Between Rounds: A Roiling Dissatisfaction With Judging

Sep 27, 2022 - 7:58 AM

Has the state of hunter and equitation judging reached a critical mass? In the multiplex of modern horse showing and the lexicon of 21st century technology, are our judging processes antiquated? Is our scoring system the root cause of today’s roiling dissatisfaction with judging? Where is the tipping point with bad behavior?

One thing that our industry can agree on is that we have an increasing problem with judging the sport. As one who puts horses into the ring to be judged, judges, and is involved in governance, I realize that there is no simple solution.

The system of licensing judges is well documented and thorough, yet its product is the subject of a cacophony of complaints. I am either in the line of fire more than usual at present, or there is a sport-wide outcry over hunter and equitation judging. There is a tide of dissatisfaction that ranges from emotional phone calls, to emails aimed at various constituents, to anger and frustration ringside, to actionable unsportsmanlike tirades. Regardless of the quality of judging, the increase in bad behavior is apparent.

Judges_Mollie Bailey
Our columnist believes the process of licensing and other issues related to judging warrant examination. Mollie Bailey Photo

Many hunter trainers proclaim that our days are numbered, as riders and trainers pull away from the hunter ring in favor of the objective jumper ring. While participation numbers show a strengthening in the jumper discipline, we have not seen a trend that suggests a mass exodus. This is not to discount the frustration surrounding hunter and equitation judging. Clearly the process of licensing and other issues related to judging warrant examination. Responsibility for creating a better judging environment lies with governance, show management, judges and exhibitors.

The System

In our current system of governance, U.S. Equestrian Federation is our licensing body, and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association is our educational arm. USHJA holds the judges’ clinics, determines their content, evaluates judging applicants, and ultimately puts forward candidates who have completed the training program to USEF for licensing consideration. USEF, as our national governing body, issues all licenses. They ensure that applicants have fulfilled the rule requirements to become and remain licensed officials. They have the authority to grant, amend or withdraw licenses according to the tenants of the USEF Rule Book.

The USEF Rule Book explains the process for becoming a licensed official under Licensed Officials, Policies and Procedures, which outlines the lengthy and comprehensive checklist of requirements. An educational process for a judge is crucial, yet the logistics of acquiring judging experience is costly in terms of travel as well as time lost from a primary business. The first license granted is ‘r,’ or recorded judge, a category that limits the level of competitions and classes that can be judged. This introductory, three-year license is designed to provide experience in the judge’s booth at lower levels before an official applies for promotion to an ‘R’ or registered judge. The logic is clear, yet also a deterrent for members to obtain their licenses, as the ‘r’ period is three years, and work may be sparse. Recorded ‘r’ judges are paid significantly less than ‘R’ judges and claim that jobs are difficult to find. Most managers of national and premier shows do not hire them. Licensed official candidates look at the long process, the shortage of jobs at the ‘r’ level, and the low pay and wonder if this is a road they wish to travel.

USEF and USHJA underscore that it is critical for qualified judges to be available, and that the pool of licensed officials is commensurate with need. We have experienced a surge in horse shows, an increase in entries and number of rings operating daily, and a 12-month show season. Juxtapose need with a demanding licensing process, and we have a shrinking pool of qualified, available judges.

Low Pay And Long Hours

In 2022, there are approximately 461 ‘R’ hunter/ equitation judges.

There are 988 hunter/jumper licensed competitions: 362 national, 232 premier, 358 local or regional. Competition managers state that securing officials grows increasingly difficult as people face professional and personal demands. Is it worth leaving your business, family, limiting commercial interaction as per the rules of judging, for bookend days of unpaid travel, travel hassles and an average day rate of $550?

Put the financial realities aside. Some judging days begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 6 p.m. Not unusual. Thankfully, some days are light and may be only five or six hours long. Unusual. Each day provides the same day rate for judges, regardless of the number of hours or experience of the officials. As a prominent judge and trainer recently stated, “My wife has applied for her promotion [to large ‘R’]. We presumably will judge together soon. I have had my card for 40 years, and she will have had hers for four hours. We will make the same money.”

In our current system, there are two classes of licenses and generally two pay scales. There can be no accounting for seniority or expertise without introducing a new class of license, although this idea has been discussed for years. Is it time to introduce a third class of license based on exhibitor-driven evaluations? Could we require that premier shows hire this category of licensee as at least a minimum part of the judging panel? Can we examine the inequity of the current pay scale?

‘Never Heard Of Him/Her’

Horse showing is expensive at every level; horse showing is exorbitant at the highest level. The amount of expense, effort and hours of planning before one enters the ring is unbelievable and indisputably the product of fierce teamwork. Everyone wants to make sure that they are being judged by a person qualified for the task, by their peers and mentors. This is not limited to high level competition, but the fervor surrounding judging complaints is well centered there.

“Who is judging? I never heard of him/her,” is not a positive inquiry. New judges at the premier level are met with skepticism in our small, visible community. If the judge is not a familiar name on the circuit or on prize lists, their acumen must be proved throughout the show day. Judges new to an area are keenly aware that all eyes are on their decisions and that it is easier for exhibitors and trainers to blame the judge for a placing rather than fairly evaluate a performance. Remember that the judge’s job is to order the class. So, unless one watches the whole class, it is difficult to determine whether the placings were correct. Scores are relative to the class, though based on a norm.

