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.

Thank God For Aqua-Net…and Other Things I Can’t Always Say When Judging Horse Shows

Photo credit: Rick Barnes

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

This is for the ones who are just getting started, or even those who’ve been at it awhile, but can’t quite figure out how to get better. The ones who go to horse shows weekend after weekend, place 5th or 6th or 8th if they place at all, but keep telling themselves not to quit because they love it and someday it will come together for them. While that may be true, as the saying goes, “if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Not to mention the fact that sometimes people in this bracket blame judges, industry trends and the world in general for their misfortune. So here are a few tips to speed up the process from average to excellent.

1. Cones Matter-In pattern classes, the side of the cone you’re on throughout the run absolutely matters. When learning patterns, make sure you know what side to be on at all times. Also make sure you execute transitions between your horse’s muzzle and shoulder…anything later is too late, anything sooner too early. If a turn at a cone is involved, determine where best to stop to execute the next maneuver.

2. Leads Matter-Know your leads, and if your horse takes off on the wrong one, FIX IT. None of this awkwardness thinking the judge doesn’t see you. They do. Better yet, learn to set your horse up to take the correct lead before departing at all.

3. Diagonals Matter-Just like leads, learn to take the correct diagonal and if you don’t, switch to the correct one ASAP. This will factor into your placings in Equitation especially, but it’s a good rule of thumb regardless.

4. Your horse’s condition matters-Even in those classes where the horse is more of a prop to demonstrate your skills (Showmanship, Equitation etc.), their overall health and condition matters. In addition to the fact that an underweight horse looks bad for the horse show industry as a whole, a thin horse may have a more difficult time handling the stresses that naturally come with showing. Understand body condition, and how to safely add (or remove) weight as needed, because when it comes right down to it, if I have to decide between a close pair, I’m using the one that looks healthiest most likely.

5. YOUR condition matters-Comb your hair and make sure your clothes fit and your hat is clean and shaped. Showing a horse is a bit like a job interview…and that means putting your best foot forward and making a good impression. Ask for help from someone who seems to have it together if you’re not sure on this one. Bobby pins and Aqua-Net are the unsung heros of horse showing for all involved.

6. Thinking Matters Just as Much as Riding Sometimes (Sometimes Even More) When you’re first starting to show or even ride, you’re often just glad if you achieve the basics without an accident. If you walk, jog and lope and stay on throughout, sometimes that’s a win in itself. But after that, you’re going to need to learn to develop two things: ring etiquette and strategy. And both of these things require the ability to think about more than just yourself. Learn how to safely pass other horses, and think about what you’re doing while doing it. Actually ride your horse, and strategize when you’ll ask for what in a pattern class.

Trust me, I recognize that showing horses can be stressful, but learning to manage that stress, think through what you’re doing, and make good choices is what makes the difference between the middle of the pack and the top. The day you learn to think in the pen and help your horse make good decisions is the day you’ll start winning.

You Can’t Have it Both Ways!

Photo by Jaye Nevins
By Karen Waite
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.

