Opinion: Bad Judging Or Bad Exhibiting?

Nov 10, 2021 - 7:58 AM

We’ve all seen it happen at a horse show in hunter and equitation classes over fences:

• A horse enters the ring, picks up the wrong lead and trot-changes to the correct lead.
• A horse kicks out on the final circle after a beautiful round.
• A horse quietly knocks a rail off the first fence.
• In a handy class, a horse stops at the first fence, quickly circles and jumps the fence.
• After a round, the exhibitor’s finishing circle crosses a dotted line.

The judge awards a high score, and groans are heard around the ring along with sour comments about bad judging. How can licensed, experienced, respected professionals miss such obvious errors?

But is this bad judging? Judges can only evaluate what they see. The hurried pace at which hunter and equitation exhibitors enter the ring to start their rounds makes it easy for a judge to miss an early or late error or disobedience. If the judge is looking down to finish bookkeeping for the on-course entry, it’s all too easy to miss something serious. Hurrying to be ready for an incoming rider is an invitation for errors in scoring and ranking and is very stressful on judges.

For a judge to look up and discover that they missed a competitor’s opening circle and first fence is a terrible feeling and is taxing on their focus and stamina over the course of a long day. After all, everything the horse and rider does from the moment they enter the ring to the moment they leave is part of the round to be judged. When competitors overlap each other, how is it possible to fairly evaluate the entire performance and record it all on the judge’s card?

This problem is compounded in large classes—particularly when California split—where scores are divided by tenths of a point, and a performance needs to be properly fit among similar rounds. No sweat to put an entry between 72 and 75, but finding the correct spot when there are four horses between 82 and 83 takes time and careful attention. When there are multiple classes open at once, things get very messy if a round is inadvertently put on the wrong card out of haste.

Exhibitors put in tremendous energy, time and lots of money to show and be evaluated by qualified, experienced judges. Shouldn’t they expect an accurate score and placement based on a judge’s full attention to their complete performance, from beginning to end?

In what other equine disciplines—in what other sports— involving individual performances does a competitor start before the judge is ready, before a signal is given?

• Does a jumper start before the tone is sounded?
• Does a dressage rider start before a bell is rung?
• Does an eventer start on cross-country before the countdown ends?
• Does a horsemanship, trail or reining rider start a pattern before getting a nod or wave from the judge?
• Does a skater start a routine while flower bouquets are flying from the stands?
• Does a gymnast hop up on the bar while the previous athlete is sticking her landing?

In all these cases, absolutely the answer is no! Why, then, is the culture in hunter and equitation classes to rush in and start with no verification that the judge is ready to score the incoming round?

There is plenty of blame to be shared among judges, exhibitors, in-gate starters and show management.

Explicitly or not, show managers set high expectations for “throughput,” or processing competitors quickly. They do not want to see a ring empty. They make no money from an empty ring. The more rounds in a ring in a day, the better their bottom line. So, there is pressure to keep riders coming as quickly as possible. (Of course, this often leads to a “hurry up and wait” situation when trainer conflicts can bring a ring to a dead halt for quite some time. But that’s a different issue!)

In-gate personnel feel responsible for implementing management’s focus on throughput. Their job is to get people in the ring. They organize exhibitors and trainers to be ready and to follow the previous rider immediately. There are times, during derbies for example, when starters will tell riders to wait until a score is announced before starting in. Derbies are special events, but judging and scoring them is not significantly different from classics or run-of-the-mill classes. Don’t all classes deserve to be properly and carefully judged? Why is waiting for a score or a signal such a hardship?

Exhibitors are taught that they are responsible for their performance. They must understand the rules and specifications of each class they participate in. They must know which course applies to each class. They know they are being judged from the moment they enter the ring until they leave. Shouldn’t they also know when a judge is ready to judge them? They may be ready, but if the judge is not, starting early is their fault.

Judges are not without responsibility either. Theoretically, they are in charge of their ring. If they are not ready when riders enter, they should exert control, speak up and instruct the in-gate to hold riders until they are ready. While obvious, this takes a lot of courage to do.

Judges want to be hired; they don’t want to be perceived as slow or, worse, as troublemakers. If they cannot keep up with the flow of riders, it reflects badly on them. If managers hear about them slowing down the throughput of the show or being persnickety they risk not being asked back to judge in the future. They risk getting a reputation for being fussy, which costs them jobs.

Fixing the problem is easy—but not really.

The easy answer is to mandate that hunter and equitation classes follow procedures similar to other disciplines: A rider may not enter the ring until an audible or visual signal is given by the judge. If they do, they will be eliminated. A rule change is uniform nationwide and has a specific implementation date. But rule changes are never easy to accomplish. And never forget that people would rather not be ruled.

Also, don’t forget that the current rushed pace represents the culture of modern horse shows and modern times. The pace of everything has quickened over time; people are generally more self-centered, and the most profitable bottom line is paramount to show managers. Changing the culture of showing hunters and equitation to achieve a more deliberate pace is not impossible, but not everyone would adopt the change easily or quickly.

Without a rule, how do you change a decentralized culture, covering thousands of trainers, riders and horse shows all over the country? Should shows that attract 150 horses and those that have 2,500 horses on the grounds have the same procedures? Should a weekend, one- or two-ring show be governed the same as a 10-ring, 12-week circuit? Should judging a single class of 10 horses require the same procedure as holding multiple cards of 60-horse, California-split classes?

The alternative to a rule change is a guideline suggesting a change in behavior. Still, a guideline is of diminished value when any individual is free to ignore it if they choose. An old adage comes to mind: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

People are slow to adopt guidelines. Meanwhile, errors would continue to be missed by judges, causing riders to receive improper scores and placements. It’s one thing if a missed error has no effect on ribbon results; it’s quite another thing if a missed error affects a high placing in an important class.

Are we willing to accept the damage to our sport’s credibility when mistakes happen due to haste? Isn’t reducing complaints about so-called bad judging also a benefit to the sport?

There is another old adage: Change comes from within. Individual riders and trainers can decide to wait until they know the judge is ready. Managers and in-gate personnel can make it clear that exhibitors are to wait until a score is announced or a signal is given by the judge before entering the ring. Certainly, a more deliberate pace of showing will add time to the show day, but aren’t better judging and more accurate scores worth the extra time?

Discretion of when to start a round should not be left to individual riders, trainers, starters or managers. There should be a very simple expectation: Go when the judge is ready—not before.

KennMarashKenn Marash is a professional horse show announcer and commentator with 50 years of experience giving voice to many of the nation’s most prestigious horse shows, including The National Horse Show, Washington International Horse Show, Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Capital Challenge (Maryland), the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida), World Equestrian Center in Ocala (Florida) and Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania). For 40 years he has called the New York State Fair Horse Show. He has also held the mic at the AQHA World Show and AQHYA Youth World Show, HITS horse shows, as well as many local and regional open and breed shows. Over the years he has sat with and observed countless judges and show classes from walk-trot to million dollar classes. As the commercial goes, he’s seen a thing or two. 

This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Nov. 8 & 15, 2021, issue.

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