BY RENNIE DYBALL
At a top hunter-jumper barn an hour outside of Chicago, as junior riders are preparing for pony finals and adults are in the middle of their summer show season, a beginner in the farm’s lesson program is learning to master the up-down-up-down of the posting trot.
And she could very well be their next superstar.
Welcome to Judgement Farm, a unique full-service operation in Oswego, Illinois, that prides itself on catering to all types of riders, from those learning to ride, starting to lease, and aiming to win at the big shows.
“Almost all of our show riders come from the riding program. That’s very important to us,” says farm owner and trainer Tina Judge-Boyle. “We had girls who just went off to college, and at their graduation we had this picture of them standing in front of the barn at 6 and 7 with their little Troxel helmets and schooling show ribbons. I like to see the kids grow up with us and they know exactly how it’s done, and what is expected of them.”
Judgement, named after its head trainer — “a little influence might have been Beezie’s horse, Judgement!” Judge-Boyle says with a laugh — manages 60-plus horses on its 24-acre property, which includes a heated indoor and a massive outdoor ring as well as a grass field for riding. Judge-Boyle brings decades of experience and success to the operation, having competed as a junior and amateur-owner before going pro in 1998 and winning top ribbons in USHJA International Hunter Derby and Grand Prix competition.
With assistant trainer Lori Hollands, a rider and trainer herself for 30 years, Judgement has coached riders to championships at indoors and multiple medal finals, plus plenty of local A and AA shows along the way (they’ve frequented World Equestrian Center, Ledges, Balmoral and more so far this year).
“What makes it so unique is the fact that people can pick and choose how serious they want to be,” says Judge-Boyle, adding that the show season each year “all depends on the clientele. Right now, we have a bunch of younger kids on ponies and their first three-foot horses so we can kind of cater to them and stay closer to home.”
While at home, riders benefit from the expertise of both trainers, along with barn manager Colleen Gillen. The trio all teach, and stay in constant communication about the latest on each horse and rider.
“We encourage everybody to lesson with everybody,” says Hollands, who splits her time between coaching at shows and training clients at home while Judge-Boyle is on the road. “It’s a very family feel that we have. All of us have the same vision but we all have a slightly different approach. I’m The Nitpicker. Heaviest on equitation. Tina, we call her ‘head guy,’ she’s tough. And Colleen, we call Hercules. She spins so many plates at the same time.” Meanwhile, in the school program, it’s Emma DiSanti who starts all the kids and adults, with assists from the other trainers as needed.
Judge-Boyle co-owns the farm with her husband, Mark Boyle, an equine dentist by trade who ships Judgements’ horses to the shows and does a little bit of everything at the farm. “Our business model is unique in that we do everything from the first time a rider puts their foot in the stirrup all the way to Harrisburg and Washington,” he says. While Mark handles things like payroll and “more mechanic-ing than I’d like!” Tina schools the boaders’ horses and encourages students to watch those schooling rides, often putting the riders on afterward so they can feel for themselves what she’s teaching about rhythm or straightness or whatever the day’s lesson may be.
“I try to teach riders about feeling what the horse is doing and not making it so mechanical,” she says. Some staples for Hollands are flatwork and basic dressage, plus mandatory working without stirrups for a part of each lesson. No Stirrup November? “I do it all year long!” says Hollands. “I do it for their leg and core strength but also, and they don’t always understand this right away, for their confidence.”
And nothing fulfills the trainers more than when all that work at home translates to the shows. “What I really love is when I take a rider to the ring and everything that we’ve worked on at home all comes together and they’re successful in the ring and proud of themselves and proud of their horse. There’s nothing better for me,” says Judge-Boyle. That hope extends beyond just her top show riders, too. Judgement has a lease program to bridge the gap between the riding school and horse ownership.
“When I have an adult who says, ‘Am I ready to go to a horse show?’ I tell them, ‘You’re going to come home with so much more than just staying home and taking lessons.”
Before they venture off the property for that first time, many a Judgement rider’s first horse show takes place right at home, at the farm’s semi-annual schooling shows. “They are something else,” says Judge-Boyle. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of volunteers. The older kids are getting kids on and stirrups adjusted, they’re doing the announcing. And the parents bring food for everyone and riding clothes that their kids grew out of so there’s a big tack swap.”
Growing up at Judgement also means taking on the role of a working student at 14 or 15 years old, a position the younger kids aspire to take on as teenagers. “Proper horse care is huge to us,” says Hollands. “The horses come before us all the time. The kids learn that very early on.”
“We do offer full service at the barn but we encourage the kids to get in there and get involved as much as possible,” adds Judge-Boyle. “When they grow up with you, you have a lot to explain to them. My grooms love the kids being around and helping.”
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about in this family—helping, learning, and coming together. One of Judgement’s up and comers in the large pony division, 12-year-old Jackie Stary, “is the first one in the barn, raking the aisle with the groom in the morning,” says Judge-Boyle. “She’s my shadow, she’s behind me all day long, wanting to set jumps, always working, always learning.”
“We’ve had several customers over the years tell us that their kids didn’t fit in at school so well, but the barn was a good, safe place for them,” adds Mark. “All you have to be here is a good person. We accept everybody.”