The two biggest complaints I hear about horse judges are that they either pick one person and use them all day or that they’re NOT CONSISTENT. Usually the consistency comment is followed by something on the order of “the people who usually win, didn’t win!” To be honest, I’m never quite sure what to do with either of these comments, other than smile, nod and remind folks that thankfully there is a horse show every weekend. You honestly can’t have it both ways. If you want consistency, it may well mean that the people that usually win actually DO win. Those who win a lot are typically pretty skilled, well prepared, usually “look the part”, and as a result, they often win. People can just go about their business, and some will complain about the fact that “the same people always win”. But what about the days those people don’t actually place as high as is typical? Does that mean a judge is “wrong” or unqualified to judge? Not necessarily. In fact, it’s very possible that that person is actually working harder than the average bear (or judge).
I should clarify that in order to follow this line of thought, you have to be very familiar with the rulebook in question and the criteria for specific classes. For example, those horses winning halter classes should be in the top 2-3 when showing against the same horses, no matter who is judging. Most (mature) horses do not suddenly improve in the conformation department from week to week. (I also wish that I could suddenly develop the physique of a 20 year-old, but that is tragically unlikely). Young horses do all sorts of changing from week to week (or day to day) so we’re not talking about those here. The balance of a mature horse will change some with conditioning, but structural correctness or lack thereof, stays the same. A horse that toes in will always toe in. There is no changing that.
Typically this could also be said for those classes evaluated on a horse’s “way of going”, including Hunter Under Saddle or Western Pleasure (although we all know what a circus that can be), at least to a point. Horses move the way they move, unless something crazy happens and a T-Rex enters the pen, or they step on a rock. In any case, the same horses should place at the top, all things being equal.
Where things may change a bit is in the pattern classes such as Showmanship, Horsemanship, or Equitation. First and foremost, it is incorrect to assume that the kiddo that wins Western Pleasure will turn around and automatically win Horsemanship. Sometimes that happens, but not always, and it shouldn’t. Those two classes are evaluated on two very different things…Western Pleasure on the horse’s way of going, and Horsemanship (aka Stock Seat Equitation, for my Fine Horse friends) on the position of the rider and their ability to work as a team with their horse. It is not unusual for an exhibitor to win one of those classes and not the other. Similarly, it is relatively common for a horse to win Hunter Under Saddle, but not Western Pleasure. In this case, both classes are evaluated on a horse’s “way of going”, but we’re looking for two very different things…a long, forward going horse in the Hunter (when possible) and a less forward going (but still forward going!) horse in Western Pleasure.
Scored classes such as Showmanship, Equitation, and Horsemanship are where one might see the greatest differences from judge to judge. Some judges (like me) have a long-term, committed relationship with Showmanship, and as a result, are more keyed in to specifics like straight lines, solid pivots, accuracy, strategy and workmanlike exhibitors with some style. I tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of good Showmanship and much less on the strange little details that people think matter, especially at the open show level. It doesn’t matter if you trot in sync with your horse if you can’t stick a pivot or your lines aren’t straight. It doesn’t matter if your changes from side to side are rock solid if your horse can’t stick a pivot. It just doesn’t. Other judges may focus on other things…and as a result the placings may vary.
Ultimately, my point is simply this: sometimes judges may seem inconsistent because they are actually judging every class. Watching every horse. Making decisions as they happen, as opposed to making assumptions about what has happened before. This ought to make exhibitors happy, rather than upset, it seems to me….because either the same horses win every time, or the judges are “inconsistent”. Like most things in life, you can’t have it both ways.