Open Horse Show Judging: One Part Super Hero, and a Whole Lot of Satan

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

If you’re a 4-H member, the Horse Judge at your county fair is an odd combination of one part rock star, one part super hero, and a whole lot of Satan, depending on the day, class or minute…and each designation has the potential to change a child’s (or volunteer’s) life for the better or worse.

When others in the horse industry talk about 4-H Horse Judges it’s sometimes said with extreme reverence and other times said from a place of, well, something far less than reverence. The 4-H Horse Judges card for some is a starting point for something “greater”, “bigger”, more “important”…maybe a breed card (or multiple breed cards) or to promote an equine business of some sort…and that’s fine unless your ego becomes that “greater, bigger, more important” thing, and sadly, that happens occasionally. I’d submit though, that being a 4-H Horse Judge is one of the most important things one could ever do for or in the horse industry, and no matter how much you know, think you know, or have done in the horse industry, not everyone is qualified to do this particular job.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, when you’re a 4-H (or any entry level) Horse Judge, it’s not just a gateway for personal aspirations…you’re the gatekeeper for the future of the horse industry. And that’s probably the most important responsibility there is.

If you’re considering getting started in horse judging at the introductory levels, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Meet People Where They Are

The open show level is the “front door”of the horse industry…and by way of some background, it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, most people don’t grow up in rural or farm settings anymore. Roughly less than 2% of the population is involved in any form of agriculture, which includes horses. As such, often (but not always) people showing horses at the introductory levels are just getting started with large animals. Somewhere along the way, they obtained access a horse and decided to try horse showing, whether or not Dobbin really fits the part or wants to participate. Often, that also means parents (who also may not fit the part or want to participate) with little or no experience in the horse show world are willing to help their kids, volunteer, and so much more, because that’s what good parents do. Gates may not open quickly enough, show offices may not run smoothly enough, and/or kiddos may not be in the right place at the right time in the right clothing. Horses may be borderline unsafe, or may be even make an unexpected run for that particular border. Granted, in a 4-H situation, there are many experienced leaders who can help, but it takes a village, and at least for the day, you’re part of that village.

When you judge a 4-H Horse Show or other open horse shows, patience is your biggest virtue and it’s a judge’s job to politely and professionally do the best they can to keep everyone safe and support an enjoyable environment when possible. If this sounds like more of a circus than you can handle as a judge, then maybe this level isn’t for you.

Be an Educator

When you judge an introductory level horse show, it helps to approach the event as an educator. You are there to help teach people about horse showing techniques and traditions, and to keep them coming back for more. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, this may also mean learning more about breeds and disciplines you’re less familiar with, and recognizing the good in every one of them. Praise and reward that good and provide positive, respectful, constructive criticism when you can…and be open to learning yourself.

Frustration happens

Often in the early going, exhibitors want to do well, but don’t (yet) have the tools to do so. This can be really frustrating for all involved, including the horses. As a judge, sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to hand them that tool, or teach them to use it properly. Do it as you are able, please. You’ll be surprised at how appreciated it usually is, if delivered in a helpful way.

Take Pride in Your Work

Judging introductory or open horse shows can (and should) be as much a source of pride as any major breed event, at least in my mind. Maybe even more so…if they have a good experience with you, they might just buy that “step up” horse, or consult the services of a trainer. Depending on your “day job” that trainer could be you, if you take your judging role seriously and professionally.

Develop and Support the Next Generation of Judges

If you’re an experienced and successful introductory level horse judge, one of the most important things you can do is help the next generation learn to be successful as well. Depending on where you are, not every state or association has an organized system for training horse judges, and as you have learned “judging ain’t easy”. You may reach a point where you no longer want to, or simply can’t stand for 12 plus hours in the sun. Presumably, you’ll want to leave the horse judging world a bit better than you found it. Teaching other judges is how you can do that. Help local horse judging teams, or take apprentice judges when possible. Share your hard earned knowledge. You won’t regret it, and neither will the horse industry.

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