Perfect Practice (May) Make Perfect Performance, But Poor Practice Makes a Mess

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.
File Jul 23, 4 30 21 PM
I was minding my own business…scrolling through Facebook as one does when avoiding laundry, and I came across a post that got my attention.  It seemed innocent enough at first…two young ladies in the show ring, one in the foreground who appeared to be riding a horse that perhaps had seen something in the distance and had elevated his neck to get a better look, and one in the back, just entering the shot, who was well turned out and appeared to be riding a horse who was either 1) a finished show horse or 2) hadn’t seen whatever the other horse had seen (yet).  The poster’s comment made a humorous reference to the fact that the young lady on the finished horse was “photobombing” again.   Seemed innocent enough.
As I read through the comments, I realized that somewhere along the way an adult had made a nasty (and unprovoked) comment about how the young lady on the finished horse “had a trainer” and “fancy clothes , expensive tack, and didn’t do her own work”, while the young lady on the”Lookie horse” “did all of her own work” (and presumably didn’t have those things).  Blood, meet boiling point.  There are few things that get me riled up more quickly than adults picking on kids.  One of my other anger provoking things is the assumption that kids with horse trainers don’t “work”, or win because of their equipment (or clothes, or the fact that their Uncle Fred from Phoenix knows the judge).  And the last thing would be the assumption that somehow kids should “do their own work” without ever being taught how.  So there you are…a veritable hat-trick of hot, all in one post.
I really don’t think I need to explain why adults picking on kids makes me mad.  If you’re an adult, you don’t bully kids.  End of discussion.  You scroll on by and keep your mouth shut and your fingers still, because you know…you’re an ADULT.  Pick on someone your own size, so to speak.  And Heaven knows, there are plenty of outlets for that in this day and age.
On to number two.  Anyone who suggests that kids who use horse trainers or take lessons don’t have to work is simply wrong.  As someone who has been on both sides of that particular fence, I’m here to tell you, having trainer does NOT make the work any easier, nor does it come that much quicker.  You still have to learn to ride that horse and sometimes, the fine tuned ones are mucho harder to ride.  I’m not saying that Ted Trainer ought to be loping horses at the county fair or hanging on the rail at the 4-H show…I’m simply saying that a young person whose horse is with a trainer at times isn’t really at that much more of an advantage than anyone else.  They still have to practice.  And if they don’t, they won’t get good rides.  It’s that simple.
Finally, the one that boggles my mind the most.  “KIDS IN 4-H SHOULD DO THEIR OWN WORK.”   As I stated above, I wholeheartedly believe that yes, kids should put in the work…but as part of that work, they need to learn just what it IS they should be working on and more importantly, HOW.  When I was in 4-H, at least at the start, I didn’t take lessons…I “did my own work”.  And you know what?  It was terribly frustrating, and frankly pretty awful.  I had this idea that the more I rode, the better I would be…so I rode ALOT.  But just as perfect practice (may) make perfect performance, poor practice makes…a mess.  Thankfully I had one of the most patient 4-H project horses in the world, because that poor beast tolerated more than any horse should have to.  I really, really wanted to do well…but I didn’t know what that meant exactly…so I just kept struggling to find a way to get to what I thought judges wanted.  But I was so very wrong.  Ultimately, my point is this… I can’t think of any other sport in which (some) might expect that kids will just somehow learn complex motor skills by osmosis, with no help from anyone.  That’s not how it works.
Thankfully, things are different now.   There are all sorts of equine educational opportunities in this day and age, and many are pretty economical if that’s the issue.  Clinics, videos, horse expos, and so much more…although it’s also mind boggling how many families don’t take advantage of the offerings provided.  But anyway,  in my opinion, it’s more than fine for kids to get help learning from someone…be it a judge, a trainer, a 4-H leader, or the guy down the road whose knows stuff about things.  That way, when they go back to “doing their own work” they have something to shoot for.  Again, I’m not saying that the 4-H Fair should be a Horse Trainer Ho-Down, unless of course said trainer is there to simply support his or her kiddos and see what they do with the tools he or she gave them.  Which is what we should all do.

There Aren’t Prizes for the Things That Matter Most…But There Should Be

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

A week or so ago, I judged an open show.  I mean, it was sort of an open show, but also, sort of an Arabian breed show at the same time, which is pretty cool.  It also had some half-Arabians, and some Pintos and a wide range of things, but mostly of the non-AQHA persuasion.   Typically, when Arabians show at open shows, they wind up showing against stock type (AQHAish) horses and then sometimes things can get messy.  If you use an Arabian, then the AQHAish people get offended.  If you use an AQHAish horse then the Arabian folks get offended.  Anyway, not the point of this story AT. ALL.  Back to the matter at hand.  I judged an open show that had A LOT of very high quality, non-AQHA horses, among other things.  And that is where I had the chance to “meet” Damian.  (Note: Typically when you meet someone while judging you don’t actually meet.  You just interact for a few seconds).

Damian is a young man somewhere in the 12-13 range, and as you can see in the picture, he was READY for Showmanship.  He looked sharp. His horse looked sharp.  Everybody was SHARP, SHARP, SHARP.

See?  Sharp.


