Recently I spent a weekend judging a couple of hunter and hunt seat equitation shows. I had a great time. I even got a few breaks, like during adjustments to the jumping course, where I could jot down a few thoughts and memorable moments so I could share them with you.
Sometimes when I’m judging I feel like a game show participant locked in a soundproof booth. For long periods of time I sit quietly in a chair, isolated in a judging booth, with my only lifeline to the outside world a handheld short-range radio that connects me to the announcer. Of course, maybe that’s a good thing, because invariably I end up muttering comments to myself if a jumping round is particularly “remarkable” (i.e. scary). During such episodes it’s probably best if I’m in solitary confinement. But otherwise I’m happiest if I can interact with the competitors on some level, even if it’s for a brief moment here and there. For example, I try to speak to the line-up of kids in the walk-trot equitation class or give a few words of encouragement to a rider who’s obviously having a rough day with a difficult horse. Horse show rules prevent me from doing too much of that sort of thing—after all, I’m there to judge, not to conduct a training clinic—but I think some feedback from the judge at this level of showing is important.
Read Before Eating
If you’ve followed my blog or read some of my previous columns published in Horse Illustrated, then you know I have an aversion to horse show food. Or at least my digestive tract does. I can’t tell you how many times during my show career that I regretted eating from the concession stand right before my class. Sheer terror would grip me as I tried to outlast a wave of stomach cramps while fumbling with belt buckle, side-zip breeches, tucked-in shirt and an exhibitor number tied around the waist of my hunt coat, all while teetering inside the narrow confines of a ringside port-o-potty. Since I don’t want to relive such memories when I’m judging, I usually I bring a little sandwich (ham and Swiss cheese with honey mustard) from home.
On Saturday, however, I was in such a rush that I forgot my lunch sack. By noon I was famished. Yet the catering truck parked outside the show ring looked ominous. The only thing I felt comfortable snacking on was a bag of potato chips. So I asked the ribbon-hander-outer to please bring me a cold soda and a bag of “plain potato chips.” She dutifully returned with foodstuffs while I was scoring a jumping round. Without looking up from my scorecard, I ripped open the bag of chips and stuffed a handful into my mouth. Immediately I was overwhelmed with the taste of…. Salad dressing? Pickle juice? I scrunched the bag closed, crushing the contents, and glared at the label: “Sea Salt and Vinegar flavored.” Who on earth thought that was an appealing taste combo? Gag! In an effort to wash the taste out of my mouth I guzzled the soda, so hastily that I ended up splattering my scorecard with cola stains. It looked like some earth-toned tie-dye experiment. So there I was, once again vexed by horse show food. Am I ever going to learn?
Because I showed for so many years, I occasionally I end up judging some of the people I used to compete against. Some of them are friendly acquaintances, and that’s okay because I’m confident that I’m able to judge them objectively. On Sunday one of these pals from the past, a woman named Peggy, came to the show. She’s an accomplished rider and her big bay warmblood, Star, is a champion hunter. He’s just getting back to competition after a lengthy lay-up following an injury, and Peggy thought she’d ride him in a couple of classes late in the day, just for practice. Unfortunately Star was a little full of himself.
While I was judging the baby green hunter class, watching a nervous little mare scoot around the course, I heard a loud, “Boom!” from inside one of the parked horse trailers. Then I heard Peggy’s unmistakable voice yell out, “Staaaaar!” Next thing I knew, Star—decked out in leg wraps and leather halter—bounded into the arena and began tearing around. I tossed my clipboard to the ground and called out to the rider on course. “Lose horse!” I said, and then added, “In the arena!” The poor woman on the baby green hunter pulled up and leapt to the ground. She held the reins tightly and laid a hand on the neck of her little mare, who was understandably fascinated by the huge bay horse zipping around the arena and cavorting between the jumps. Fortunately, Star’s dramatic performance ended safely once he became bored with the escapade. Peggy, who appeared embarrassed and more than a little perturbed with Star, led her horse back to the trailer. Soon the woman holding the little greenie mare began to laugh. “This is my horse’s first show,” she said, “and I’m sure she’s thinking, ‘Wow! This is so amazing! You come into the arena, go over some jumps, and then a horse comes in and runs around. It’s so exciting, I can’t wait to do it again!’”
As you can see, it’s never a dull day judging. I never know what’s going to happen once I pick up my clipboard and head to the judge’s booth. Much like that little mare, I can’t wait to do it all again.
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