“The Judge Didn’t Like Me”

Warming up for the equitation flat. My hands crept below the withers again! Photo by Emily Roberts.

BY CARLY PHOON

Competing in equitation can be humbling. For me, a little moment of learning came from my last equitation flat class.

First, a flashback to the beginning of the show season: Eq flat classes were a major struggle for me. My hands drifted below my horse’s withers on their own accord. If the sitting trot was my nemesis, the extended sitting trot was my arch-nemesis. I was less than proficient at keeping my horse on the bit in the canter. However, my wiggly ankle was my literal and figurative Achilles. According to my trainer, it’s what really killed me in equitation flat classes.

With all of these struggles in mind, I set a simple goal: Place in a single eq flat class. Just one. Put in every ounce of energy, every minute of no-stirrup work, into improving enough that seven people might beat me, but I come home with that brown 8th place ribbon.

In the middle of the season, my hard work paid off. I achieved my goal. Then, to my astonishment, I kept improving. By the end of the season, I was placing top three in equitation flat classes.

Enter present day. I was competing at the culminating show of the season: Greater San Diego Hunter Jumper Association (GSDHJA) Championships, a show that’s like the county circuit equivalent of the Maclay Finals. The class I was most excited for? Not the hunter derby, the open equitation challenge, nor the medal finals. No, I was most excited for my eq flat class.

For the first time ever, I walked into that ring feeling confident. My hands were above the withers. My core was now strong enough that I could hold my position, even on my horse’s incredibly bouncy extended trot. I could keep my horse on the bit in the canter. My Achilles–the loose ankle–could always use improvement, but I’d gotten pretty good at “faking it” during the few seconds that we passed in front of the judge.

After a long, difficult test, the riders were finally called into the center of the ring to await results. I was proud of how I rode.

Equitation flat class at GSDHJA Championships. Photo by Emily Roberts

The announcer began the results, in reverse order: 10th place goes to… and my name followed.

10th? Outwardly, I appeared thrilled with that result. But internally, my unhappiness poisoned the thrill of even getting a ribbon at Championships. I got 10th, and in my mind that didn’t add up to the riding I had put in.

I consoled myself with the oh-so-common phrase of the dejected competitor—The judge didn’t like me.

After telling myself that, I felt better in the moment. In all honesty, up to this point I told consoled myself with this belief after every single poor round or disappointing ribbon. It always made me feel better, but the excuse never ended up leaving me satisfied – as it shouldn’t have.

I kept mulling over my equitation flat ribbon. My reasoning changed to, The judge didn’t dislike me, she just liked other riders better. This perspective didn’t boost my self-esteem any more, but it placed a more objective lens over my disdain.

Judges prioritize different things. The judge that “liked” me at that other show might have been looking first for a good seat, which is one of my strengths. This judge might have been looking first at the lower leg and saw through my effort to hide my loose ankle.

If 527’s leg was more still than mine, that’s a fact. If my seat was better than 527’s, that’s a fact. It’s the judge’s decision on how the class is pinned. So yes, equitation is subjective–but at the core of equitation is objectivity.

Just like that, my excuse of the judge didn’t like me was rendered invalid.

This new mentality proved to be humbling, but it also proved to be rewarding. When I found out I finished 9th in my equitation division for the season, I knew it that it wasn’t because judges suddenly decided to “like” me, but because I’d earned it.