They came in and started their pattern, came straight to me just like I was looking for, and set up pretty quickly.  This pair was headed for the top of my card. And then it happened.  Damian’s horse took notice of the fact that there was an Arabian halter class happening on the other side of the arena.  And if you’ve ever witnessed a breed-type Arabian halter class, you know that those folks put the SHOW in Horse Show.  It’s not the sort of library-esque halter we sometimes see…oh heavens no.  It’s a PARTY!  Hooting, hollering, tails flowing, horses jumping about…it’s an equine extravaganza.  And suddenly, Damian’s horse decided that it looked like it was more fun “over there” and he jumped BIG-TIME.

Damian’s horse let loose with the kind of spook that would have had many adult exhibitors crying UNCLE.  But you know what?  Damian handled it.  He quietly, cooly, professionally reset his horse balloon (after it landed).  I didn’t say anything.  I just waited.  Damian didn’t say anything.  He just reset his horse.  And the two (or 3) of us continued on.  Like the very best of horsemen, this 13 year-old handled the situation, got back to business, and what do you know, his horse did, too.  And they trotted out like nothing ever happened…like there was no house…I mean horse…party next door.

In retrospect, if I could have given this young man a prize, I really would have.  But given the rules of the Showmanship game, big spooks are kind of a “no no”.  I can’t really let that go when there were so many other exhibitors whose horses did NOT suddenly realize that things were getting real “over there.”  But let’s face it…Damian probably earned (and received) the best reward of the day.  The knowledge that he could handle it for himself and his horse when things got rough…that he could save the old lady in the hat (that was me) from getting clobbered, by taking the leadership role and putting things back together.

This lesson will carry him through the next horse show (or the one after that), when he’ll probably win big…or in the wash rack when his horse decides that the Loch Ness monster is clearly coming up the drain…or anything else that requires an immediate flight response from the horse and a calm, cool reminder from Damian that “No…we’re OK,  I’ve got you.  You come with me, horse, and I’ll take care of you.”  And that prize will reap many more rewards than a blue ribbon ever could.

There really aren’t prizes for the things that matter most, but there should be.



Maybe Participation Trophies Aren’t The Problem

By Karen Waite, Ph. D.

Photo by Jaye Nevins

In the last few weeks one of my (least) favorite topics has come up several times…that of the “participation trophy” and the fact that the world is obviously doomed to fail because some organizations have chosen not to place kids (gasp), but to focus more on learning and motor skill development instead.  It happens in soccer, and yes, sometimes it happens in the horse industry, especially in lead line and walk trot classes.  While I typically don’t say much about placing the littles one way or the other when I’m judging where it’s legal to do so, I’ve gotten to a point in life where I must say that maybe, just maybe, PARTICIPATION TROPHIES AREN’T THE PROBLEM.  The problem is that people don’t like to (or don’t want to) do hard things.  Case in point: Western Riding and flying lead changes.  I suppose you’re wondering how I have gotten from Lead Line to Western Riding quite so quickly.  Buckle up.  It’s probably going to be a bumpy ride for a minute here, but suffice it to say, I’ve given this a lot of thought.

In my state, as with many others, failure to perform 4 or more flying lead changes in Western Riding results in a DQ at the 4-H level and has for 15 years.  Throughout that entire 15-year period, people have howled and carried on such that many shows have simply chosen to ignore the rule because “kids can’t do flying lead changes” and given that fact, it really does become pretty complicated to score if you’re using the 70-point system.  Those little scoresheet boxes don’t have enough space for all of the penalties that accompany inability to perform flying lead changes, on that point we can agree.  But let’s think about this for a second…(legal) Western Riding should be the pinnacle of training.  It is one of the most challenging classes in the western performance world.  It absolutely IS difficult…but it’s not impossible.  With time, patience, and good instruction, and some TRY young people with some riding time could learn to do it and their horses probably could too.  And last time I checked, most classes in a show bill are optional.  If I don’t have a horse that jumps, I don’t go in Hunter Over Fences.  No one bats an eye.

