Design Horse Shows to Build Confidence for Horse and Rider

Photo courtesy of R.L. Jacobs


Now that horse shows are back in action after Covid-19 caused shows to be cancelled for over two months, it is interesting to see that some horses didn’t miss a beat while others may have become a little green. Recently, I sat in the judge’s booth at a schooling show at The Farm at One Under Lane in Lugoff, SC, watching a wide range of riders and horses from the walk/trot division to the 3’ hunter derby. 

As the day progressed, a rider walks in with a beautiful moving horse. They trot across the diagonal with flat kneed movement, use of the hocks, stifles, and back. She brings the horse to the walk and gives him a pat of encouragement. I sit up straighter in my chair, excited to see how this round goes. The horse canters from the walk with a pleasant transition, ears forward and a light loop in the reins. I am pleased the canter is better than the trot, which in my opinion is the most important gait.   

The rider meets the first jump great, right out of stride, and the horse gives an athletic effort; lands the outside lead and demonstrates an easy flying change. I smile and note my judge’s card. Jump number two is a single oxer away from the gate. The horse canters up to the jump, the rider finds a comfortable distance. I define comfortable distance to the single oxer as a light pace to the base allowing the horse to have a round jump. Not changing the pace or rhythm on the approach is important. And even though the rider found a comfortable distance, the horse stops at the very last moment. I felt the sense of disappointment I usually feel when a horse has a refusal. I believe all judges want the horses to perform well; it’s more exciting when they do. 

Photo courtesy of R.L. Jacobs

The horse tries a second and third time, with no luck. The rider looks at me and I say, “Try it again.” Then comes the fourth refusal. I quickly hop into the ring (I’m 6’1”, so it’s easy to do so) to help. I take the back rail off the oxer, and encourage her to close her leg at the base even when the distance is good. She was getting the horse to great distances each time, but just didn’t close the leg. With a green horse who hasn’t shown in three months or more heading to an oxer away from the gate that looked different from the others (logs and flowers underneath), that small piece of advice is critical. She was an experienced rider, but made the small mistake we all have made hundreds of times. 

She approached the jump again with the back rail off, got him to a great distance, and this time she closed her leg firmly at the base. And, he jumped it. As I stood in the ring, you could literally see the horse take a breath as they landed. I said to the rider, “Now jump the rest of the course.” She jumped the rest of the course in style, confidence and smoothness. There were more oxers on course and more jumps away from the gate too. Not knowing the horse or rider, I stood in the ring thinking, “I’m interested to see how he jumps the oxers and the jumps away from the gate”. Everything was done smoothly. It was amazing to see this horse regain his confidence and end on a high note. 

This horse didn’t receive a score, but I believed instead received a positive show experience neither the horse or rider will forget. I think we can all say we have had times in the show ring when we had to end in a less-than-ideal way. As a judge, I try to help where I can. 

In March of 2019, I chose to close my business and have decided to judge for fun and pure enjoyment. I work full-time in Development for the USHJA and find fulfillment giving back on the governance side of the sport. It boils down to the fact that I just love horses and seeing people achieve success at all levels. 

I enjoy going to private barn’s judging schooling shows, because there is more of an opportunity to demonstrate sympathy and empathy for the horse and rider. I think I just enjoy adding value and adding to the experience people have when we share horses together. In my opinion, if we all did the little bit we can, we would be able to grow our equestrian community for the better.