Perhaps you’ve heard it before. You think that you and your horse have done well, but you leave the show ring ribbonless. When you finally get up the courage to ask why, the judge states, “Your horse really isn’t suitable for the class.”
There are two main aspects of suitability when it comes to judging criteria. First, the judge is looking for the horse that embodies the ideal horse for that particular class. For example, the ideal hunter would be a horse that maintains a steady pace and jumps safely. It would also have a certain physical appearance that’s appropriate for a horse that must gallop cross-country and jump obstacles in its path. That generally equates to a Thoroughbred-type horse with a long, low stride and leggy, athletic conformation. In contrast, a muscular horse with a short, choppy stride would be uncomfortable for a long trip across the hunting field. It also might struggle to jump stone walls and thorny hedges.
The same concept is true for western pleasure classes. Though judging guidelines are available online and through breed and competitive associations, exhibitors are often disappointed when their horse doesn’t place in a pleasure class. Even though their horse might not have committed a single error, it may still be lacking in suitability. A horse that displays what appears to be an uncomfortable lope or one that embodies undesirable conformation may be deemed “unsuitable” when compared to the judge’s concept of the ideal western pleasure mount.
A second aspect of suitability is that the horse should match its rider. A high-strung horse that drags its rider to the jumps is not a suitable teammate for a young or amateur rider. Riders in those divisions are more suitably mounted on a horse with a laidback temperament that seems to take care of its rider. Adult amateur riders in the non-pro western divisions are also expected to be aboard horses specifically selected for their steady temperaments and reliability. The more expressive, keener horses are destined to be professional mounts.
Size also comes into importance when discussing suitability. Petite women often struggle to manage a huge Thoroughbred or warmblood as it cruises around a hunter course. A more suitable horse, providing its stride is long enough to make the prescribed number of counts in a line, is a smaller, more refined horse that complements the rider’s physical build. At the opposite extreme is the horse, or more often the pony, that is too small for its rider.
“I actually think it borders on abuse,” comments USEF judge Regina Antonioli. “When I see a kid who has obviously outgrown her pony, yet still continues to compete, I really give them a low score. It’s one thing if the pony has misbehaved in a previous round, or if it needs a quick tune-up by a better rider. Then I can understand a larger rider hopping on in a pinch to school the pony. But to actually come in and compete class after class for a ribbon is not acceptable.”
See how much suitability matters? It really isn’t prejudice; it’s more a case of the judge looking for the most ideal match for the competition and for the rider.