Now back to lead-line and walk trot for a minute.  (Told you it would be bumpy).  I hear people complain regularly about how we should be placing kids under the age of 9 lest they grow up to be elitist, or Communist, or some other sort of “ist”.  I’m not sure I’ve seen any research to support this theory, nor have I actually seen a high school basketball game where score isn’t kept, but for whatever reason many folks seem to think that a few years of not being placed negates the following 10+ years of a more traditional, competitive system.  But the problem is that it is actually about as tough to place kids in Lead line and Walk Trot as it is to score less than ideal Western Riding, for vastly different reasons.

The majority of kids in the Leadline/Walk Trot phase are little (obviously) and cute (even more obvious).  Most of the time, they are happy to be there, unless the show schedule is interfering with nap or snack, and they are happy to pose for pictures.  At this stage they are often just getting started with their show career, and their bewildered parents are trying to figure out how to get child and horse from point A to point B without a wreck.  And sometimes the horses chosen may or may not be the best option…they’re simply available.  Of course, there are those “2 percenters” whose parents are trainers or riding instructors, and whose horses have been selected by the best minds and the hand of God as safe walk trot horses.  But there is that other 98 percent to consider, who are just navigating their way into the horse industry.

From a motor skill perspective, being little and wobbly can cause some serious issues.    Sometimes these kids are so little that their legs don’t reach past the saddle pad, and so wobbly that they need to balance on their hands or whatever else they can snag.  Which means that steering can become a non-issue.  Consequently, some horses find this sort of facial freedom an invitation to take off with the rest of their horse friends for a romp around the show pen.  All of this can make for questionable equitation at minimum, and more excitement than anyone really needs.  Unfortunately, the 5-6 year-old set hasn’t always installed a solid emergency plan in their brain as yet, because they are still thinking about that snack.  In the midst of all of this, judges are often asked to place these kiddos, because clearly if they don’t do well they’ll have to just “work harder.”  Work harder?  At what?  Growing legs and a cerebellum?   As a result, I’m more comfortable with the cute factor.  All cute.  All can be first.  They’ll have the rest of their lives to be sorted into piles of “You’re enough” and “You’re not”, and to “work harder.”

But wait just a second…”work harder”?  Why should they bother?  No one expects them to do it in Western Riding.  No one asks them to reach higher for that class at all.  We just change the rules so that they don’t HAVE to do hard things, learn the skills, develop their abilities.  They can simple change their way through life, and the world will allow them to not work quite so hard after all.  They can earn Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and edit their photos so only the good parts and the successful days show…not the days of dirt and dust and fight to “do better”.

So you see…maybe participation trophies aren’t actually the REAL problem after all.

What to Do When The Fair Isn’t Fair


Photo by Jaye Nevins


By Karen Waite

It’s that time of year again!

If you live in the Midwest, you may have noticed that it’s county fair season…that age old bastion of tradition, education (intentional and otherwise), drama, intrigue, teen romance, and corn dogs.  Don’t get me wrong, I love county fairs and 4-H (which often go hand in hand).  Both made me who I am, made me a better horseman, and I’m convinced that in the long run it made me a better human. My first real successes (after potty training, learning to walk, and using a fork as a tool not a weapon) came from The 4-H Fair experience.  The first time someone handed me a ribbon and a trophy, I was HOOKED.    By golly, I was GOOD at something!  (I can’t say that I knew what that something was, but they handed me a trophy, and people were smiling and congratulating me, so I obviously was really good, right?  RIGHT?! Ok, maybe, maybe not.  Read
Losing Doesn’t Mean You’re Bad (and Winning Doesn’t Mean You’re Good)


 if you’re confused.


After that first win, I wanted MORE winning. My entire summer, no, my entire YEAR revolved around “The Fair”,  wanting to win my classes, and qualify for the State 4-H Horse Show.  If I had the right clothes, saddle, bridle, and halter, I’d win.  If I figured out  “what judges preferred” and what little details would set me apart from the rest, I would surely win.  Do I look back to back?  Look back after I back?  Look back EVER?   (Hey, it was the 80s).  Do I watch the pivot foot?  Band the mane?  We agonized over these little details for DAYS.  (Which come to think of it, hasn’t really changed much.  We just do it on Facebook now.)



