I recently spent a whirlwind couple of days judging a pair of shows. Saturday’s show was a laidback, in-house schooling show that offered a mix of western and English classes. Sunday’s show was much more intense. It was a county-rated hunter show with many exhibitors intent on winning equitation medals. And yet I still thought of my blog! During momentary breaks in the weekend’s activities, I decided to jot down some suggestions that might help those of you who show.
- Know Your Tack: One of my biggest pet peeves—and I know it’s shared by many other judges—is the inappropriate use of tack, including everything from spurs and crops to bits and saddle pads. You have no idea how many times I see bits set too low or too high in a horse’s mouth or poofy pads scrunched up under saddles. I also cringe when I see a standing martingale that’s so short that the poor hunter can barely creep over the jump. Improper tack creates the impression that the rider (and usually their coach or trainer) is clueless or, at the very least, misinformed.
- Be Prepared for Tie-Breakers: In a competitive class the judge may ask exhibitors to perform what’s called “additional testing” to determine the ribbons. Any tests should be based on what’s reasonable for the level of riders in the class. For instance, in huntseat walk/trot classes I often ask riders to demonstrate a two-point position. Or I’ll ask English and western pleasure horses to halt from a canter (or lope) and stand quietly on a loose rein without fidgeting. As you can see, simply being able to maintain a good basic position and steer your horse around the arena isn’t always enough to win a ribbon.
- Posing Will Get You Only So Far: Similar to the above suggestion, riders who compete in tough equitation or horsemanship classes are expected to do more than just look pretty. They must demonstrate the ability to communicate with their horse using precise yet subtle aids. This concept was illustrated perfectly when I attended a jumping clinic given by Olympic medalist Anne Kursinski. Several riders were chastised for falling apart once they faced any difficult challenges on a course. Anne chided them for being “Barbie dolls;” they looked lovely in the saddle but lacked determination and skill. I’ve always loved Anne’s candor! But that’s a topic for another blog. I digress. My point is that once you graduate beyond the novice level you’ll have to work for your ribbons. As a judge, I want you to prove to me that you can actually ride.
- Respect Yourself: Each time I judge I feel a flutter of excitement when I step out of my car and onto the showgrounds. I know firsthand how hard everyone has worked to get ready to compete, and I can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air. That’s why I’m so disappointed when I see a rider in sloppy, mismatched clothes or a dirty, poorly conditioned horse. Where’s the preparation? Where’s the pageantry? Where’s any evidence of consolidated teamwork between horse, rider and coach? Always remember that you are partaking in a horse show, with the emphasis on “show.” Tuck your hair up in your hat or helmet. Dust off your chaps or boots. Run a damp rag over your horse’s bit and remove all that green slobber. Readjust your saddle pad and reapply the hoof polish. Make me believe you’re thrilled to be on stage and that you and your horse are 100% ready to strut your stuff!
- Cheer Up: Why do some riders look so agonizingly glum in their class? I’m starting to take note of riders’ facial expressions in many classes, and it’s amazing how many of them look as if they’re undergoing root canal surgery. Another revelation? Depending on the location of the judge’s booth, I am able to hear a lot more than hoofbeats. Quite a few riders carry on a conversation with their horses during the class. A few calm words can soothe a nervous greenie, I’ll grant you that. But if I overhear a rider reciting a prayer or literally begging her horse not to come unglued, then I get concerned. What sort of monster are they riding? I certainly don’t want competitors to plaster a fake grin on their face, but they should look relaxed and, at the very least, as if they like the horse they’re sitting on. Remember that the next time your Horse Show Mom tells you to smile in your pleasure class. She might actually know what she’s talking about.
There! I hope these five tips will help you this show season or sometime in the future. Stay tuned, because you never know what else I might jot down on the edge of my scorecards. Even when I’m judging I’m always thinking about my blog, and what I can share with you.
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