Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some Commentary About Judging

This is a combination of two separate articles in regard to judging, and most of it focuses on the Arabian horse, as of course they are my specialty and my first love.

Judging: The Mechanics of Doing It Properly~

How many times have you shown your horse in your favorite class, thought you put in a stellar ride...and still gotten the gate? If that seems to be the story of your life, listen up!

Various disciplines and breeds have various standards and rules which judges must follow. Some of them are scored numerically using a specific system, others seem mainly to be personal preference on just what is acceptable and what’s not. If you spend any length of time at horse shows, spend a little of that time just watching, observing and letting things sink in. You might be amazed at what you can learn if you take the time to educate yourself.

We’ll start with Halter. Not merely a beauty contest for horses, the in-hand divisions are supposed to be used for three purposes -- evaluating breeding stock, evaluating performance potential or suitability and judging conformation of the horse. A handler may bring a stunningly beautiful mare who exudes class and presence into the ring, but if she has crooked legs or a weak hip, she should be placed lower than a plainer but more correct counterpart.

Pleasure horse classes are generally adjudicated on certain basic principles. Your first criteria will usually be manners. If a horse exhibits lovely gaits and maintains the proper frame but has outbursts of insolence, it’s highly likely that you’ll gain unwanted attention from spectators and judges alike. Often the suitability of horse to rider is paramount, and the suitability of the horse to the division he’s competing in should always come into play.

In many breeds, for example, high-headed, round movement is counted against Western pleasure mounts. Stock breed judges are looking for slow-legged, flat-kneed movers while Morgan and Saddlebred Western horses are expected to be fancier. In some breeds, the slower the better and the lower a headset you can get, you’ll stand a better chance of placing, while in others cadence is far more important than speed.

When evaluating working western horses, such as cutters or reiners, specific maneuvers are required and there are specific penalties for certain disobediences. In the trail class, horses are scored on how well they negotiate obstacles, with points subtracted for various faults -- no matter how the horse carries himself. As long as he follows the class specifications and completes each task properly, he will stand a chance of placing even though he may never be a World Champion Western pleasure mount.

The differences between Open Hunter/Jumper circuit horses and Arabian Hunter pleasure horses, for instance, is night and day. There is a distinct advantage for a flat-kneed “daisy cutter” Thoroughbred Hunter on the flat at a rated H/J event, while their Arabian counterparts are generally rounder, higher trotting movers. With flat saddle entries, Morgan and Arabian English horses are far more likely to exhibit what we call “tightness” in the bridle, a most desired trait, though American Saddlebreds frequently compete with their noses out and forward, though the frame is generally similar.

On the Dressage court, horses are scored on individual movements within what’s called a “test”, and a rider’s individual score is given as a percentage. At each level the scoring is tougher and the movements are more difficult. Larger, rounder, scopier movers do better than shorter strided animals; while in the Hunter/Jumper world you basically have two different worlds in one. Hunters Over Fences are judged on how they jump -- their form, steadiness of frame and even, well regulated speed are what is sought by judges, in addition to correct conformation. Jumpers, on the other hand, don’t need to look good in order to excel, they simply need to get over the fences without knocking rails down (or refusing) and do it FAST.

If you wish to succeed in the show ring, there are a variety of steps you can take before that big leap of actually competing. First, you should be attending shows to spectate with individuals knowledgeable about how things do work, who you can ask such things as what gaits or maneuvers are being asked for and why a horse may either get a lower score or a lower placing than another similar horse. Talk to as any people involved in that scene as you can, exhibitors, trainers, judges and show officials. These are the people who have the background and education and who can guide you in the right direction.

Something you will inevitably hear, universally in all breeds and disciplines, is the hot button word “politics”, and to be sure, they DO exist. During your show ring career, you will surely see horses which either do not conform to class specifications yet win, horses that are arguably (or visibly) lame who win and horses exhibited in a manner contrary to the rules in some other way and still win, among other scenarios. The facts are, it’s all part of the game and you either need to learn to live with it or work to change it. Once you know and understand what judges should be looking for, and you see a glaring example of political (or otherwise poor) judging, be sure to take thorough notes and explain exactly how and why you object if you wish to protest or make a difference in some way in regard to such behavior. Too many people refuse to take a stand against abuses in and surrounding our show rings, or just don’t want to get involved. Kudos to those who feel otherwise.