Then there were Fair politics.  If everyone followed “the exact same rules, and no one ever had spoken to the judges, or made eye contact with them 6 months prior at the grocery store, all would be “fair at The Fair”, and then I’d win. If  I wanted it more than anyone else, I’d be a good competitor and I’d win.    As you may have noticed, everything I’ve mentioned so far was nothing I had any control of, which made the days I didn’t win pretty tough, confusing, and left me looking for reason why…because frankly, I didn’t always know.  Or maybe I didn’t listen to those who tried to tell me.  So it logically followed  (in my 14-19 year old mind) that if I didn’t win, then clearly, someone had paid a zillion dollars for their horse, had 15 professional trainers, and never, EVER did their own work.  Things were NOT always fair at The Fair…and sometimes things got out of hand.


It was only about 30 years of showing and judging horses later that I realized one important fact: It’s not enough to want to win, and wins aren’t driven by outside factors.  You’ve just got to do the work to win.  But how? Here are 5 tips for Working to Win at The Fair (or anywhere else.)


1.  Take Your Eyes Off the Prize



I don’t know who developed the “keep your eyes on the prize” concept, but it can go away anytime.  Yes, you can tuck it away in the back of your mind as a motivator, but it can’t be your primary focus all of the time.  You’ve got work to do, and focusing exclusively on external rewards rather than personal growth brings with it a variety of unhelpful issues that don’t guarantee success, may actually even sabotage it.  For more on that, read Carol Dweck’s book



If you’re short on time, just keep reading this (for now.)


2.  Learn What’s Required to Win



If you wanted to learn to perform brain surgery, would you ask your friends, or the guy at the gas station, or on Facebook?  Of course NOT.   You’d get help from professionals who either make their living performing brain surgery, or at minimum, people who have been doing it successfully for years.  This could be a professional riding instructor, a horse trainer, or it could be a 4-H leader who really knows their stuff.  It could be a judge who actually knows what judges are looking for, and how to evaluate and score specific classes.  In many ways, I wish that amateur competitors could give lessons without penalty, but in the stock horse world, they can’t without risking their amateur status.  Off season clinics, participation on (or coaching) judging teams, all of these things help you learn what’s required to win…and how else are kids supposed to learn other than by getting (some) help from others?


3.  DO What’s Required to Win



Practice, copy your own patterns, develop the motor skills and muscle memory that riding and showing requires, and once you’ve done that, learn more about pattern strategy.  It won’t happen overnight, but if you don’t give up, and you have the right attitude and help, it will happen eventually.  If you play your cards right, you may even realize that these are the things that fuel a lifetime of riding and showing.  Parents and other adults can also help by looking at horse showing as a marathon, not a sprint. Not so much an”one time deal”, but rather an ongoing process.  The Fair Frenzy is diminished a bit if it’s “just another horse show” in a series.  And that can dial back the emotion that sometimes causes problems.  Plus you have control over what you do yourself.


4.  Video Your Classes



Have some one video your classes and watch them w


looking for areas to improve.  You may want to talk them through with the folks mentioned above, to help you learn what is good, and what could be better.  Then do those things. (Note: This is true even if you just had the ride of your life.)


5.  Repeat Steps 1-4 As Necessary…



As I said in the beginning, I love county fairs.     They are a big part of who I am, and why I owe 4-H so much.  For some people, The Fair is their Congress, their US Nationals, and World Show, all rolled into one and as a result, tensions run high.  I also recognize, that sometimes people at The Fair  are in the process of learning about showing horses, and when they don’t understand why things happen they way they do, they make up crazy things

to explain it,

or blame their lack of success on things they can’t control.  But I can say for certain that we learn the most when things aren’t fair at the Fair, and that makes it a win.

When is Zero Greater Than Sixty-Five?

