Ride for the Brand

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Photo by Jaye Nevins

Remember that time you went to the ER for that broken arm and thought “You know, I could really do a better job of setting this?”  Or when you took your car to the mechanic and thought,  “That’s not the way I would have fixed that carburetor.” (Note: It took spell check for me to properly spell carburetor.  Twice.) 

 Anyway, you haven’t?  Why not?  Probably because you aren’t trained in either of those fields so you went to an expert for their opinion.  So why do we struggle so much to accept the opinions of horse judges?  Does the fact that we have a horse automatically make us an expert in evaluating any and all breeds and disciplines?  I have driven a truck around the farm since I was 12…legally on the road since I was sixteen, but guess what?  I’m no expert.  The same can be said of horse judging, I think.

 When a judge obtains a judging card, more often than not they have gone through a process of proving themselves to a governing body.  They have taken written rulebook tests, apprentice judged, been interviewed, evaluated, and asked to jump through more hoops that one can possibly imagine.   And yet for some reason, when they step into a show pen, suddenly they don’t know WHAT they are doing…and everyone outside of the pen is an expert. 

 Of course, this varies substantially from place to place, and show to show.  The more educated horsemen become, the more they tend to understand the process of becoming a judge.  And similarly, from a judging perspective, the longer you judge, the more your skills develop and ideally the more you grasp the concept of “riding for the brand”.

So what does that mean?  Riding for the brand means understanding and supporting the mission of the organization you’re carded by and/or working to uphold that mission.  For example, I’ve had the opportunity to judge quite a few 4-H fairs this year…or at least more than is typical.  In a nutshell, what makes 4-H different than any other horse show is the educational component that goes along with the concept.  A 4-H (fair) horse show is NOT JUST ANOTHER HORSE SHOW.  It should be designed as a place for young people to show what they have learned, and to learn some more.  It should be a place for leaders and volunteers to support and admire what their young people have learned, and to learn some more themselves, to in turn help those kids going forward.  As they say, “Team work makes the dream work” and more often than not, judges are on your team.  Young people can (and hopefully DO) take those skills and show elsewhere, but on that day, at that fair, the focus should be on what has been learned AND rewarding accordingly in the form of prizes and all the other fun things that go with participation at a fair.

How can we do that?  Giving judges the opportunity to give reasons on the microphone is one way that can be achieved, and based on what I’ve heard, exhibitors actually DO appreciate that feedback, at least at certain times, places, and time frames.  To quote G.I. Joe “Knowing is half the battle.”  Yes, not every judge is conversationally gifted but if their heart is in the right place, and they really want to help, does that really matter so much?  No, we don’t want to make kids cry and hate the experience, but many judges started in 4-H and want to give back in some way.  Sometimes, judges may actually share the things that need improvement, which is the only way we can ever really improve (as the anti-participation ribbon movement is typically quick to remind us).   If we want a thriving and successful horse industry going forward, young people and their families deserve to at least have some information as to why they placed the way they did, and sometimes they may even need to hear the hard things (within reason), and maybe even the unsafe things. Yes, scribes and score sheets are valuable to this end, but sometimes clear and immediate feedback about a rider’s skill is even more valuable, and that information isn’t always represented in a ribbon or placing.   As I’ve said before,  “Losing doesn’t mean you’re bad (and winning doesn’t mean you’re good).”