Becoming a Licensed Official: Two Sides of a Coin

NCAA Equestrian Conference Championships

It’s easier than you have heard.  It’s not as easy you thought.

The Case for a Judging License (In +- 12 months)


“A judge’s license is for the rest of your life. Until you judge, you don’t realize the responsibility you have to the horse show community, the welfare of horses, and the sport. Through judging, you become a better rider, a better exhibitor, a better competitor.”
– Archie Cox, Large “R” Judge, owner of Brookway Stables, employer of Karli Postel

Photo © ESI Photography

Archie really encouraged me to get my judge’s license and was generous enough to help me complete the application requirements. As a rider and trainer, I am not sure that I would have done this at this stage without his help. Having completed the requirements, I can absolutely say that I am a100% better exhibitor and competitor. The process was fun and I learned an amazing amount about how important and difficult horse show management is. 

My first step toward a license was attending a USHJA Licensed Official Clinic in April, 2018. Next, I applied to the Mentor Program after having asked Large “R” Judge Scott Williamson to be my mentor. Once accepted in the program, I started lining up learner judging dates with Scott. USEF requires that an applicant within the Mentor Program judge two shows with her mentor and one additional show with another Large “R” judge. With Archie consenting to give me paid time off to attend three shows, I was set to go.

I flew east using mileage points to join Scott at our first show together and arranged to stay with friends in the area. I was nervous and worried, but he was easy, informative, and fun. The week was very educational and I started to feel more at ease with the job. I returned home to California until the second scheduled week of judging with Scott. Again, flying east cheaply and securing free or inexpensive housing, I managed to complete all three weeks of learner judging. 

The travel and accommodations along with the cost of the initial clinic  amounted to approximately $1200.00. Again, a key factor was that my employer allowed me the time off and continued to pay me while I completed the licensing requirements. That made all of the difference.

I submitted all of the requirements to USEF before the February deadline and expect to hear about my small “r” license in mid-April. Fingers crossed! The entire process was exciting and not too expensive and I completed it within one year.  

Through sitting in the judge’s box, I gained greater respect for all those involved in staging horse shows. I grew up on my grandparents’ facility, Foxfield, in Westlake Village, California, where she was always holding shows. I have an enhanced appreciation for all that managers do, as well as exhibitors and trainers. Judging provides a depth of knowledge about the industry.

The Long Road to the Large “R”


The process of getting my Large “R” judges license was stressful, expensive and maddening. But it didn’t have to be, and now, with a few changes to the program instituted by the USEF, it won’t have to be for many others traveling that path in the future. 

Five years ago, I decided I wanted to pursue getting my promotion to Large “R” license in Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation. I had my small “r” for about six years at that point. I found the small “r” didn’t get me as much work as I had been hoping for. When you hold a small “r,” you can only judge B and C rated shows or classes, in addition to unrated classes. So, you have to find B and C shows which were hardly available in our area, or you have to convince the managers of bigger A and AA shows to hire you for their “back” ring, which can be tough to find. To boot, it can be difficult to get hired when you could be bringing students (i.e., making the show money). 

So, I researched the process of earning the promotion to Large “R”, which involved apprentice judging at three shows with three different judges. I love apprenticing. Besides working student positions, it’s the best professional development experience you can get. Imagine, you get three to five days to pick the brain of someone way more experienced, usually as a judge, a trainer, and a business owner.  If you pick correctly, you get an inside view to your most pressing questions about how to handle certain situations, both in the booth and in the barn. I’ve been so lucky to sit with every single person, and I have sat with a lot. Thirteen, to be exact. 

Why so many? That’s the purpose for this article. When I applied for my promotion, I had met the requirements as they are stated in the USEF Rule Book and on the website (three shows, three different judges). I had attended three shows, and sat with five judges. By the time the Licensed Officials Committee (LOC) voted on my application, I had sat at an additional show with two more judges. I had traveled thousands of miles, to four different states and spent thousands of dollars in travel expenses. I had spent the better part of a month away from my business. I made sure I went far outside of my zone to get the widest breadth of experience with a variety of judges, most of whom have judged major national championships. Then I found out the bad news: My application was tabled. I didn’t have enough experience. 