By Karen Waite

It would appear I’ve lost the ability to count to 2.  Or 3.  Or at all.  While there is every reason to think this is a temporary situation, it doesn’t make it any less annoying, especially when you’re showing a Reining horse and you’re actually a pretty competitive person.  If you spin the wrong number of times, you’re off pattern, disqualified, Penalty score zeroed.  Peace OUT.  But sometimes a zero beats a 65…and I’m sure you’re thinking “Wow.  She really can’t count.”.  I’ll explain.File Jul 23, 4 30 21 PM.jpegPhoto credit: Kristy Stecker

While it may look easy on TV, Reining is actually anything BUT easy.  Especially if you’ve spent your entire life riding horses who were supposed to go sort of slow(ish). There are lots of things to change…using your legs once again becomes a form of encouragement (or lead changes), as opposed to a braking mechanism.  But it’s not just the physical motor skills that need to change, it’s the mental skills as well.  From a Sport Psychology/self-talk perspective, I’ve spent years telling myself to “slow down, relax, think through the next element, relax, focus, relax…”  so much so that’s it’s second nature.  And yes, all of that is handy in the Reining pen, too, but something was missing…

This entire show season, I’ve been working to find that missing “thing”.  It’s a little bit of energy, a little bit of “let go of her”, and to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated with the search.  I mean, it felt like I WAS going fast.  It felt like I WAS letting her go, at least until I looked at the videos and realized that no.  My runs were still pretty “Horsemanshippy”, with about a 50% success rate,  given that I’ve been DQ-ing half the time, purely as a result of miscounting, or misdirecting spins.  Sigh.  Good thing that Grit Isn’t Just For Chickens.

At a recent show, I was holding to my usual “50% success rate” program.  I completed a run, managed to stay on pattern, and marked a 65.  It was correct, but in all honesty the best description I could give was “meh”.  My next run, I was planning to spark it up a bit.  So I did…and spun an extra time, once again “earning” a 0.  UGH.  NOOOOOO.  Not AGAIN!!!  At this rate, I’ll be a Green Reiner FOREVER!  A veritable evergreen…the pine tree of Reining!  (At least that’s how it feels.)

I always find it interesting when news people interview athletes and ask them what they were thinking at a critical moment.  In all honesty, at that level, they probably were only thinking strategy if anything, because muscle memory is an actual thing. Once you get the motor skills down, it’s (almost) all mental.  But given that I’m a beginner in this sport, I’m still thinking an awful lot… ”Hands here, legs here, no, not there, HERE.  Cue for this now.  Wait..WHAT?  Where are we?  Was that two?”…the chatter almost never stops.  But part way through that extra spin, when I realized that yes, it WAS in fact EXTRA, a switch went off in my head.  I distinctly remember thinking “Well, you’ve got a set of circles, a figure eight, some roll backs, and a stop to go.  You may as well ACTUALLY GO, DINGBAT, GO!  What have you got to lose?  You’ve already blown it.”   So I did.  And had the most fun I’ve ever had while DQing.  Actually, it felt better than some Showmanship and rail classes that I actually DID win.   I came out of the pen happy and feeling like I had ACTUALLY accomplished something.  Much more so than the accurate yet boring, “meh” 65 run.  And I didn’t die, or even sustain serious injury.  In fact, I got better.

The next run I marked a personal best 68.  And that never would have happened without that 0.  Sure, there are plenty of things that I could have done better in that 68 run (obviously), but it was that 0 that made the 68 possible.  So sometimes, a zero really DOES beat a 65.


Grit Isn’t Just For Chickens

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

If you are a friend on my personal Facebook page, I’m sure at some point you’ve thought “Why does this insufferable woman post so much?  And why does she always post about her FAILURES?  Who DOES that?”  Great news.  I’m hoping to clear that up for you with this post.  But first…one of my “failures” (in quotes because “failure” is a relative term.   I was on the horse, I stayed on the horse, and was in the pen, so…).  On this particular occasion, we started one set of spins with a little too much enthusiasm, and then V got VERY excited about her fancy lead changes so she threw in an extra for good measure.  Plus I’m still getting used to the idea of just “letting her go”.  Anything that resembles speed feels like super turbo to me.

Back to the matter at hand, there are two main reasons for my either daily, or several times daily, Seinfeld-esque posts about “nothing”.  First, my almost 83 year-old mother can’t get out quite as much as she once did, but she can use Facebook.  She loves people watching, and now she can do it from her chair!  Facebook is a great way for her to keep up with what’s happening and I want her to know what’s going on…and even more importantly, when she “Likes” something I’ve posted, I know she’s ok.  The peace of mind that comes with that is priceless.