A few more unrelated words of caution regarding the show ring: In some circles, on some upper levels of showing, there will also invariably be questions regarding some certain practices which you may find objectionable that are considered normal and routine by those more experienced, such as drugging, various shoeing gimmickery, equipment which doesn’t meet standards of acceptability and more. Some little tricks of the trade and tips are fine. Those which violate the rules (or the law) are most certainly not. A trainer’s job is to know and understand all the rules of the association[s] under which they show, and to abide by them for the benefit of the horses, their clients and the sport itself. If you are going it alone without a trainer on the show circuit, it’s also YOUR job to know those rules just as well. Should you not have a copy of the requisite rule book[s], get one. Read it from cover to cover so you know and fully understand what those rules are, what is expected and what the penalties are for violating the rules. Remember: Even if your horse is with a trainer, YOU will be held liable for any violations incurred while your horse is under the trainer’s care.

Best of luck...and be sure to have fun, because that’s what it’s really all about!

What Is That Judge Looking For?

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset of this installment -- there IS a difference between a judge who does his or her job right and one who doesn’t know any better. Let me rephrase that a little bit, though -- the difference is between judges who do a good job and those who are more concerned with advancing their own agenda. Frequently this can be attributed to nothing more than the age-old adage “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. Very rarely is it due to a real lack of education. For some reason, in recent years I’ve felt compelled to argue placings far more often than earlier in my career, probably because I’ve had enough experience these days to know the difference between good and bad judging.

What if you want to get involved in judging, but you don’t know where to start? Not only am I going to cover how to be a good judge (and that’s a tough assignment!), but I’ll begin with how you go about starting out with such a career. Honestly, the only real way to tell if a judge is worthwhile is to see them in action, so these “judging schools” and the like are a little bit of a deception. You can get a good deal of background while attending -- they’re mandatory in many breeds or disciplines, and you will probably go through rigorous training to test how much you know the rules, but if you don’t follow them, any education you receive will be worthless.

My judging career began in Youth Judging Contests, and that was a far better education than any school environment I’ve encountered to date. While my area of choice and specialty was the Arabian breed, these contests and programs are offered in many breeds and through various civic organizations, such as FFA (Future Farmers of America) and 4-H. That education started out by us collectively attending local horse shows and listening intently as our accredited coaches painstakingly explained what we SHOULD be looking for in each class, pointing out correct and incorrect examples of participants in many different events.

It was also expected that we would memorize the AHSA (American Horse Shows Association, now called the USEF -- United States Equestrian Federation) rule book as well, in which all of the show ring rules appear in the Arabian breed. Other breeds, such as AQHA, PtHA, APHA and more, have their own rule books with their own special rules.

We were also given photographs out of magazines and asked to “judge” groups of four horses against each other based only on what we could see in the pictures and after having been given the parameters of the “class” by our coaches, such as if the horses were aged mares or three year old colts for the Halter classes. From there we were expected to be able to go back to the shows themselves and “judge” the different classes presented. Sometimes you would agree 100% with the official show judges and your coaches, sometimes you would not. If you didn’t agree, as long as you had a good argument for your own placings, you didn’t receive point deductions.

One of the most valuable parts of this early education was called “giving reasons”. At the contests, you had to judge a total of eight to ten classes, usually either four Halter and four or six performance, or four performance and four or six Halter. Two each of the Halter and performance classes were reasons classes, where your notes had better be thorough. Giving oral reasons was where you made your justification for placing the classes as you had placed them, regardless of whether or not your placings agreed with the officials. Classes always had four horses in them, and you split your classes into a top pair (1st and 2nd), a middle pair (2nd and 3rd) and a bottom pair (3rd and 4th). It was necessary to explain why you placed a certain horse first, then you had to grant something back to your second place horse, or the lower horse in a given pair, but then give your final basis for why you placed each pair as you did. If you were good at reasons, you might be forgiven your placings. Did I mention you had to MEMORIZE your placings in the reasons classes and MEMORIZE your reasons themselves? Reasons were given with you, the youth contestant, standing with your hands clasped behind your back in front of an official sitting there looking you over almost expecting you to stumble over your words. Talk about tough!

