Judging: It Isn’t As Glamorous As You Might Think!

Jul 24, 2017 - 2:13 PM

At the risk of bursting the bubble of any aspiring horse show judges, our columnist explains that the job “isn’t all mink and pearls.”

Ever since I began competing as a young rider, I was in awe of the judges. They appeared to be god-like figures in my eyes. They were larger-than-life officials who decided the fate of my happiness or unhappiness for weeks to come. I was fascinated by them to the extent of keeping journals of individual judges’ likes and dislikes. I went so far as not to compete at shows judged by those who did not like my horse!

I dreamed of becoming a judge and flying around the world. I would become so rich and famous that I would have my own private jet and pilot. I would get picked up in a limo, stay at The Ritz Carlton, sit in an air-conditioned booth, and preside over the festivities while being served tea sandwiches and cocktails. I would have countless wardrobes and formal attire with matching shoes and handbags. My jewelry would complement each outfit. I imagined receiving lots of fan mail and thousands of dollars per day for my appearance. I envisioned five-course meals and wine tasting at the end of a pleasant day of watching beautiful horses. I would have time to get my hair and nails done, maybe squeeze in some shopping and a massage before dining with the other officials.

Years later I did become a licensed official, but I was in for a reality check!

I always considered being asked to judge a horse show an honor, only bestowed on the most sought-after horsemen and experts in the field. However, the reality is that judging jobs are often given to those who are on a manager’s list of regulars, who return year after year to the same venue. Sometimes they get on the list because they solicit to judge for less money or no expenses. Sometimes they’re friends of management or in the good old boys’ club of professional judges who make a living of judging week after week.

Oftentimes, once you’ve been contacted to judge a show, you never receive an official contract sent from management. The judge is responsible for making her own travel arrangements well in advance to secure the best rate for airfare and rental cars (and pay for it, then be reimbursed later).

It’s management’s responsibility to organize hotel accommodations, but often it isn’t a very nice or even clean place. Communicating with the official regarding hotel and address isn’t always done.

So, you make your flight arrangements and get the name of the hotel. But your departing flight is late, and you miss the connection. Luckily you get a later flight, but when you finally get to the destination, rent a car and arrive at the hotel, it’s after midnight, and they have given your room away. And they are full. Do you sleep in the lobby since the manager’s phone is turned off, and you don’t have another contact number? Or do you find another hotel for the night and hope to get reimbursed and have things straightened out in the morning?

Arriving at the showgrounds 30-45 minutes ahead of start time, the office staff usually doesn’t know or care who you are, much less know which ring you’re supposed to be judging.

Finding your way to the judge’s booth at an unfamiliar venue in plenty of time is crucial. The judge has to make sure she has a chair, table or desk to write on, shade or shelter from the elements, a garbage can, and make sure she knows the proximity to the nearest Porta-Jon. Cleaning up the booth from the officials who left garbage and food from the day before, removing wasp nests, and cleaning off tables, chairs and windows so you can see the ring is next on the list!

Searching for courses and figuring out announcers’ and starters’ names is next. Calling frantically on the radio for the course designer because the pillars and bushes are obstructing the view is next necessary. The first horse is walking in the ring, and all hell breaks loose!

The fourth horse is on course when the starter informs the judge there is no ground line on the first fence, and the previous riders want a re-ride. The class of eight takes two hours to run because the trainer of Debbie Delay has a conflict with the other ring. After hours of boredom you’re reading a book to stay awake and look up in time to see a horse land over the third fence because the starter stepped away, and the announcer fell asleep, so you weren’t alerted there was an exhibitor finally ready. It has begun to rain, and the judges’ cards are wet. The ink won’t write on the cards anymore. It’s freezing.

It’s almost 1:30 p.m., and nobody has come around with a lunch order, nor food or drink of any kind. After getting someone on the radio to take an order they ask for money and return with the cold, stale food an hour later.

The steward approaches saying a father needs to talk to the judge because he is very upset Susie Que didn’t win.

The manager shows up and introduces himself, then says this class we’re about to pin will be judged with a California split, so we need 16 ribbons.

