Ask The Judge: What’s the First Thing You Notice When a Rider Enters the Ring?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


When asked what’s the first thing I notice when a horse and rider walk into the ring, the obvious answer is turn out.

I probably care less about what color the rider’s coat is than many. (Claret color? Viva la differance!) I believe in the traditions of our sport, but also hope that the riders can enjoy a little individuality and fun in their attire. Years ago, I had a horse that was capable of winning (and did win) the hack everywhere. I chose to wear a beautifully tailored (thank you Cindy Hadfield!) somewhat teal coat that would make me stand out from the sea of Navy and tan so I would be easy to find for whoever was judging. It was lovely, and really made my horse unique in a big group. That special coat was the last item of show clothing I held on to when my horse show days were over. So, I am not too critical regarding attire as long as it fits well and compliments the horse. Sometimes having something a little unique is not a bad idea.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

After a quick turnout assessment, I always notice condition. I want the horses chubby with a glowing coat, and an impeccable braid job (if it is a rated show). Want to have a special trinket in the mane, or a little color? I’m in with that. Just remember that sometimes if your horse doesn’t have the best topline (meaning round and consistent), you may be calling attention to something you may wish not to call attention to! Before a class starts, these quick assessments happen in a matter of seconds.

Truly the thing that I really pay most attention to during the introduction to your round is how you do your opening circle. First, I notice the horse’s demeanor. Is he relaxed in his movement, or maybe a little concerned and tense about the job at hand? What you do on that circle tells me a lot about what I am likely to see. A little bit of subtle showing the jumps to him will pass the muster, but I sure hope you don’t have to let him lick the roll top.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

I like to see the horse and rider go to work. I want to see the circle used to develop the gallop. The first jump is not a practice jump. With so many of today’s courses starting with a single jump headed toward the ingate, it is frequent to see riders go to it under the pace. Often if the rider doesn’t pick it up a bit after that, the first line suffers with a weak jump in and a hustle out. We want even pace and all jumps the same. So I guess my best advice is to use your circle to prepare your horse for a brilliant first jump and then on to a winning round.

Ellen Shevella is a veteran USEF judge that has judged everywhere from Palm Beach, FL to Palm Springs, CA and most places in between since the 1980’s. After a long successful riding career producing numerous WEF, indoors and Pony Finals champions she now focuses on judging, mentoring, clinics and growing her Mid-Atlantic Equitation Festival & Scholarships every November in Maryland. You can follow her clinic, judging activities and professional advice at her Ellen Shevella Equestrian Facebook page as well as in the Plaid Horse Blog.

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