Let’s paint the picture for a recently promoted, less experienced, new to the area, ‘R’ judge working a premier show on a visible stage. Every judge in this situation is keenly aware of the pressure. Some are better equipped to handle it; some are better educated to decide the outcome; all are licensed to judge. Some have had extensive experience at the top levels of the sport; some have spent years educating themselves by judging smaller venues; some are not qualified for the job. It is incumbent upon management and the official to evaluate competency. Are they over their head? Should the greener official sit with a more experienced judge for a few days before they are launched to sit alone? Responsibility rests on both those hiring and those hired.

Bad Behavior

Many top trainers state that they often feel that a class is being judged by an underqualified judge. Many doubt the integrity of judges, claiming that they’re motivated by personal or popular influences. These complaints are as old as the hunter and equitation rings. If the results are subjective, they are open to criticism and disagreement. This is the nature of our sport. Yet, the vitriol and nastiness of late is overwhelming. Perhaps the wildfire of social media and ubiquitous video have stoked the flames of hostility. Perhaps the acute financial pressure of high-level competition churns up the worst impulses of our community. Finishing a round and hearing a score within seconds when emotions and tensions are at their peak is an incendiary moment. We are a passionate, competitive bunch who can live and die a thousand times during a show day. Do our emotions override our common sense?

Recently, licensed officials have become targets of horrible texts, nasty emails, social media attacks and physical threats. Their professional and personal lives are considered fair game. This summer, an example of bad behavior at a national championship became a celebrated meme passed around among friends nationwide. A national championship in 2021 showcased an embarrassing display of bad sportsmanship, warranting segregation of observers and participants for future events.

These recent examples are the most visible, but more minor aggressions take place frequently. Licensed officials are in the line of fire, protected by USEF and USHJA codes of conduct that seem inadequate in the heat of battle. Does a pledge of sportsmanship interrupt a tirade? Bad sportsmanship has become rampant and, sadly, is being mirrored to the next generation of competitors. It is time to enforce rules of conduct and institute real repercussions. If the line in the sand of bad behavior is crossed, the perpetrator should be set down. In baseball, the manager who leaves the dugout to yell at the umpire knows he will be tossed from the game. Can our sport protect its officials in the same way? No texts to judges, no online attacks, no aggressive behavior during or after the show, no verbal attacks at the horse show. The line in the sand.

Management Responsibility

Show managers are responsible for hiring judges. Is it possible to implement a rating system so that managers can make a better educated decision about judges qualified for a high-level show? At present, many managers have the same roster of judges on their call list, using them from year to year. It is safer and more comfortable as managers have had experience with the licensed officials they hire. This informal system limits opportunity for some and guarantees it for others. Often, judges are hired based on their availability, cost of travel and familiarity.

In the past, USEF and USHJA have attempted to gather feedback about shows through online surveys that evaluated quality of facility, office staff, officials, etc. The response rate was disappointing as most people would rather complain than file a report. Without valid feedback, how do we fairly evaluate judges’ performances?

In 2022, 153 reports on hunter and equitation licensed officials have been filed with USEF through Aug. 30. Of these, 39% were positive feedback; 61% were negative. For anyone standing at the in-gate of late, this number seems impossible. How can we hear all the negativity and witness the bad behavior with only 94 negative reports filed nationwide? It is easier to gripe than to get involved. USEF can only evaluate and act upon the information that it receives. It is time to redesign a system of providing feedback. Consider the idea of stewards randomly disseminating evaluations at shows to riders and trainers and submitting them to USEF. Realizing that office staff and stewards are already taxed with paperwork, there will be pushback. Yet, a current and valid system of evaluation is sorely needed.

Moving Forward

In today’s environment, our processes for licensing officials and judging competitions warrant analysis. The need for a fair and transparent system of licensing officials is indisputable. Every eligible member who passes the educational standards and is deemed worthy of a license should receive one. Our sport should encourage members to give back to the sport by judging and welcome those who undergo the process. However, this is not to say that every ‘R’ judge is qualified to judge every national or premier competition. Again, everyone brings their basis of knowledge to the job. Those who have worked, trained or ridden at the highest level may have a better understanding of its standards. As one veteran judge and licensed official’s clinician said to me, “You can’t teach quality in an hour. Either you know it, or you don’t.”

Judging will always be a difficult task. The minute we pick up a pen, we know that many will disagree with our decisions. It is part of the job. But, when qualified individuals decide that the role is not worth the personal and professional cost, we are losing. When show managers are vilified for their choices of officials and have to protect them from the angry mob, we need better behavior. When exhibitors and trainers are discouraged again and again by the qualifications of a licensed official, we need to give them better. It is time to stop complaining and start working together toward a better system.

Sissy Wickes is a Princeton University (New Jersey) graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She has served on the USHJA board of directors and the USEF National Breeds and Disciplines Council. Sissy lives with her family in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and Wellington, Florida.


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