The show drags on, and it’s 6 p.m., but some classes from the other ring just got moved to your ring, so another 30 rounds to go. And the steward reminds you the irate father, who now has been drinking, is still waiting to speak to you.

The announcer broadcasts that the rings will all start at 7 a.m. tomorrow now due to the size of the schedule.

There are four cards open, and the starter is smoking a joint and can’t decipher which class the horse entering the ring will be judged on. Then he gives the wrong number. The radios are dead by now, and the sun is going down. The rain returns, and the riders’ numbers are impossible to see. The announcer is on his cell phone talking to his wife and can’t help.

It’s 7:45 p.m., and the show is finished for the day. As you gather your belongings and try to leave the booth cleaner than you found it, you’re accosted by the drunk, belligerent dad who demands to know why his daughter didn’t win in a class at 10 a.m. The steward is nowhere to be found, and the announcer is already speeding away in his car. The starter is with a group of teenage girls, and they’re playing loud music and don’t even notice you’re about to get beat up.

You somehow manage to get away from the staggering bully and get back to the office to turn in your cards for the day. The show secretary is unhappy because the class numbers are wrong on your cards from earlier in the day, and they need to be fixed.

You drag yourself to your hotel room and turn on your cell phone to find 30 emails, a couple of phone messages and countless texts from home. You’re so exhausted you don’t have time to read them, let alone answer them.

You’re starving, but room service ended at 9 p.m., and the vending machine only has candy and cookies. You choose to sleep instead, and then your alarm goes off!

Ugh! Time to shower, dress and make a mad dash to the show. You arrive in time to get in the coffee line at the catering truck, but it’s a mile long, and nobody knows who you are or offers to let you have cuts. You give up and head to your booth.

Today you have the main ring with another judge. You’ve never met or even heard of this person before, but you’re required to judge together today. And he lights up a cigarette. OMG, this is going to be a long day. He talks nonstop about his girlfriend, and you can’t concentrate. Neither can he. It’s only 9 a.m., and you have a splitting headache. You begin to think you are going to die of smoke inhalation. Maybe commit murder by suffocating him with the raincoat you smartly brought today. He has brought his own food, which is smart because obviously that is the only way you eat around here, but he is grossing you out by smacking his lips and chewing loudly. And belching! Really?

It’s open numerical scoring today, and he isn’t paying attention. When you suggest a score, he argues with you but can’t suggest a different one. Between classes he leaves the booth and talks to numerous exhibitors, and you overhear him throw you under the bus for the placing in question for the last class.

He returns, and you wish he would choke on the gum he is smacking. You suggest you judge independently, and he is appalled. Will this day ever end? He’s now on the phone playing games when it’s not his round, even sometimes when it is. At least he isn’t talking!

Somehow you get through the day and make it back to the hotel just in time to order room service. But they are out of the food you want to order, so you end up ordering a disgusting thing you would not normally eat because you are starving.

The next day comes too quickly, and the unanswered phone calls, emails and text messages are piling up. You turn on the television while you’re dressing to find out it will be a hot day. Change clothes quickly, and out the door you go. This time you’re stopping at a convenience store to buy water and snacks.

You arrive at the show to discover you will be in the back ring today. Yeah! Peace and quiet. But when you arrive you find you have a learner judge who failed to contact you in advance. And she’s wearing short shorts and a see-through T-shirt. You’re more embarrassed for her than pissed off, so you hide her in the booth so nobody can see her. She has brought no judges’ cards, clipboard, or even a pencil. You try to do your due diligence by helping the next generation of judges develop a system. However, she doesn’t know much about anything! Not about rules, class description, routine, marking a card, protocol, horses in general, and certainly not about proper dress to be an official.

You’re supposed to be judging, not giving a clinic on what hunters are judged on and how to act! Then she reaches over and starts eating your food.

OK, you keep your chin up and decide she could be useful. You give her money and send her for coffee and lunch. Two hours pass. You are both thankful for the silence and worried she isn’t coming back. When she returns in the afternoon, she explains she had some errands to run. You’re just glad she brought the food and change back.

At the end of the day she thanks you and asks if you’ll write a recommendation so she can get her license and maybe you could get her some jobs as well.