You may be asking, how will this help me today, as an exhibitor, in learning the ropes of judging properly? Simple. Seek out a similar education and you’ll be well on your way to gaining a better understanding of what is expected of a judge. Sounds intriguing? In the Arabian breed these days there is actually an Adult Judging Contest where you can test your knowledge of vitally important points like how well you understand form-to-function and if you know the rules well enough to notice someone who’s in violation. There is nothing more valuable than just going to shows and watching what’s going on, but don’t forget your rule book. As a judge (and for us trainers, too), that’s your ‘bible’.

The first criteria of a good judge is someone not afraid to adhere strictly to the rules, regardless of the political consequences. As I’ve mentioned before, there are politics in horse showing, so don’t fool yourself. The difference between a good judge and a political one, regardless of the education level or how well they may know horseflesh, is that a good judge looks for excellent specimens in Halter classes and good horses that turn in solid performances under saddle -- a good judge is one who sticks with horses which most exemplify what’s written verbatim in the rule book without regard to who’s in the saddle or on the end of the lead shank.

With Halter classes, it’s fairly easy to spot the faux pas, although too often even real faults are overlooked there for one reason or another. Showing techniques for exhibiting Arabian Halter horses are designed with one purpose in mind, and that’s to deceive. In other breeds there will naturally be less of the posing and posturing to hide faults, but many of them have much looser rules on alterations and falsifying the horses, thus giving you an un-natural appearance to begin with. Just look at the false tails and all that comes with it.

Let me give you another couple of perfect examples, this time in the performance arena, which are personal pet peeves of mine...and yes, these pertain to the Arabian show ring: To start, Country English Pleasure. Our AHA (Arabian Horse Association) handbook states all Arabian show ring rules are contained in the USEF rule book, and those rules must be followed for each class or event. Within that rule book, the Arabian Division rules state for the Country English division as follows -- only specific sections pulled out, those not pertinent are not included here, and sections highlighted in bold, italic text then underlined are of particular interest:

Article 1625. Qualifying Gaits.

It is imperative that the horse give the distinct appearance of being a pleasure to ride. A quiet, responsive mouth is paramount. All gaits must be performed with willingness and obvious ease, cadence, balance and smoothness.

1. Walk, a four-beat gait: To be true, flat-footed and ground covering.

2. Normal Trot, a two-beat gait: To be an overall balanced, relaxed, easy-going trot with elasticity and freedom of movement. High action MUST be penalized. Posting is required.

3. Strong Trot, a two-beat gait: To be faster with lengthened stride, maintaining balance, ease and freedom of movement. High action MUST be penalized. Posting is required.

4. Canter, a three-beat gait: To be smooth, unhurried, straight and correct on both leads.

5. Hand Gallop: To be a faster gait, lengthened stride and controlled, straight and correct on both leads. Extreme speed MUST be penalized.

Article 1626. Arabian Country English Pleasure Class Specifications.

1. OPEN, MAIDEN, NOVICE, LIMIT, STALLIONS, MARES, GELDINGS. To be shown at a walk, normal trot, strong trot, canter and hand gallop. It is mandatory that horses be asked to halt on the rail, stand quietly, back, and walk off on a loose rein at least one direction of the ring. To be judged on attitude, manners, performance, quality and conformation, in that order. It is imperative that the horse give the distinct appearance of being a pleasure to ride. A quiet, responsive mouth is paramount.

2. JUNIOR HORSE (five years old and under). To be shown at a walk, normal trot and canter. It is mandatory that horses be asked to halt on the rail, stand quietly, back, and walk off on a loose rein at least one direction of the ring. To be judged on attitude, manners, quality, and performance, in that order. It is imperative that the horse give the distinct appearance of being a pleasure to ride. A quiet, responsive mouth is paramount.

3. ATR, JTR, AOTR, AAOTR, JOTR, LIMITED, LADIES, GENTLEMEN. To be shown at a walk, normal trot and canter. It is mandatory that horses be asked to halt on the rail, stand quietly, back, and walk off on a loose rein at least one direction of the ring. To be judged on attitude, manners, performance, quality, conformation and suitability of horse to rider. It is imperative that the horse give the distinct appearance of being a pleasure to ride. A quiet, responsive mouth is paramount.

