Are some equitation judges penalizing riders who let go of a rein to pat their horse following a round? Trainer and USEF R-rated judge Ellen Shevella sparked an online conversation about this topic about two months ago. She expressed concern that judges were penalizing riders for holding the reins in one hand while patting their horse with the other on the premise that it constituted a “loss of rein” and violated a rule in the U.S. Equestrian Federation Rulebook.
“I had two exhibitors alarmed by what happened ask me about it,” said Shevella, who’d heard anecdotes about this and decided to open it up for debate on her Facebook page. The post generated more than 200 comments from professionals on both sides of the issue.
Trainers shared instances where their students had points deducted or were disqualified for letting go of a rein to pat a horse, including an instance trainer and U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Joint Equitation Task Force member Virginia Edwards, of Upperville, Va., witnessed in the past year, where a rider patted her horse after a score had already been announced.
“The one time that I saw it happen, a rider in the equitation class reached down and petted the horse, and the judge changed the score,” said Edwards, who didn’t recall who the rider or judge was.
Trainers defending the penalty cited two rules: The first is the directive from the USEF Rulebook that states riders are being judged from the time they enter the ring until they exit the ring.
Secondly, a “loss of rein” rule can be found in the USEF Rulebook under the heading “EQ 110 Class Routine” which states that a loss of rein (along with a refusal, a loss of stirrup, and trotting on course) constitutes a “major fault” and may be cause for elimination from a class.
According to Stacia Madden, trainer at Beacon Hill Show Stables in Colts Neck, N.J., and co-chairman of the USHJA Joint Equitation Task Force, the loss of rein rule is not meant to penalize patting, and the task force is addressing the issue by adding a sentence or rewording the existing loss of rein rule to clarify the difference between losing a rein and putting the reins in one hand to pat the horse.
“It is being handled with the USHJA Joint Equitation Task Force to clarify, because that is absolutely not the intent of losing your reins,” Madden said. “Your reins are actually bridged when you pet your horse, and losing your rein is when you drop it, like when your horse trips or stumbles, and you’re grabbing for your reins. We are in the process of clarifying that at the moment because that is not to be penalized.”
One person on Shevella’s Facebook thread suggested that riders wait until exiting the ring to pat their horse. Trainer and member of the USHJA Joint Equitation Task Force Missy Clark, of North Run in Warren, Vt., and Wellington, Fla., responded to the idea, explaining that a delayed reward doesn’t mean the same thing to a horse.
“One lady said after one of my comments, ‘Well why can’t they just wait till they leave the ring?’ and I think I said, ‘That’d be like your kid’s birthday being on Tuesday, and you tell him ‘Happy Birthday’ on Wednesday,’ ” said Clark.
R-rated judge Paddy Downing-Nyegard doesn’t mind a little touch on the neck following an equitation round, but she doesn’t believe riders should be rewarded for going overboard in their praising.
“If you’re in an equitation class, and you’re done, and you’re five or 10 strides from the gate, you’re still being judged on your form and horsemanship,” said Downing-Nyegard, of Brunsville, N.C. “Abandoning contact on your horse’s mouth and completely leaning over and giving them a hug or patting them is probably not the right thing to do.
“If you’re four strides from the gate, and you put your reins in one hand and pat their neck, and you don’t lean over their neck or lose your position to do it, I think that’s perfectly fine,” Downing-Nyegard continued. “It’s one of those fine lines.”
Downing-Nyegard doesn’t think a rule change or modification is merited, however.
“It should not be in the rules because it’s already in the rules that you’re judged from the time you walk in the ring till the time you leave,” Downing-Nyegard said. “It’s up to the judges on how they judge the round.”
Clark believes that deducting points for pats is not acceptable. She cites an example of one of her own students, Kimberly McCormack, patting her horse in an effort to comfort him when he was startled by applause at the 2007 Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals (Pa.).
“[Kimberly] halted, and the crowd erupted screaming and whistling, and he got a little edgy and danced around after the halt a little bit,” Clark said. “And her reaction was instantaneous—she smiled and patted him. I’ll never forget that moment; it’s ingrained in my head thinking, ‘Wow, what a great reaction.’”
Clark said she was surprised when people approached her at the in-gate following McCormack’s round, asking her whether or not she thought McCormack would be penalized for her reaction.
“I said, ‘What are you talking about? How does it constitute a riding error? She executed the test, she showed the halt and people screamed and yelled and he acted like a horse?’ ” Clark said.
McCormack ended up winning Medal Finals that year, and Clark references the story to support her belief that there’s nothing wrong with patting a horse in the ring—it’s just good horsemanship.
“I was taught growing up to give your horse a pat if you need to influence him to relax a little bit or you want to reward him for his performance,” Clark explained. “That’s a shame if our sport has come to the point where that’s considered a fault.”
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