I was shocked. I met the requirements as listed in the Rule Book. In fact, I went beyond them. So that made me question the apprentice judging process. What did the evaluation forms say?

I only saw a handful of my evaluations. At the time, it was the judge’s decision whether to share the contents of their review. Some were very upfront and showed them to me, and some didn’t. So I’ll never know who didn’t feel I had enough experience There is any number of ways that the committee could have come to its conclusion. 

I could also jump to further conclusions that perhaps I had never brought a famous horse to the ring or that I was too small a fish in the competitive hunter-land pond that is Zone 3. Or that the horses I buy and sell aren’t expensive enough. It’s easy to let your imagination run wild when you feel blindsided. 

Many in our sport correlate being a competent rider or trainer with being a good judge. However, most of us know that there are plenty of great trainers that are bad judges. Just like there are many great riders who can’t teach worth a lick. We need to stop equating success in the show ring with other areas of competency in our industry and sport (horsemanship, judging, governance, teaching). Sure, that might be part of the picture: someone who lacks integrity in selling horses probably lacks integrity in other areas. But, being a good, accurate and proficient judge doesn’t have anything to do with whether I’ve ridden a champion at Harrisburg. 

I was informed that I needed to judge three more shows with three more judges. In effect: START OVER. 

I was mad, but I wasn’t going away. I had already invested so much time and money in the process. So, I scrambled to get more shows done. I had one year to meet the additional requirements. I decided I didn’t need a year, and I would do it in time for the next LOC meeting in four months. I decided to do FOUR more shows with SIX more judges. I didn’t want to look like I just phoned in it. I wanted to show that getting my promotion meant a lot to me, and that I’d exceed whatever requirement they’d come up with. I didn’t want there to be any reason for getting turned down. This would be my only chance to turn the tide on this application. 

Here’s the good news: I got the promotion. And immediately got a few judging jobs. 

I also think I played a part in the recent changes to the Licensed Official process. Now, judges who agree to take apprentice judges have to provide real feedback. No longer will an apprentice judge sit with a judge who might not tell them that they’re not ready. No more wasted time. No more walking away thinking you did right, only to find out your application has been waylaid.

There’s so much discussion these days regarding whether judges should be required to tell the applicant whether they are recommending them for promotion or not. I can see both sides of the issue: seasoned judges are worried that there may be professional or personal fall-out by telling a person they need more practice. On the other hand, shouldn’t the judge that allows the apprentice be willing to TEACH him or her? Isn’t that a primary part of teaching: giving feedback? 

From the apprentice’s perspective, good or bad, I’d rather hear the truth. I want to be prepared. I’d rather know that I need to keep working at it, as opposed to being under the impression that I had met the standard. If I meet the parameters of what the rule says and no one tells me I didn’t do enough – it’s unfair. This is not how anyone wants to approach her career development. 

To the judges who fear having to give honest, real-time feedback to apprentices, I ask: Who are the people you’re sitting with? Who doesn’t want to understand what they could be doing better? If it’s truly apprenticing, then the judge has to be willing to give feedback. It’s part assessment and part critique. 

If the new licensing requirements are to work, the apprentices need to be ready for bad news. I sat with a variety of judges, some were friends and some were strangers. Thankfully, I was able to get permission to apprentice when I needed it. Unfortunately, some of those judges may have felt uncomfortable telling someone they didn’t know exactly what they thought. And while I learned a ton from each, those judges will likely not continue to accept apprentices (or ones they don’t know well). Perhaps that’s for the best, if they are unwilling to speak up to make corrections when necessary. 

To be clear, while I found the process expensive, I don’t regret spending that money on my education. I don’t mind that it took a while. For the education part of this, there’s no other way I would have gotten the same experience. It’s the assessment part that was less-than-transparent, which was frustrating. I just wish I knew that reality prior to submitting my promotion package, and not after. 

If we are going to expand and improve the pool of judges available, this new way of giving real-time feedback should help. I hope the judges with so many years of experience won’t be afraid of taking on apprentices, and I hope the apprentices will be open to honest feedback. I fear that it may make the “good old boys” network a bit tighter, with fewer mentors, and fewer apprentices accepted by those they could learn from. But I think it’s worth taking the chance.