often do that in the car on the way home. Don’t let them fool you), the opposite also occurred to me. Sometimes horses win, but it doesn’t mean they’re good. Sometimes judges have to sift through the poor quality movers, wrong leads, breaks of gait, and total chaos, just to find a set of six to put on the card. And someone is going home with a blue ribbon, and probably feels pretty good about it…which is great from a horse industry perspective…they’ll probably keep participating. Again, it’s the nature of the game, provided they haven’t DQ’d in the process. But truthfully, they’ve got a lot to work on. More often than not though, it shows up in line at the concession stand as “bad judging”, as opposed to “horses and riders need improvement”.

Ultimately, what the horse show world needs more of is education, skill improvement, and self-reflection (or at least the ability to recognize when the blue ribbon may not have quite been quite earned). The ability to graciously accept a prize, and ride out silently knowing what you need to work on for next time, is a valuable skill no matter what you’re doing. This ability takes time to develop, but it is also quite handy when you have the best ride your horse has ever given you, and come out with a sixth place ribbon. You can quietly be proud of yourself and your horse, knowing how far you come…while that judge drives home and wracks his or her brain about how else they might have sorted six great horses.

18 thoughts on “Losing Doesn’t Mean You’re Bad (and Winning Doesn’t Mean You’re Good)

  1. Kudos. As an exhibitor, it’s great to hear this from a judge. I can say that I’ve grown to understand the importance of a ‘good ride’ over a placing. It was preached to me growing up, but until I brought along my own horse it never really stuck. Winning is nice, but when you know you broke gait and the judge missed it, but everyone on the rail saw it it makes you feel less ‘worthy’ of the win.

  2. Excellent insight. I think horse show participants and particularly parents of participants often do not understand how hard it is to judge. It’s interesting as I get older, how the ride in the ring and the progress from the previous show becomes much more important than the ribbon.

  3. DOG SHOW PEOPLE: Please read all of this and think on it. Each day is different for each dog, each exhibitor, each judge, each venue, not to mention the competition! This article is so true.

  4. I use to love showing, but at the lower levels (local) we had some bad experiences where the judges favored a contestant because their father was one of the “good ol’ boys”. The horse of the winning rider never went on their proper lead, wouldn’t back up when commanded, in halter class the horse was not groomed to the high standards of the other contestants. But still this horse and rider kept winning. It turned my stomach, and I never go to these events anymore. I only compete in jumping, three day event and dressage where there are multiple judges and the ability of the horse to complete the course in a timely manner decides the positions. That last equitation show has turned me away from the show ring in that aspect. that was 20 years ago and we still see it at the local levels today.

    1. There you go! Sometimes the judge is just wrong! Whether it be bias or poor judging they get it wrong. Those are the days tough to take.

  5. Good article. Applies to so many competitions. Having been a judge for 13 years I know how exceedingly hard it is to get competitors in the right placing order, and sometimes you wish they could all get blues, and sometimes you want to give them all sixth place ribbons! Competitors need to know that most judges work very, very hard to do a good job to evaluate performances. And they lose sleep when they see (in the case of dressage shows) that the final placing did not match what they expected to be the final order. Judging is hard!! Everyone should spend time scribing for a judge or interning with a judge to get an idea of the magnitude of the task.

  6. Stressing the importance of quality horsemanship instead of the color of the ribbon is why I turned to dressage. Regardless of the other competitors, you leave the competition with feedback on yourself as a rider, your horses behavior, and his gaits and movement. You may have got first with a bad ride, but you also see that fifty five percent and know you were the best of the needs-improvements. Vice versa, you could not place and still see a personal best score on your test after a great ride. Perhaps if there was some way to provide this feedback to riders in other disciplines it would help judges and competitors both.

  7. Frequently, judges do write comments on the scorecards. I invite my exhibitors to look at the judges’ cards at the end of the day to see the comments; very rarely do they take advantage of the opportunity. It’s much easier to decide that the judge is stupid rather than admit your horse just might be unsound, or that someone else simply has a better horse. We have lots of riders on school horses at our shows, including our own riders. When they are beaten by fancier horses, it is much better to explain the truth to the riders, “You know, Max is a wonderful pony to learn on, but he doesn’t move like a real Hunter should. You and he both did a good job, but the other ponies are just better movers.” Telling a child that the Judge was wrong or bad only perpetuates bad sportsmanship, and does nothing to educate riders.

    1. Very true on all fronts. Some shows are actually posting judges scoresheets now. Exhibitors should take the responsibility to learn how to read them and view them. (Although no scoresheets for pleasure at this time 🙂

    2. Wait, what? There are scorecards for all shows? How can one politely ask to see the show cards? This would be a great asset to help my girls with their never-ending finishing of their horses and themselves.

      1. No. Don’t misunderstand. There are not available scorecards for all shows, at least not at this time. Several breeds and circuits have gone in that direction, but not all of them. In most 4-H or open show cases exhibitors can respectfully ask to speak to a judge through the show committee (at the end of the show) to get some feedback.

  8. Great article. Been showing most of my life and now find i really am competing with myself to have the best ride i can. It is quite okay to get beat by better horses or those in full time training which i choose not to do even though I could. I have won with a wrong diagonal and have been beaten at a World show by someone on the wrong diagonal. Judges are not perfect but i believe most do try to do the best they can

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