Second, Mark Zuckerberg says I can.  Facebook is my personal scrapbook, diary of daily events, or whatever else you want to call it.  Russian hacks not withstanding when I’m 83, my memories from 30 years ago will pop up in that delightful orange box, asking if I want to share them.  You betcha, I do, Mark Zuckerberg.

In addition to those two things, however, there is one additional reason I post so much about the good things, the bad things, and the totally mundane, ridiculous things.  I think that Facebook, and social media in general, lacks the authenticity and “realness” that makes up an actual life.   Success happens, failure happens, happiness happens and sometimes, very, very hard times happen.  I work with a fair number of youth and college age students, and sometimes even adults, and I try to be a good role model. (And yes, I fall down on this front consistently as well.) I want them to see that a person can have a pretty successful life full of things they enjoy, judging horse shows, being blessed to travel all over the country and even world, while at the same time being afraid of chickens, and forgetting which way or how many times to spin in a reining pattern.  Repeatedly.  And they can own all of it.  It’s 100% theirs.   Someday, they’ll realize that IRL (in real life, for those who don’t know), the journey to the success makes up a much larger and more interesting part of the actual success. Oh sure, your mom cares that you won, but honestly, If someone wins at a horse show, I’m MUCH more interested in the effort that went into it for weeks, months, or years prior.   How they fell down 7 times and got up 8.  What they had to overcome, and just how much grit they have.  That to me is much more interesting than the (nifty) cooler they won.

But what if you’re just not particularly gritty and you can’t possibly imagine that you’ll EVER be as successful as “those people” you see on Facebook?  What if grit is genetic, or you’re born with as much as you’ll ever have?  The good news is that grit isn’t just for chickens anymore!  Grit is an actual psychological skill that you can develop if you’re lacking.  There is an entire book about it, in fact.  You might want to check it out: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance   Duckworth says of the high achievers she has studied “Apparently it was critically important-and not at all easy-to keep going after failure.  “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when they aren’t.”  This book shares accounts of those who learned to keep going, and in all honesty, that’s what sets them apart from others.  That’s why I post the good and the bad…a failure is just a step on the staircase.  And yes, I realize that in the big scheme of things, “failing” at a horse show is pretty small…but we learn to handle big things by surviving the small ones.

If you don’t have time to read an actual book, you can get the audio version and listen while you drive, clean stalls, or even while you work out.   And one day (probably before you’re 83), maybe Facebook will show you that memory of the day when your horse leaped into a spin in Green Reiner.  And hopefully by then you’ll have stuck with it long enough that your Green days are long behind you, “speed” is actually fast and maybe you’ll even be a Rookie by then!


Work Smarter AND Harder

goal-setting-signPhoto credit:

A lot has been said about Goal Setting. If you Google goal setting or SMART goals, you can spend weeks going through the 18, 800,000 hits, if you’ve got that kind if time.  And little wonder…it’s an important skill. It’s hard to accomplish much of anything worthwhile if you don’t set goals…and not just goals, but the right KINDS of goals. As an example, me saying that I want to meet and take a selfie with Ryan Reynolds is a relatively unattainable goal. As the sign says, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (Note: I found this image during the above-mentioned Google Search. You gotta love Google.)

SMART goals are certainly a better method of goal setting than wishing. As you may be aware, a SMART goal is Specific, Measureable, Agreed Upon (or Attainable), Relevant, and Time-sensitive. So again using Ryan as an example, a better goal would be “I will meet Ryan Reynolds and take one selfie when he is in town to film his next movie in May.” Now granted, this is probably equally unattainable, but it’s a better-written goal, which is the point. And it IS just a goal…it says nothing about the effort or strategy required to actually meet Ryan Reynolds. Nor does it say anything about what I’ll do if Ryan shows in town up and I DON’T MEET HIM! And that is really the point of this post. Sort of.

If I were Queen, SMART goals would actually be SMART-ER goals. Incidentally, if you search SMARTER goals in Google there are some variations on that theme as well, but not the version I’m thinking of. My SMART-ER goals are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-sensitive, ETHICAL, and RESILIANT.

