Wednesday, Sep. 27, 2023

Evaluating Judging In The Hunter World



I’ve always said that it wouldn’t be a hunter show if there were no complaints about the judging. 

When my owners and riders have questions or concerns, I always emphasize how well the horses went, and how far they have come. Most of the time, I am impressed with the judging. After competing two weeks at Upperville (Virginia) and Loudoun Benefit (Virginia) this spring, I was in awe of the skill and accuracy of the judges. I was thrilled with how my horses went. My horses got some good ribbons, and when I did not win, I was simply out-ridden, out-classed or out-trained. I watched entire classes, and again, I was impressed with how well the judges did their job, even though some of those days started at 7:30 a.m. and went until after 8 p.m. 

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. So far this year I have competed my horses at 12 shows, and at two of those shows I questioned the competency or impartiality of some judges. At one of these shows I could not explain to my owner why her horses placed as they did. I have a great respect for the other competitors, so I reluctantly went to the steward, who gave me valuable advice about the importance of completing evaluations of the judging at every show. 

Sissy Wickes wrote an excellent article in the Chronicle last fall about the growing discontent with judging. This article prompted the formation of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Hunter & Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation Judging Task to work on these issues. Sissy wrote that responsibility for creating a better judging environment lies with governance, show management, judges and exhibitors. I think all these groups also need to take more responsibility for education, evaluation, communication and accountability. 

“In my experience this past year, most of the judging was very good, sometimes exceptional, but it only takes one or two bad judging experiences to poison the well,” writes Sue Lyman. Mollie Bailey Photo 

On May 9, the USEF communications department reported on the progress of their appointed task force. The task force is a great idea, and I hope future meetings and webinars that are being planned will include and elicit feedback from all interested members. At the June U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Town Hall, one of the most contentious discussions was about improving judging. These members should have been encouraged to send their concerns and suggestions to the task force. Perhaps the USHJA should mention the task force through a news blast. 

The USEF website offers a confidential competition and licensed officials form that is a potentially useful tool for addressing concerns about judging. In addition to questions pertaining to safety, stabling, management and officials, this form provides a single box to evaluate licensed officials, including judges, stewards, technical delegates and course designers. I propose creating a separate form just for evaluating judges, with the option to upload videos with evaluations. In addition, the form should invite positive as well as negative comments. Good judging needs to be rewarded. 

The Perception—Or Misconception—Of Favoritism

In my experience this past year, most of the judging was very good, sometimes exceptional, but it only takes one or two bad judging experiences to poison the well. 


In the hunter divisions, a round should be evaluated on beauty, good movement, great jumping style and manners. On a few occasions, I have seen horses with questionable jumping style ridden by well-known riders win over horses with better quality. I have seen a horse owned by a prominent horseman wheel and spin in a small under saddle class—and win. This spring a horse that played so hard the rider lost both stirrups was placed in front of another horse that jumped in great form, although he got a bit strong after the last jump. 

In the conformation division models, it sometimes appears that the handlers are being judged more than the horses. Owners and riders find these examples discouraging, even though they are not the norm. 

When I have discussed these incidents with other horsemen, their comments have been telling. One person suggested my horses would do better in the models if I got my judge’s license. A steward responded to my concern about the judging by asking how long I had been showing in Virginia. A trainer suggested to me that my assistant may have been placed lower in a class because the judge did not know who she was. 

“It is only by providing fair and honest feedback, whether positive or negative, that we can help the USEF improve both the practice and perception of judging.” 

“Maybe they didn’t see it” is the typical response to a question of why a horse that made mistakes did well. These comments do suggest a need to judge to a high standardevery time, because the rare occasions when judging is not fair can be extremely discouraging and can eclipse the excellent judging that is far more common. 

Riders, owners and trainers also need to take more responsibility, and one way is to learn more about the judging process. Julie Winkel and Tricia Booker’s book “Judging Hunters and Equitation, WTF? (Want The Facts?)” is an excellent start, and they have followed up with clinics to help exhibitors understand the judging process. Exhibitors need this education to make informed decisions about proposed changes. 

Exhibitors should also regularly videotape their rounds from the judge’s perspective. Several times when I thought that my horse should have been placed higher, I understood the decision after viewing the tape. 

Improving The System


At the June USHJA Town Hall, participants debated adding scribes and changing the system from comparative judging to standardized judging. After reading about the discussions, I can see why the scribes may not work in the current system, and I agree that standardized judging is worthy of discussion, but I wonder if this change will end the problems with poor judging or hinder rewarding quality horses. I would welcome more education to help me decide my own position on these proposals. 

Most importantly, exhibitors need to provide input to improve the system. In her article, Sissy wrote that only 153 evaluations were completed in 2022. Unfortunately, much of the criticism is presently unofficial and often verging on trolling: insulting texts, nasty emails, social media attacks and physical threats. These are examples of unprofessional speech and behavior that should be unacceptable to exhibitors as well as licensed officials. 

Instead, we should step up and fill out those evaluations. As I drafted this article, I decided to hold myself to this standard, so I went online and filled out evaluations for all the shows I attended this year, and the process made me realize how good most of the judging has been. It is only by providing fair and honest feedback, whether positive or negative, that we can help the USEF improve both the practice and perception of judging. 

While we should help them identify and respond to judges who are not doing their job, we should also help them recognize and reward the many judges who are doing a very difficult job extremely well. We must remember we depend on our competent judges to make the whole system run. Although I think we should all work to improve the system, it is important for them to know they are appreciated. 

Between Rounds columnist Sue Lyman has been riding, training and showing hunters in the Middleburg, Virginia, area since 1985. During this time she broke, started, retrained and competed many successful horses including Simbalu, Rox Dene, Irregardless, Townsend and All In One. She served on the USHJA Professionals Committee from 2008-2012. She has served on the USHJA Horse And Rider Advocates Committee since 2013 and became chair of that committee in 2021. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.



Follow us on


Copyright © 2023 The Chronicle of the Horse