I spent last weekend judging hunters and huntseat equitation. It was the largest, most competitive horse show I’ve ever judged. Was it fun and exhilarating? Yes. Was it also incredibly stressful at times? Definitely.
I’m not sure that riders understand just how much the judge is rooting for them. Honestly, I don’t want to see anyone make an error. I’d love it if everyone came in and performed at their peak. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen, especially in classes reserved for novice riders. One young girl in particular was mounted on a lovely dappled gray gelding. He was obviously a quality horse and a perfect match for the girl. He took care of her over the jumps and was mild-mannered on the flat. I would’ve loved to have given her a blue, red or yellow ribbon. But she just could not put together an entire course well enough to win one, which meant she was not going to the championship show.
In contrast were the more experienced riders, the older teenagers, who had spent countless hours perfecting their horsemanship skills and the nuances of a proper position. They had taken riding to the level of an art form, and it was a joy for me to judge them. In fact, during one advanced huntseat equitation class, I gave myself a few moments to simply watch them ride. I set my clipboard down, rolled my pen across the little desk in front of me, and just observed. They were that good. In classes like that, deciding the order of the ribbons comes down to very miniscule details, like perhaps one rider had her toe turned out just a tidge too much, or another one allowed her horse to come off the bit for a few strides at the canter.
Though I spent one day judging primarily equitation, the other day I judged mostly hunters. So I went from focusing on a rider’s position and her ability to communicate with her horse, to evaluating a horse’s movement, manners and style over a course of jumps. I’m not sure which assignment I prefer. But they definitely require a switch in mindsets.
I’ll never forget one horse named, appropriately, American Idol. He was a tall, regally red chestnut gelding with four high white stockings and a big blaze. My first thought when he entered the ring was that he looked a lot like Secretariat. He was even blessed with a canter stride of about fourteen-feet, which allowed him to cruise around the course effortlessly. He was ridden by an adult amateur lady, and he had a kind temperament that suited her. His ears would prick up as he approached each jump, and he seemed to analyze just what he had to do to create a fantastic yet smooth flight over the rails. The round was flawless and I awarded him first place. American Idol got the first score of 90 I’ve ever awarded in fifteen years of judging.
Beyond the intense competition, there were some rather mundane moments as well. I found myself debating between soggy French fries or salty bacon as a midday snack from the catering truck. My dilemma: Which specimen of junk food would end up leaving fewer grease spots on my scorecards? Or during short breaks, while the jumps were raised or the arena was watered, I’d glance out to the schooling area and pick which horse I’d like to kidnap and take home as a stablemate for Wally. It was a beautiful setting to be entertained by such beautiful horses. The showgrounds were pristine, surrounded by leafy oak trees and wide swaths of emerald turf. All in all, it was a great weekend to be a horse show judge.
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