Horse Illustrated caught up with Kelley Corrigan, a busy hunter, jumper and equitation judge, amateur competitor and mom, on a rare break to chat about what it’s like to judge professionally and why she is so passionate about the equine industry.
Kelley Corrigan: I have had my [United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)] “R” in hunters, jumpers and hunt seat equitation since 2010, and I received my “r” in 2001 before my promotion to “R”.
HI: What made you decide to get your cards?
KC: I decided to get my judging license because I love the industry and the horses. However, I still wanted to compete as an amateur. I had been asked to judge several unrated shows during my college years and I really enjoyed being on the other side–I had only been the one being judged before that. Also, my trainer at that time had a license and she was always telling me about her nationwide travels while judging. The travel aspect also really piqued my interest.
HI: What did you anticipate doing when you were younger?
KC: I loved photography when I was in middle and high school, and my dream job was to be a photographer for Sports Illustrated. I imagined that being on the field of major sporting events would be amazing. I interned with a photographer in high school and began working with some horse show photographers during the summers.
HI: Where did you grow up?
KC: I grew up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, which is an area with many hunter/jumper barns.
HI: What is your equestrian background?
KC: My family has a farm, so we always had horses, some show horses and a few race horses. As a kid, my mother usually had one or two mares she bred each year. She foaled them out at home, so I learned at a very young age how to handle youngsters.
I grew up showing locally until I was 16 years old and then we started doing bigger shows. My mother had several friends who would let me show their horses, which was very beneficial because it gave me much more experience than I would’ve gotten just showing my horse.
During college, I met Wilhelm Genn who owned Rheinland farm about an hour from my university. I started riding a lot at his farm and worked for him in Florida in 2000. I purchased a young hunter from him named Centerfield who went on to win a lot for me in the younger Amateur Owner Divisions. Since then, I have enjoyed importing young hunters, getting them to the 3’6″ divisions and then selling them.
HI: In what divisions do you compete?
KC: For the last 17 years, I’ve been competing in the Amateur Owner hunter and jumper divisions (although I stopped doing the jumpers about 10 years ago) and have been traveling all over the country to compete. I really enjoy bringing the young ones along and then getting them qualified for shows like the National Horse Show and Devon.
HI: Do you judge full time?
KC: I still compete and judge on a regular basis, but I pick and choose carefully so that I’m not away from my family too often. I only judge part-time because of my family and currently having two show hunters. I’m sure I’ll take more judging jobs once my son is older. I’m really fortunate that we moved to Kentucky 7 years ago because I can show here all summer and show in Florida where we own a condo in the winter. We moved to Lexington because my husband opened a horse trailer dealership in 2009.
HI: How do you get a judge’s license?
KC: To obtain a judge’s license, you must apply for a learner judge’s card and then apprentice with licensed judges at numerous horse shows. Those officials with whom you learner judge must then complete evaluations about you. You are also required to attend judge’s clinics given by the USEF. Once you’ve completed all your learner judge requirements and attended a clinic, then you can apply for your license. The licensed officials committee goes over all your evaluations and decides if you should receive your “r” (Recorded or “small r”) license. Once you have that license, you may officiate at USEF shows. Then, you basically have to do the entire process again when you want to get promoted the “R” (Registered or “large R”) card. There is also a fast track option that requires less requirements, but you need to an accomplished rider/trainer for many years to apply for the fast track option. Having an “R” allows you to judge “A” rated divisions.
HI: Where do you judge?
KC: I mostly judge in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, but I have traveled as far as Alberta, Canada. Many other “R” judges officiate almost every week and they do much more traveling than I do–I like to stay close to home near my family.
HI: What are some important qualities for people who are thinking about becoming a horse show judge to have?
KC: In order to be a judge, you must be an organized individual–you’re writing a lot while trying to watch the competition. I believe having a neat [judge’s] card is imperative. I may not have the best handwriting, but I do keep my card very organized and always keep an updated stagger. A “stagger” is where you place the horse or rider’s scores in a neat list in order of preference or score. So once the class is complete, you already have your results in order.
A judge must be professional, punctual and courteous with the other officials. For example, a judge should arrive early to introduce herself to the ring starter, announcer, steward and other show officials before the show starts. A judge should also leave plenty of time for getting her cards in order before the day starts.
HI: Is there a strong job market for judges?
KC: There are shows all over the country and in Canada that will hire someone with an “R.”
HC: What is your schedule like on an average horse show day?
HI: An average day usually begins at 8 a.m., so I arrive around 7:15 a.m. (maybe earlier if it’s a show/facility that I am not familiar with). I will then go the horse show office, get my courses, clip board, walkie-talkie and report to my judge’s stand. Then I test my radio by calling to the announcer and starter to make sure we can communicate. Next, I organize my cards and go over the schedule so I can ask management any questions I may have. Then I judge until all classes are complete, return my equipment and go back home or to the hotel. I also make sure to go over the schedule the evening before so I can be aware of what divisions the next day will entail. If I’m out of town and we have a short day, I’ll usually drive around the area and see what that local area has to offer.
HI: What is your favorite part of your job?
KC: My favorite part of my job is when I judge great rounds, whether it be an amazing first year green horse with a top professional rider or a local children’s hunter pony rider who laid down a score of 85. I love seeing raw talent at smaller shows, it gives me hope for the future of our sport.
HI: What is the most difficult part of your job?
KC: I find the most difficult part of my job is the long hours. There are several venues I attend where I know I’ll judge at least 10 hours a day–that’s a long time to sit in a judge’s booth. It’s usually fine if horses keep coming in the ring, but when you get long breaks because of trainer/ring conflicts it can make the day very long, especially if the weather is not cooperating.
HI: What is one thing you learned you never expected to from being a judge?
KC: The best thing I’ve learned from judging is how to be a better exhibitor. I’ve learned the importance of “showing” your horse off at all times in the ring. For example, before the course starts, a rider needs to make sure they enter the ring at a good trot or canter, and make sure their horse is focused on the rider. First impressions are important!
HI: What is your advice to people who are interested in pursuing a judge’s card?
KC: Make sure you’re ready before you ever show up to your first learner judging job. Talk to current judges about what to expect and how to organize your cards, get all necessary supplies, make sure your dress is appropriate and be prepared to sit all day. If possible, offer to judge a local show first, even if it’s just the cross poles classes.
HI: What do you think you would do if you didn’t judge?
KC: I’m not sure what I would do if I didn’t judge! I’ve done equine appraisals and equine insurance, helped with my husband’s trailer dealership and owned a consignment tack shop. However, right now showing my own horses, maintaining our farm in Kentucky and raising our son is keeping my schedule very full.
Horse show judging not for you? Maybe being an equine nutritionist, university faculty, or something else will capture your interest. Find out! See more Careers in the Horse Industry interviews >>