While 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.