You’ve heard it a million times. Sometimes in anger, sometimes in disgust. Sometimes with a sense of resignation, sometimes as a matter-of-fact recognition that that’s just the way it is and there’s no use pretending otherwise. Never as praise. Horse show judging, everyone will tell you—the kind that takes place in the hunter, equitation and dressage rings, anyway—is subjective.
I’m here to push back on that a little bit. I don’t think it is, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s imprecise, for sure. But that isn’t necessarily because it’s subjective, and if we simply write it off as subjective we blind ourselves to the possibility that things might be improved.
I know what you’re thinking, which is something like this: “Hold up a second, Horse Show Dad. We look to you for the parental perspective on the horse world. Maybe an occasional laugh. But we’re pretty sure you don’t actually know all that much about horses. So we hope you won’t take it the wrong way if we’re a little skeptical about you weighing in on this.”
Understood. But check this out: I have this whole other life, with a day job and everything. And in that life I study the sort of judging that takes place in the legal system—how judges ought to decide, how they actually decide, what sorts of things we do to attempt to bring those two things into alignment and how we might be able to do them better.
I won’t beat you over the head with my credentials and experience, all of which are readily discoverable online if you remain a skeptic. (And if you’re in need of a sleep aid you could do worse than this recent article of mine, which is an 80-plus page treatment of the ideas I’m discussing here.) But I will ask you to trust that I’ve given some thought to this sort of thing.
So let’s explore for a moment what truly subjective judging might look like.
Imagine if I were to judge a couple classes and do so based on what I happen to like. For example, we’ve had some bay horses that I’ve been pretty fond of. And even after all these years a horse that jumps flat strikes me as way more sleek and efficient looking than one that jumps round, like it’s more apt to catch whatever it is we’re hunting. If I judge based on these subjective preferences the results on my scorecard will surely look quite a bit different from those of an actual licensed judge. You could rightly call me a bad judge.
Let’s come at it from a different angle and think about what I would have to do to become a better judge.
I could try starting with the rule book, which would get me pretty far in a lot of sports, such as baseball or football. It’d even do the trick in the jumper ring.
But the rules will get me almost nowhere in the hunter ring. Consider, for example, the language at the heart of U.S. Equestrian Federation Rule HU 122, which defines the concept of “performance,” on which hunter classes are to be judged: “An even hunting pace, manners, jumping style together with faults and way of moving over the course.” That’s not a lot to work with.
Same for equitation. There the core idea is in USEF Rule EQ 104: “Rider should have a workmanlike appearance, seat and hands light and supple, conveying the impression of complete control should any emergency arise.” It sounds good, but the language alone provides very little guidance.
That the rules aren’t all that precise shouldn’t surprise us. There are too many variables involved for it even to be possible to capture in precise words what an ideal hunter or equitation round looks like. This sort of imprecision is a common phenomenon in judged sports, including gymnastics and figure skating.
But—and here’s the key point—the fact that the rules are indefinite doesn’t mean that the horse show judge gets to make it up. The rules don’t tell her all that she needs to know, but it’s understood that she can’t simply favor flat-jumping bay horses, even if her instincts happen to run in that direction. She has to draw on something to fill out the rules’ lack of specificity, but that something has to come from her years of experience learning about horses and riding and, more than that, what’s regarded as excellence within the sport itself.
This is reflected across judged sports in the design of the systems for deciding who even gets to be a judge, and after that, who advances to the highest levels. There’s a period of practice judging and a requirement that the aspiring judge demonstrate that her placings are sufficiently similar to those of existing judges. Advancement to a higher level in turn requires demonstrating the ability to conform to the judgments of those at the next level.
For me to become a judge, then, would mean learning to suppress my personal preferences, and to replace them with the collective tastes of the hunter/jumper community as evidenced by my ability to emulate the preferences of existing judges.
Of course, this system is not perfect, and there’s room for slippage. We know all too well that there are conflicting schools of thought when it comes to what a strong hunter or equitation round looks like, and there are members of those different schools judging at horse shows even as we speak. There’s no guarantee that any two R-rated judges would place the same class in the same way. Doesn’t that make it subjective?
What that makes it, I’d suggest, is imprecise, which is not the same thing as subjective. The difference matters. To be an acolyte of Famous Horse Person A or Famous Horse Person B, and to judge accordingly, is still to follow a developed set of ideas rather than an idiosyncratic set of preferences. In an ideal world we’d all agree on everything, but the existence of competing schools of thought is still well short of “anything goes.”
But there’s one big worry remaining. This imprecise world is one in which it is quite possible for subjective factors to get smuggled in. Because the line between a good hunter round and a better hunter round is never so clear as the line between a clear round and a dropped rail, there’s always the possibility that a judge could choose to decide based on something entirely improper—such as a preexisting relationship with one of the competitors—while thinking she could justify it in terms of her school of thought’s preferences. Or, even more likely, she might not even realize that her past favorable impression of this horse or this rider is affecting her perception of the round taking place in front of her right now. Truly subjective factors, in other words, can still find their way in.
The lines between things everyone agrees are proper to consider, things different schools of thought disagree on, and things everyone would regard as subjective and improper are undoubtedly somewhat amorphous. And they shift over time.
For now I simply want to emphasize how much is not up for grabs, and not subjective in the usual sense of the word. Because there are not, I’m pretty sure, members of the “flat-jumping bay horse” school of thought currently serving as licensed judges, nor is that even a legitimate school of thought. It’s easy to focus on the differences, and in doing so to lose track of just how much consensus there actually is about what counts in assessing a hunter or equitation round.
But a perception problem remains. My next post will address the question of what might be done about it. Is it possible to create a world in which non-subjective standards not only get applied most of the time, but also, and even more importantly, in which competitors and spectators believe they’re being applied most of the time?
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking readers along on his horse show parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him.