Under AHSA USEF U.S. Equestrian rules, one of the few equestrian activities an amateur can accept money for is judging. A person becomes qualified to judge a “rated” show when they’ve completed a long process of learning and apprenticing, and when they’ve become officially certified.
A person becomes qualified to judge a local schooling show when they have a reasonable idea what they’re looking at, and when nobody else will do it.
Having competed for 40+ years, I’ve easily exceeded the “10,000 hour rule” scrutinizing Equus Ferus Caballus in its horse show environment. I hate to brag, but I’ve adjudicated hundreds of prestigious events, not only from the rail, but also from the VIP Berm (mostly on Wednesday afternoons, when nobody is checking for badges).
In short, I’ve seen a thing or two. Therefore, offering an erudite opinion at a schooling show is something I consider to be entirely within my wheelhouse. After the hairs I split to pick winners in the International Hunter Derby Finals, pinning classes at a neighborhood show has got to be pretty cut and dried, right?
Because the first (and really, only) commandment of judging a schooling show is: Take everything you know about “rated” show judging, and, to quote Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella: “Nevermind.”
The good news is, your new judging criteria is easy to remember and can be summed up thusly: 1. Rider should make their best attempt to execute the judge’s commands 2. Rider should keep their horse in the arena. 3. Judge should be somewhat flexible on rule #2.
I had opportunity to apply all of these rules when I officiated at a Memorial Day weekend show for beginner and novice level kids. It was the kind of show where no class had more entries than there were ribbons, and where the same collection of stalwart school horses returned with different little riders throughout the day. I remember thinking how easy it would be to look at classes of five or six kids and put them in the right order.
My first inkling of underestimation occurred when a Fjord pony, two different breeds of draft horse, an Arabian, a Quarter Horse, a Thoroughbred, and a variety of unidentifiable mixes all walked into the ring for the first class. (All I could think of was that it looked like a story that began, “Okay, so, a Fjord, two drafts and a Quarter Horse walk in to a bar….”)
The horses were piloted by an equally diverse collection of young riders with unquestionably original approaches to show ring turnout. What better place to flaunt your pink and turquoise rubber reins or your ability French-braid the entire mane? Unlike the peas-in-a-pod appearance at “rated” shows, the eclecticly colorful mix of apparel and gear was like a delightful, pictographic version of Mad Libs.
It was immediately apparent that my pint-sized participants had command of the three equestrian essentials: Heels down, sit up straight, and maintain a strict rider/horse/ground order of things.
Beyond that, it turned out to be a contest of who looked the best doing whatever I think they were trying to do when something else entirely happened.
I’m not talking about little faux-paus like too many trot steps before the canter departure, or a not-so-square halt. I’m talking about wrong leads. Alternating diagonals. Breaking gait. Inventing a new gait. Synchronized quadruped insubordination. Equus Steerus Optionalus dragging the rider through the center of the ring, in dangerous proximity to the judge’s tiny toes.
It wasn’t just one or two unlucky riders making these errors now and then.
It was everybody.
All the time.
Regardless, there was never any doubt that all of them were trying their very best. And no matter what went wrong, they never gave up. If they had to change diagonals three times before they were sure they had it right, they did it. If it took a whole circuit of the ring to get the correct lead, then that’s what it took. They were nothing if not committed.
My standard scoring system of shorthand symbols with subtractions for slip-ups (besides being difficult to say three times really fast) quickly produced mathematical equations of Newtonian complexity. So I quit penalizing people for errors and began rewarding them for what they did right. In my opinion, even “well, heck, that was a nice try, kid” deserved credit.
I silently rooted for everybody to do well, and was especially excited when a kid was having a really good go. I hated it when the horse and rider that was clearly winning the class committed an error grievous enough that I had to knock them off their pedestal.
I had no control over that sort of thing happening.
But… I did have control over seeing that sort of thing happening.
So, if it looked like my favorite pony was going to break to the trot in the middle of the canter? Well, it was time to look at somebody else. I had a whole ring full of people to keep track of, after all, and a very limited time to do it.
This proved to be an excellent strategy. Though the chances of two people making a mistake at the same time were high, I got pretty good at landing my eye on somebody who was, for that moment, doing what they were supposed to.
I also employed some creative interpretation.
When the little equestrian I favored went from the trot to the walk a full second before the announcer gave my “walk” command, I assumed she’d seen my hand signal to him and gave her credit for being proactive. How could I possibly penalize somebody for paying attention?
The pony that aced the hunter hack right up until it cantered two picture-perfect fences on the wrong lead? He still won because of the rider’s commitment to pick a lead, any lead, and actually stay on it.
And even if I was looking when something went awry, I still found cause for reasonable doubt.
The perfectly pleasant white pony that was perhaps a bit gimpy? He didn’t look nearly as bad by the time the class was tracking right, and if I squinted…by god, that horse was sound.
