Last autumn, Chronicle columnist, judge and trainer Sissy Wickes sat down at her laptop and wrote a piece discussing a growing discontent with hunter and equitation judging. After U.S. Equestrian Federation president Tom O’Mara read it, he picked up the phone and called Wickes to discuss what she described as a tipping point in dissatisfaction with judging. Her column dovetailed with the increasing volume of complaints coming into the federation about officiating.
So O’Mara put together a Hunter and Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation Judges Task Force and charged it with evaluating, analyzing and improving the current hunter and equitation judging system. The group, led by Wickes, includes trainer Colleen McQuay; judge, trainer and USHJA Officials Education Committee co-chair Fran Dotoli; competition manager David Burton; trainer Andre Dignelli; trainer and rider Louise Serio; trainer, rider and judge John French; trainer and rider Nora Thomas; trainer, rider and judge Chris Wynne, and USEF CEO Bill Moroney.
It’s a complex problem, and the task force is looking at educational systems, the licensing process, licenses themselves, judges’ evaluations and judging systems to try to come up with solutions.
“I think that streaming and social media has been incendiary,” Wickes said. “Every person can see every single trip, because someone videoed it. Whether it was a person on the side of the ring or professional video company, something starts on social, and we’re off to the races.”
Getting To Work
The task force started by gathering a focus group of stakeholders to discuss the issues. Since the task force’s formation, the group has met several times and has been working with several focus groups to consider ideas and get feedback. USEF CEO Moroney has been reviewing the work the task force has accomplished so far. Once the ideas are set for prime time, the task force will take the proposals to the membership so that group can comment.
Wickes said she’s hoping to share results of their work with the membership within a few months to get feedback.
“At the end of all that, hopefully we’ll have some policy and rule changes, and we’ll do the work on improving the educational system,” said Wickes. “It’s a long process.”
As numerical scoring has become more popular over the years—it’s required for all World Champion Hunter Rider shows and de rigueur at others—Wickes described a growing number of poor sportsmanship incidents and inappropriate behavior towards judges by exhibitors, often regarding disagreement with the judges’ scores.
For example, during the first two weeks of the 2022 Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida) management decided to postpone its policy of having hunter scores announced.
“The decision was made at the onset of WEF not to announce hunter scores due to the widespread overreactions to the scoring after an announcement,” read a Jan. 18, 2022, press release sent out to all exhibitors. “Moving forward, intimidation, disrespectful comments, or general mistreatment of judges will not be tolerated.”
Wickes said the abuse of judges comes in the form of texts, social-media bashing, intimidation and confrontation—not to mention just plain old bad sportsmanship—and it’s discouraging knowledgeable equestrians who might otherwise consider sitting in the judges’ box.
“A lot of people don’t want to get their [judges’] cards because of what we endure,” she said. “Every time you sit in the booth, you’re putting yourself on the line. We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human; we all have to look down, we all get tired, we all mix numbers up—the whole nine yards.
“But being horrible about judging can’t be tolerated anymore,” she continued. “One thing we’re improving and making more stringent is how people behave toward licensed officials.”
Wickes admitted that she’s not always happy with the judging as an exhibitor either.
“I, myself, as someone who trains horses and owns horses and puts horses in the ring at mostly the national and premier level, have found at times people not up to judging the class that they’re judging,” she said. “They need to be better licensed, better trained and better qualified to be sitting there. Of course it’s a common theme that, as part of the subjectivity of hunter judging and equitation judging, it’s baked into the recipe that there’s going to be disagreement; there’s going to be discord. I do believe that we have to update our systems, upgrade our education, and try to really make a concerted effort in hunter and hunter equitation sport to be a better job with our adjudicators.”
Teaching Horsemen To Be Judges
The task force is considering increasing judges’ education by putting some training modules online that are tailored toward the participant’s specific license or level of knowledge. They’re also looking at judges’ education more broadly and trying to make sure that knowledgeable horsemen are getting into the box.
“At one of our first meetings Fran Dotoli had a great line. She said, ‘We’re trying to teach horsemen to be judges, not judges to be horsemen,’ ” said Wickes.
The task force recognizes that some judging applicants arrive with extensive showing credentials and others may not have as much experience—and is discussing how to tailor the training accordingly. Wickes was careful to point out that the task force’s aim is to not be elitist, but to be effective.
The group is also considering the judging system itself. When the task force held its focus group in mid-February to hear ideas and thoughts, one resounding theme was that judges didn’t want mandated scores. While convention (not the USEF Rule Book) dictates certain scores be assigned for certain faults—a 55 for breaking to trot, a 40 for one refusal, and 45 for a rail, for example—the task force is considering adding guidelines for a range of deductions for other faults. For example, how should one score a cross-canter? What should the deduction or score be if it’s one stride of cross-cantering versus six? What about cantering before a trot jump a stride or two? Wickes emphasized these would be guidelines, not a mandate.
“For very experienced judges, we all have our own system for that,” Wickes said. “For people entering the system, or people who struggle with that who are less experienced or less sure of themselves, it would just give guidelines. I also think that one of the most important things that this task force is trying to provide is transparency for the participants.”
Still, Wickes pointed out that as it stands today judging is relative to other horses in the class, as ultimately the judges’ job is to pin the class.
“Your score is really dependent on what your placing should be in that class,” she said. “But also, if your horse goes around and rubs two jumps, and you’re wondering why you got what you got [if we had guidelines for faults], you can say, ‘I guess they must have taken off a point for each rub or 2 points for each rub.’ [It helps] if the owners and riders have an idea of how we come up with the score. I think the discord is generated from the fact that people don’t know. Exhibitors don’t know; owners don’t know. They know what their trainers tell them, but it would be great if they were educated to how we judge a class as well.”
Wickes also said that the task force hears a lot about exhibitors wanting more feedback from judges than simply a score in order to become better horsemen and competitors. She said while giving detailed insight to competitors about each round isn’t on the immediate agenda, it’s on the group’s radar.
“I don’t know how in our current system we could do that unless we had scribes, which the dressage people do,” she said. “That’s a real change in culture, but I don’t think it’s impossible. We also talked about scoring each jump [individually] so it would be transparent. It’s all interesting on a macro level, but we decided we weren’t ready to take that on until we fixed what we were doing now, which would be more immediate. Then we could go back and think about that, which would be a deep change, take a lot of time with an experimental implementation of the program and so on.”
The task force is also examining how judges are evaluated by exhibitors. USEF has a confidential competition/licensed officials evaluation form, and some shows have been putting QR codes to a link to the form at in-gates. While some worry that this will just give exhibitors a chance to bash judges unfairly, Wickes thinks the aggregate information will be useful in seeing whether certain judges need more education and in overall judge evaluation.
In some areas of the country during some dates, it’s become hard to recruit licensed officials. Show managers may get to the end of the list of judges they personally respect and be wondering who to hire.
“[It would be great] to have a place where a show manager could go and look at a list of officials and see where they’ve judged before,” Wickes said. “[Presumably] a manager wouldn’t have access to signed evaluation forms, but they could have an overview. For example, this person had six positive evaluations last year and one negative, or whatever it was.”
The task force is also considering if there should be another level of judging license above than ‘r’ and ‘R,’ and perhaps this higher license would be required for championship competitions.
Despite the challenges, Wickes said that task force is feeling positive about working on improving the judging system.
“These are all things that are under consideration,” she said. “Nothing is set in stone. We’re trying to look at the whole organism and see what we can improve for the sake of hunter and equitation [sport].”
People with feedback on the process and issues are encouraged to email comments to JTF@usef.org.