There are several things which should stand out to anyone reading the above rule, and they include the MANDATORY PENALTY for high knee action in this division, that horses are supposed to be able to halt, stand quietly, back readily then walk off on a LOOSE REIN and they must give the distinct appearance of being a PLEASURE TO RIDE. In today’s Arabian show ring, the vast majority of the horses competing in Country English Pleasure classes are too fancy, with far higher knee action than the class was designed to reward, most of them cannot walk off on a loose rein as they are required to do and they certainly do not look like they’re pleasurable to ride. This is a clear cut case of judges pinning incorrect horses because they either don’t understand the rules, or more likely they don’t care.

Oftentimes a judge will forgive violations of rule book specifications simply because they like the individual horse, or worse, they like the rider of the horse. The most glaring examples of political, BAD judging are those who pin horses that do not follow class specs, but the rider or handler will be judging them at an upcoming show, alluding to that back scratching I mentioned above.

It’s also been said by others as well as myself that many of today’s judges who are also show ring trainers have created a whole different horse than we started with, so they can monopolize that show ring with extremes. The concept of how and why is easy to understand -- Owners want their horses to win, so they place them in training with a trainer who has a reputation for winning. Trainers need the clients to stay in business and make a living, so they do whatever it takes to win for those owners. They know, many of them anyways, if the horses don’t win every time out, they’ll lose horses out of their training barn. When trends and standards are set, it’s by trainers for trainers in a small little circle of those who judge each other. It’s a devilish catch-22, and for those who either refuse to play the game or who don’t have the clout to play the game, it can be devastating.

In my opinion, those who jump into the frying pan of politics simply to win (and the horses be damned) have compromised their standards, and I simply WON’T go there. That said...

Another sore spot for me in my beloved Arabian breed is the English Show Hack division. Our AHA and USEF Arabian Division rules state the following -- again, non pertinent sections removed and the most important parts highlighted:

Article 1633. Qualifying Gaits.

A Show Hack horse is not necessarily a Dressage horse, nor an English Pleasure horse of the Arabian Division. Elevation and high knee action are not to be emphasized. The Show Hack is a suitable section for the well trained animal. Show Hacks must be balanced and show vitality, animation, presence, clean fine limbs and supreme quality. Soundness is required. The collected and extended gaits must be called for; i.e., collected walk, extended walk, normal walk; collected trot, extended trot, normal trot; collected canter, extended canter, normal canter and hand gallop. At the discretion of the judge, horses while on the rail may be asked to halt and rein-back. A Show Hack shall be able to perform all of these gaits with a noticeable transition between the normal, collected, and extended gaits. The horse must be under complete control and easily ridden. Obedience to the rider is of prime importance. If the horse exhibits clear transitions in a balanced and level manner, appearing to be giving a comfortable and pleasurable ride, he is performing correctly for this class.

1. Walk, a four-beat gait: Straight, true and flat-footed.

a) Normal Walk: Regular and unconstrained, moving energetically and calmly forward.

b) Collected Walk: Strides are shorter and higher than at the normal walk. The head approaches the vertical, but should never move behind it. Pacing is a serious fault.

c) Extended Walk: The horse is allowed to lengthen frame and stride while rider maintains light rein contact. The horse should cover as much ground as possible without rushing.

2. Trot, a two-beat gait: Free-moving, straight, rider maintaining light contact with horse’s mouth at all times.

a) Normal Trot: Light, crisp, balanced and cadenced, with rider posting.

b) Collected Trot: The horse’s stride is shorter and lighter, maintaining balance and impulsion. The neck is more raised and arched than at the normal trot as head approaches the vertical line, never moving behind it. Rider is sitting.

c) Extended Trot: Maintaining the same cadence and performing at medium speed, the horse lengthens its stride as a result of greater impulsion from the hindquarters. Horse should remain light in rider’s hand as it lengthens its frame. Rider is posting.