You are speechless. And exhausted.

The final day arrives, and you are mentally drained. You have packed, checked out of your hotel and fueled up the rental car. You go to the office to get your cards and radio. You ask the show secretary if there is an expense report you need to fill out, hinting about your paycheck. Also you remind them you have a 7 p.m. flight. They don’t care.

The day drags on with many delays, and you began to worry about making that flight. The airport is only 20 minutes away, but you need to be in the car by 5:30 p.m. in order to have time to return the rental car and take the bus to the terminal. There’s a thunderstorm on the radar, and everyone is told to return to the barns; the show is on hold. After 45 minutes the show resumes. It’s 5:30 p.m., and you are waiting on one last rider to trade horses and come from the jumper ring. You haven’t seen anyone with your paycheck. Everything is packed, and you’re organized with your results, awaiting the last rider. They appear in the warm-up ring. Yeah! Hurry! Then the starter radios over that the horse lost a shoe. They need the farrier. You wait 15 minutes to find out the farrier already left the showgrounds. So they are going to scratch. You quickly write your results on the card, thank the announcer, and bolt to the office. There is a line out the door.

Hoping to somehow make that flight you push through to the front and hand your clipboard in. You aren’t thanked or even acknowledged. Nobody is there with your paycheck profusely thanking you for coming and doing a great job.

You aren’t waiting. They can mail you the check. You just want to go home!

You beeline it to the rental car return. Drag your suitcases on the bus and wait while the bus driver absentmindedly plays on his cell phone. After several more people board, the bus departs. You check your bags and get your boarding pass, only to learn the flight is delayed, and you’ll miss your connection. You will have to rebook a flight for the next day, and because the delay was weather related the airline offers no compensation. There’s a hotel at the airport that offers a distress rate of $350/night. Since you no longer have a rental car, and the next flight leaves at 5 a.m., you decide to book that room. After a nice meal (only one of the week) your food and hotel bill equals one day’s judging pay, as the show doesn’t pay for the extra night or any change fees for airfare.

You finally get home and try to get caught up with your emails and phone calls. There are some judging job inquiries. But you aren’t sure if you’re ready to tackle another show quite yet. Or if you even want to keep your license.

I personally have experienced all of the above scenarios, fortunately not all at the same show!

I also have experienced many wonderful shows, great management, fabulous show secretaries, announcers and starters. I have been lucky enough to judge special events where I was picked up in a limo, put up at beautiful hotels, taken to amazing restaurants, treated like royalty during the show, had easy schedules and judged with many wonderful horsemen.

But more often than not, judging is not a glamorous experience. It’s a mentally and physically demanding job that requires focus and stamina. Judging requires good judgment and a strong opinion that you aren’t afraid of sharing. The rounds don’t look the same from the in-gate as the judge’s stand. And judges are only human and certainly make mistakes.

I hope that exhibitors, trainers and parents will appreciate the thankless job that judging often is. I would like to acknowledge the good job most judges do week after week, under not always ideal circumstances!


Julie Winkel has been a licensed hunter, equitation, hunter breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon (Pa.), the Pennsylvania National, Washington International (D.C.), Capital Challenge (Md.), the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Upperville (Va.). She has designed the courses and judged the equitation finals. 

She has trained and shown hunters and jumpers to the top level and was a winner of multiple grand prix competitions and many hunter championships.

Winkel serves as the co-chair of the USEF Licensed Officials Committee and chairman of the USEF Continuing Education Committee, chairman of the USHJA Judges Task Force and the USHJA Officials Education Committee. She serves on the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Committee, Trainer Certification and Zone 10 Jumper Committees. She also sits on the Young Jumper Championships board of directors.

Winkel owns and operates Maplewood Inc., a 150-acre training, sales and breeding facility, standing grand prix jumpers Osilvis and Cartouche Z in Reno, Nev. Maplewood Inc. also offers a year-round internship program for aspiring horse professionals.

She writes a monthly column for Practical Horseman’s “Conformation Clinic” and is a contributing columnist to Warmbloods Today magazine as well as an EquestrianCoach.com blogger.

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