Like I said, there are many articles that detail the SMART part. If you want to review, try this reading this one (specific to horses) or this one (not specific to horses). But lets talk about ethics and resilience.

From an ethics perspective, essentially anyone can “win” through cheating. It’s a shortcut, it’s disrespectful, it doesn’t suggest ability, and frankly, it DOES suggest you don’t want to (or don’t know how to) put in the real work required for whatever it is you’re doing. You know you cheated, and I’d ask you…did you do it because you believed you couldn’t actually DO the hard work? I’ll bet that isn’t true. Did you do it because people are paying you to “win” and win quick? More likely, but that makes you a sell out, not a hero. You may “win” externally, but you should be left feeling a bit hollow inside…knowing you did unethical things to get to that “win”. Would you want that behavior on the front page of ________ (insert the horse or other website of your choice)? Probably not.

Frankly, a win through cheating is no real win at all. You may win the external hardware, and some accolades from the horse show groupies, but it isn’t much good for your internal, mental software. It’s far better to win the right way…with honor, with hard work, with respect for your animal or sport, and those around you. Those are the wins that are impressive. Anything else is weak.

The final thing to consider is resilience. Not surprisingly, I have a personal example to share. Last year, I set a goal to run the Disney Half Marathon before I turned 50 in January. I had 7 months to train for it, and while I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life, I was motivated. I trained with a friend for roughly 6 months…through super hot weather, cold weather, and rainy weather. In October, we ran a 10 mile “race”, and even though I was almost the last one to finish (I just said I’d run it, I didn’t say I’d run fast), I was convinced I’d be ready. And come January, I was. I rearranged my work schedule and left a rather important professional meeting early to support my friend Jessica, who had decided to run the 10K (6 miles) due to a nasty bout of tendonitis…and she did.

I did all the things I could think of to prepare for my race the next day…ate right, rested, drank plenty of water. I nursed a painful arthritic knee…but I was determined to complete the race, and I knew I would. Then, we attended a fundraising dinner the evening before, which also served as an inspirational event. At the conclusion of dinner, after being completely inspired, fired up and ready to GO it was announced that the Half-Marathon the next day was CANCELED. Yep. Not happening, due to possible lightning in the area.

While I totally understood why it was canceled, and while I was very glad I was not the organizer of the race, it was REALLY disappointing. Six months of training, and poof. Seemingly wasted. I did all the right things…I SET A SMART GOAL for heaven’s sake. And yet…not happening. Come to think of it, I had a similar experience at the last Quarter Horse Congress that I was eligible to compete in Novice Amateur Showmanship, but I wasn’t the lame one in that story. My equine side-kick was. A story for another day. Anyway, my birthday was later in the month, and honestly, I really just wanted to run around Disney.

I did what most people (should) do in such circumstances. I pouted for a while. I moped for a while. And then I started looking for the bright side. I started making plans. I appreciated all of the time I was able to spend with Jessica leading up to the race, as well as the fact that I could actually run that far (albeit slowly), then maybe I’d just change the goal to “Run a Half Marathon while I am 50. In other words, I showed some resilience:




noun: resilience; plural noun: resiliences; noun: resiliency; plural noun: resiliencies

  1. 1. 
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Yes, I was disappointed. No, it didn’t seem fair. But I could wallow in those things, or I could choose to pull myself up, get out, and appreciate the fact that resilience was something I could fall back on when the SMART goal didn’t quite pan out.

Sometimes in the horse world, horses get sick, hurt, or don’t progress in training like we hoped they would. Sometimes they cost way too much money. Or judges don’t understand that we deserve to win because we’ve worked really hard. (Ok, they probably do understand, but only one person can win, so…), and sometimes we think that based on what Facebook would have us believe, when we set a goal, it just stands to reason that we’ll reach it. But that’s not true. Sometimes we reach the goal, and other times we don’t, and we have to just be glad that we prepared honestly and ethically, hopefully we enjoyed the process, and if we ultimately missed the mark, we showed resilience, got up, and tried again. Not surprisingly, its one more example of what horses teach us.