3. Canter, a three-beat gait: Straight on both leads, smooth.

a) Normal Canter: Light even strides, should be moved into without hesitation.

b) Collected Canter: Marked by the lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, the collected canter is characterized by supple, free shoulders. Neck is more raised and arched than in normal canter as the head approaches the vertical line, never moving behind it.

c) Extended Canter: Maintaining the same cadence, the horse lengthens its stride as a result of greater impulsion from the hindquarters. Horse should remain light in rider’s hand as it lengthens its frame.

4. Hand Gallop: The hand gallop is performed with a long, free, ground covering stride. The amount of ground covered may vary between horses due to difference in natural length of stride. The distinction between hand gallop and extended canter is, the latter being the ultimate linear extension of stride within the hand of the rider; the hand gallop being a looser, more free elongation of stride and frame of the horse. A decided lengthening of stride should be shown while the horse remains controlled, mannerly, correct and straight on both leads. Extreme speed to be penalized.

Article 1634. Arabian English Show Hack Class Specifications.

1. OPEN, MAIDEN, NOVICE, LIMIT, STALLIONS, MARES, GELDINGS, JUNIOR HORSE, ATR, JTR, AOTR, AAOTR, JOTR, LADIES, GENTLEMEN. To be shown at a walk, trot, canter, and hand gallop; collected and extended and normal gaits to be called for, to stand quietly and back readily. To be judged on manners, performance, quality and conformation.

That description mentions, many times over, key words like lengthen and shorten stride and frame. Years ago I characterized this class as being a “pleasure class based on the principles of Dressage”, because of the extended and collected gaits called for. Therein this division provides a dilemma, because we don’t otherwise have extended and collected gaits (other than the strong trot in our open Country and English classes as well as the hand gallop in open CEP, EP, Western Pleasure and all Hunter Pleasure classes), yet Dressage isn’t ridden on the rail. Some Dressage purists can’t stand the class. It’s mostly beloved by rail class aficionados.

The problem with Show Hack also lies in the lack of adherence to the rules. Once again, many judges are not pinning horses who show real COLLECTION and EXTENSION of stride and frame, preferring to simply choose animals that speed up and slow down. Moreso than with Country pleasure, an awful lot of Arabian judges don’t know what to look for in a Show Hack horse. Likewise for Hunter pleasure, but that’s another story altogether. Too many Arabian judges are so used to specializing in either Western or Saddleseat English horses they have neglected to understand what’s required in other disciplines. That wouldn’t be so bad if they actually cared, but I’m not going to hold my breath just yet. Okay, off that well worn soapbox for now!

I’ve also seen too many things which raised an eyebrow in the stock breeds, so I’ll delve into that next. Some years back there was a major problem in the Quarter Horse industry’s show ring which lead to the term ‘peanut roller’ being tagged onto a majority of the winning Western pleasure horses. Ultimately, the AQHA instituted a rule which prohibited horses that carried their poll a certain distance below the withers from being pinned in pleasure classes.

Sadly, we still see too many Quarter Horses (and Paints, too) who carry themselves too low or have precious little carriage at all, among other things. Frequently I’m also confronted with seeing stock breed horses, especially in the Western pleasure classes, who look downright crippled. I don’t mean merely lame, I mean as if they can’t move out of their own tracks and may fall down if they try. Shockingly to me, these are sometimes winning mounts and ridden by youths or amateurs. The worst of all, however, is that such movement is encouraged by the trainers and judges who pin them.

Therein lies another point to remember when judging: Good movement is good movement, no matter if the horse is a Quarter horse, Arabian, Paint horse, Morgan, Appaloosa or Tennessee Walker. Following such dreadful trends -- or the others I continually see, such as four-beating at the lope or canter and traveling literally sideways down the rail rather than straight -- is nothing short of bad judging. Period. That, and in my opinion poor training. Once again, some of this is both encouraged by trainers and rewarded by judges. I can honestly say I just don’t get it. So many of us do our best to project positive images in the show ring, it gets pretty tough when you have folks, colleagues, who insist on spoiling things.

In closing, the most valuable lesson you can learn regarding how to judge correctly is to take your time and learn how horses work. Form to function and then decipher the reasons behind our show ring rules. Once you accomplish that, you’ll be set and far more prepared to show your own horses, or get your judge’s card should you decide to pursue such a goal.