Then there was the little girl who was putting in a flawless equitation ride on the Fjord. She was cantering down the side of the arena where a line of haphazard plastic blocks divided the show ring from the warm-up ring. The pony elected to canter right out through one of the gaps between blocks and into the schooling area. Without missing a beat, the rider steered him right back into the show ring through the next gap. Even as my eyes were telling me “that horse just left the arena,” my brain was challenging with “but…did it really?”
Mind games notwithstanding, it was more pleasant for everybody with the focus on what went right, instead of what went wrong.
The most difficult part of my day was when I had to actually PLACE the lead-line classes. No easy-outs by giving a blue ribbon to everybody… I had to give first through sixth places to six kids. Six kids on ponies decked out in glittery saddle pads, matching ribbons, colorful reins, braided tails, groomed to perfection, and as far as I was concerned, all equal on the cute-o-meter.
These mini-equestrians sat tall and proud at the walk, posted the trot, and demonstrated their mastery of jumping position as their ponies were led over ground poles. Parents who pinned their child’s future on the outcome of this class stood on the rail, live-streaming the event to social media. Grandparents waved and took photos. Meanwhile, I held court in what I hoped would not become known as #TheRingWhereOlympicDreamsGoToDie.
As I made my final decision, I wondered what crime I’d committed in a previous life that I was now being made to atone for. As I handed the score sheet to the announcer, I tried to remember if he had ever actually said my name, or if any of the show materials mentioned my address.
Then I did the mature thing.
Or rather, I took a strategically timed bathroom break. I lingered in the porta-potty, wishing I had my cell phone to check for angry tweets or see if #worstjudgeever was trending, until I was certain there wasn’t an outraged family outside waiting to strangle me with a green ribbon.
But no angry villagers waited, and I was able to return to the ring to judge the rest of the classes sans security detail. In fact, the only grumbling of any kind that I witnessed came from a stout-bodied palomino that I dubbed Angry Western Horse. I passed him every time I made a trip to the porta-potty; tied to his trailer under a shady tree, western saddle cinched lightly around him as he awaited the western events. I would acknowledge him apologetically and he would respond with an indignant snort. Being tied to a trailer as he was, like a common horse, was clearly beneath him.
I think my favorite part of the show was getting to know the horses as they returned for different classes with different riders.
There were, in fact, two Fjords, identical except for the way their manes were styled. One had its mane trimmed into alternating triangles of blonde and black hair. The other one sported a snazzy stripe pattern that made him look like a Volkswagen Beetle masquerading as a sports car. They were bossy, but boy, could they take a joke. And as for riding a horse that looked straight out of a Disney movie in the lead-line class?…well, that didn’t hurt your score At. All.
Flax was a fat, glossy brown pony with a stunning flaxen mane and tail. He was an excellent lesson horse because he only did what the rider told him—not what the rider meant to tell him. I have no doubt he knew exactly which lead to take each way around the ring, but if the rider asked for the wrong one, that’s what they got. You could almost hear him snorting “that’ll learn ya, kid.”
Draft 1 and Draft 2 looked like butterscotch and chocolate versions of the same animal. These gentle giants allowed themselves to be piloted by tykes so tiny that their feet barely reached beyond the saddle flaps. They went around like big, prehistoric teddy bears and were frequently high in the ribbons because of their lovely temperaments and unflappability.
Old Guy was my favorite. He was a tall, lanky chestnut with grey hair above his eyes like bushy, pejorative eyebrows. Though clearly long in the tooth, he still had plenty of vigor, and carried his tiny charges with a sense of pride and duty. Well, right up until he decided it was time to go home, and crow-hopped all the way around the canter in his pleasure class. Normally, I would have told the rider that giggling was not a good correction. But it made me laugh, too.
I never saw one kid frustrated, angry, crying or complaining. They were just too busy having fun. It was a stark contrast to “big” horse shows, where I’d too often seen the weight of “serious” competition extinguish the joy of riding. Today had recalled the simplicity and innocence of time long gone, when the goal was not to have a perfect show, but to have a perfect day.
I was driving off the property at the end of the day, deep in reflection, when I heard a joyous, bellowing whinny. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Angry Western Horse, who was angry no more, galloping triumphantly down the dirt road.
It made me smile to know that everybody could now count the day a success—whether that meant riding one’s favorite pony, achieving a personal best, helping shape a memory for a young equestrian, or slipping the surly bonds of one’s halter and escaping to freedom.
After years of trying to fit in with corporate America, Jody Lynne Werner decided to pursue her true passion as a career rather than a hobby. So now, she’s an artist, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, web designer, writer and humorist. You can find her work on her Misfit Designs Cafepress site. Jody is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition. Her work also appears in print editions of The Chronicle of the Horse. Read all of Jody’s humor columns for www.coth.com here.