IEA Judge Shares the Behind the Scenes of Hunt Seat National Finals

Photo © Jennifer Wile Rubin


I was honored to judge the 2021 Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) Hunt Seat National Finals, April 22-25, 2021, held at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agriculture Center, along with Mary Babick. This show year has certainly been quite challenging due to the pandemic. Roxane Durant, IEA Executive Director, and Bernie Villeneuve, Show Manager, overcame numerous obstacles and challenges. The entire IEA staff persevered and with much preparation (and Covid protocols in place) the National Finals were held. I enjoyed and appreciated the positive atmosphere and excitement throughout each day of this fantastic event.

Days were filled with a display of “team effort” and camaraderie. Volunteers helped to set up the courses, clear the ring of fences, adjust fence heights. Horses were generously provided to the qualifiers. Horse coordinators and in-gate personnel were organized. The riders entered the ring in a timely manner. All these details were greatly appreciated and helped to make this show run smoothly. And of course we are all so grateful to the generous sponsors!

Throughout my judging career I have always been an IEA supporter, have officiated at many IEA Regional and Zone Finals throughout the country. So I was so excited to be asked to judge the National Finals! IEA offers a wonderful program to grades 4-12, giving riders access to shows without needing to own their own horse. To compete, riders need to qualify for Regional Finals. With a blue ribbon win at Zone Finals, they are eligible to compete at the IEA National Finals. 

In preparation for each flat class, Mary Babick and I planned an order of gait movements, and appropriate tests for the level of riders while keeping in mind the amount of work for the horses. As the riders entered the ring, we wrote down the number and color of each horse or pony. Judging begins when all riders have entered the ring and the announcer, John Bahret, calls the class at the walk. 

Ideally the rider displays correct basics at all gaits. My eye is drawn to an overall workmanlike appearance, correct leg position, appropriate stirrup length, with foot placed in the stirrup at the correct angle, heels down with ankles flexed. Next I consider rein length, contact with the horses’ mouth, eyes ahead, flat back with correct angle of upper body and well balanced rider. At the posting trot, I reward the rider posting with correct angles, closing the hip angle. I note adversely on my card riders posting on or behind the vertical. 

At the sitting trot, I reward the rider who is seated in unity with the horse while maintaining correct leg position. At the canter, I again reward riders in harmony with the horse, seated, maintaining contact with the horses’ mouth and in balance. The rider out of the saddle, seat slapping the saddle, is noted adversely on my card. 

At all gaits, an appropriate pace and smooth transitions are considered. I made note of riders who were on the incorrect diagonal and did not change it. If a rider picked up the incorrect lead, I counted how many strides until the rider changed to the correct lead. Mary and I strongly and positively considered the performance of riders on more challenging horses.

After we viewed the riders in one direction, Mary and I conferred on an order of preference. The riders were then asked to reverse direction, and viewed again at various gaits.  Depending on the level of riders, we asked the riders to demonstrate exercises such as a two point position at the trot, halt, or to drop their stirrups. I assigned each rider a score. We compared the performances of the riders and selected 8 riders to return for the Final flat phase. 

Riders were then assigned different horses and returned to the ring. After judging the riders at all gaits, we collaborated on an order of preference and discussed if we needed to further test. If more testing was needed, the selected test was announced. Often no further coaching was permitted. The riders and coaches know in advance what tests the judges could choose from. Mary and I were a bit surprised with the different versions of execution of a “figure eight!” Sometimes we asked questions regarding basic horsemanship or tack and equipment. Again upon the completion of each test, I assigned the rider a score. After the tests were performed Mary and I shared our opinions and placed the riders in order of preference. 

In preparation for the over fences classes, Mary and I discussed the course, the questions being asked, and options of various tracks appropriate for the level of riders. Riders of each class were given the opportunity to perform over a well designed course, appropriately suited for the class level. 

Prior to the beginning of the over fences classes we were given a list of horses that performed a simple change or flying change. With that in mind, our scores did not reflect horses who did a flying change over a simple change. We shared thoughts on where on the course a change of lead should take place. Before the beginning of each class we designed a few courses to choose from if further testing was necessary. 

I judged the riders as they entered the ring throughout the course on their overall performance. Judging ended as the rider exited the ring. I rewarded a good, appropriate rhythm at the canter, rider in a half seat, a display of good basics, good leg position in between the fences, and over the fences, an appropriate release according to level of the rider, and control of the horse. The overall performance of the rider was heavily considered. Riders were rewarded for good performances on more challenging horses. 

Mary and I conferred during each round. We rewarded smooth, seamless rides. At the conclusion of each round, we determined an appropriate score. At the end of the class, after seeing the riders perform, we selected eight riders to return for the final round. Riders were assigned different horses and jumped another course. Upon completion, Mary and I discussed if further testing was necessary, and then determined the most appropriate tests. Often the riders tested on different mounts and were not allowed the opportunity to confer with their coach. Mary and I both agreed that we like to see riders think independently. Upon the conclusion of testing, we shared our opinions and the final results were determined. 

The IEA staff provided the qualifiers a wonderful opportunity to compete in a fantastic facility! At the conclusion of each Final, the top 8 riders were awarded a well deserved, outstanding  presentation of awards. Mary and I enjoyed officiating together! Congratulations to all qualifiers and we wish you all continued success!

As a Junior rider, Rita Timpanaro won the ASPCA Maclay Reserve Championship and won the AHSA (presently USEF) Medal Championship. As a hunter/jumper rider and trainer she has qualified over 35 riders for the Equitation Finals and Junior Hunter Finals. She has held a USEF (formerly AHSA) “R” judges license in the Hunter, Hunter Breeding, Jumper and Hunt Seat Equitation for 45+ years, has officiated throughout the United States and Canada, including Regional, Zone and National Championships.  She has served on various USEF committees: Junior Hunter, Continuing Education, Measurement, Zone II Hunter/Jumper; past LIPHAVice President;  past USHJA Certified Trainer and Clinician, and continues to conduct clinics throughout the nation.