  1. I have to say, SFTF--I am really enjoying this blog. It's quite a treat to talk about, just, horses!
    Especially a "horse world" that is really different from mine, even though I've been considering dabbling in Arab shows, since my boy is a half-arab. Not that I care too much about what color ribbon, if any! Just want to have fun, get out and about with my boy and see what we can do.
    But this post has kind of scared me off. Seems like the Arab-Sporthorse classes are more low-key (like, the classes take place in the "alternate" arena) and supposed to be judged according to the criteria you specified, but since they seemed to be judged as an "extra aside" (like, a bit of more income) for the Halter or Hunter judges, seems like it could be pointless? Unless you study various judges and ride for the ones you respect...

  2. I'm with you littledog--I'm enjoying this blog too. I look forward to new posts.

    I haven't shown since 4H, but I have to admit, I've started to catch the bug. I have a coming 4 y/o that would enjoy a trail class. He's brave and curious and will go anywhere you point him. Then there's the expense....tsk, tsk.

    I wanted to comment on the post regarding show prep. I really enjoyed the information. Even though I only trail ride I take a lot of pride in the way my horses are turned out. I groom like a 100 people are going to see my horse out on the trail. My husband thinks I'm nuts. Maybe so, but when my horses shine so do I.:)

  3. Thanks so much gals! I really honestly appreciate the nice comments, and I love talking horses!! :)

    Littledog, don't let this post scare you off from the Arabian show ring. :-D There are bad apples in all breeds and disciplines, I don't let it discourage me and tell my clients the same.

    I have a number of clients who really love the Sport Horse ring, even though they are sort of considered the "step children" of the Arabian show ring. There are some MR (main ring, meaning traditional Halter and the Pleasure classes, etc) trainers who look down upon Sport Horses, but they thankfully are becoming fewer. I like it because my clients can show themselves and not have to worry about the "stand up" in Halter classes. Plus, their horses are judged on how well they move and how they are conformed, not how well they "show"!

    You should come on out to one of the Arabian Sport Horse shows, just to watch and see. :)

  4. Thanks, I'll do that. Go to a few shows as a spectator and see if it seems worthwhile and fun.

    I have a silly question for you--what is "Showmanship" all about? I have no clue if Arab shows even have this, but since all I've ever done is Eventing, Dressage and Jumpers, you must have more of a clue than I do (since I know absolutely zilch.)
    We have a fun benefit show coming up, that looks to me like a fun way to get back into showing (assuming my horse's soreness problems will be solved by then.) It has a "Showmanship" class--so what do you do, lead your horse around according to some kind of pattern? Does grooming count? Cause I'll give him a bath and paint his hooves with the good-smelling black stuff, but there's no way I'm sanding his hooves! Or wearing anything sequined!
    I know, I'm boring when it comes to presentation. I hate dress-up kind of stuff. My Mom has always found this very frustrating. I will do a clean horse and appropriate attire, but not much else.

  5. Showmanship as a class is, in simple language, how well the handler presents the horse. I can do a post on that if you like! In fact I have one already partially written. :)

    Yes, there will be a pattern determined by the judge. Usually it's posted outside the arena so it can be studied by the entrants first. Grooming is of utmost importance, just having a really clean, well groomed horse that is neatly clipped. For attire it all depends on how you show the horse ~ a Hunt coat, breeches, tall boots and helmet are perfectly acceptable, but you've got to show the horse in a plain snaffle Hunter-type bridle, and he's got to be braided. No over-the-top hoof prep needed, and no sequins necessary! :)

    In Arabian shows, our Showmanship classes (like Equitation) are reserved for the youth exhibitors, though I would like to see that change.

    You will probably be asked to perform a few basic maneuvers, such as backing the horse a few steps or a pivot turn, and Showmanship etiquette dictates that you learn what we call the "quarters", meaning you never block the judge's view of your horse, and need to move from one side to the other as your judge inspects the two of you. You'll be judged on how well you show the horse, and your horse will need to know how to "square up" in hand, in other words, adopt a proper "show stance" (though it doesn't have to be like a traditional Arabian Halter horse).

    There are a few videos on youtube of Showmanship, as well as some great articles available online. Just don't let the AQHA and APHA videos or descriptions scare you off! :) They are extreme in their dedication to the class, and almost robotic. I can find you some links if you like, too.


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