Judging WTH: A Dotted (Head) Line

BY Piper Klemm

The situation last night was as follows. The Taylor Harris Insurance Services National Children’s Medal Final is running. Forty Riders qualify, 39 contest, the course is clearly posted. There is a dotted line. All riders follow the dotted line before the course starting. At the end of the course, a statistical percentage of the class crosses the dotted line in the closing circle. Those riders are scored and walk round two. 

Earlier in the day, a judge who was not on the later panel caught this error in a prior class and eliminated riders in real time, as is called for in the rule book. In the later class, the six judges evaluating the class, yes six, all missed this for multiple riders. The rounds were scored and ordered. Upon receiving phone calls, the judges went back and watched official horse show video of the rounds and eliminated the top two riders and others from competing in the second round. Six judges all missed what was happening with approximately one quarter of the class. 

Our sport has no clear guidelines on video review. Can it be used? Is it only for elimination purposes, or can it be used to raise or lower scores? We don’t go back and look for that trot step if there’s an upset competitor or a swap or a missed lead change if someone on the livestream catches it. But, this, last night, we did. Lots of other sports have video review rules on when, why, and how it can and cannot be used. We are (shocking, I know) behind the real world on this topic. 

Let me be clear: Once those riders exited the ring and were scored, there was no good outcome. No one denied that they crossed the dotted line at the end of the course. But once it did occur with no penalty from the judging panel of six judges, there was no good outcome. To eliminate those riders with an offense that should eliminate them was necessary. To not eliminate them is what common sense of how our sport is typically run tells us to do. If I tell a judge after the fact that a horse swapped where they couldn’t see, the result is not changed in our sport. When we consult the rulebook, there is not a clear directive on anything related to video.

The judges, who are high-level, did not know what to do once the scenario occurred. The horse show, with decades of experience raising the bar of our sport, did not know what to do once the scenario occurred. Those riders sat for over an hour while USEF was called, USHJA was notified, words were exchanged, video reviews somehow made it into play, and, frankly, how our sport is called forever changed.

Before we get started on being constructive, I must say my piece on three important topics. 

  1. Our judging pool needs to get bigger, more diverse, and more representative of our sport. We have so many competitions, and so many of our judges are active competitors with their own barns that, as the horse shows hire up for any given weekend, it is hard to find a judge at all, let alone choose one you think is of quality and will represent your horse show and exhibitors as you wish. Anyone thinking of starting the learner judge process, I highly encourage you to connect with a current judge and purse starting to judge at a level pursuant to your experience. 
  2. I do not believe in more rules. Our rulebook is a nonsensical tome of unenforced good ideas that no one thought out. One only has to walk about any major show tent with their ears open for a shockwave and rule GR414.4 ringing in their head to understand how much stewards, who are hired by horse show managers and not USEF, are required to put their heads in the sand to continue being employed. Why bother having any unenforced rules? They just anger the rule followers and contribute to the feelings that some competitors are more equal than other competitors, as well as the overtone in our community, whether real or perceived, that money can buy your way out of situations. 
  3. I believe that USEF needs to hire judges, stewards, and licensed officials as opposed to the horse show managers. They know that horse show managers cannot be trusted to enforce standards on their customers, and we know that they know, because they hire and send their own drug testers out and about. I believe judges should have vision exams per the DMV every few years. I think judges and stewards should expect to be drug tested or breathalyzed during any point of any competition they are officiating.
THIS has sponsored the finals at Capital Challenge since the early 2000s

Back to the constructive point at hand: How do we fix this? How do we fix what happened? How do we fix the fact that SIX competent and qualified judges were watching the same thing and all missed it? What were they doing? They were writing on their cards and scoring before the next horse immediately ushered into the ring. 

At Junior Hunter Finals – West this year, a horse limped in the closing circle and yet was given a score of an 84 and the red ribbon. All the judges missed it limp in the “jog” portion of the class. What were they doing, we ask? They were writing on their cards and scoring before the next horse immediately ushered in the ring. The team scratched the horse from future classes and I was informed that they “gave the ribbon back” the next day. There is neither a place in our rulebook to give back your ribbon and your points the next day nor protocol for it (I tried it out of curiosity after hearing about this, because I’m more curious about our sport than desirous of points; the ribbons still show on my horse report). 

Why are our judges looking down? What can be done about this? I judged locally a few times this summer, and I wrote so much, I still have a callous from the pen on my middle finger. As gen-computer, I was not properly fit for this level of right hand exertion. Dressage has an answer for this. It is called a scribe. 

Judges shouldn’t be looking down. They should be using their expertise to focus completely on the ring and what they are observing. If they need a scratch pad to scribble, fine, but they should not be looking down at a card. 

But we didn’t used to need a scribe. That is true. We didn’t used to. But what we now demand of a judge is simply too much for one person to bookkeep anymore. Our system wasn’t designed for routine classes of over 150 horses or to have eight cards open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Our competitions have simply outgrown and outperformed how judging came to be. 

The added benefit of a scribe? We could post cards or at least comments and people could have some semblance or feedback on why or how they placed how they did. I know we’re all supposed to just “figure it out” by watching or competing enough, but the truth is very few people can afford to compete that many times. We need data and information to trickle back to us faster and to be part of our horse show experience. 

But it is expensive. Our sport was made to look incompetent last night, in front of a great sponsor, in front of a large livestream audience at home, to people whose blood, sweat, and tears built this sport. It is worth the expense. For the horses, for the children, for the amateur, and for the future. Let’s make, once and for all, an extraordinary rule change that every horse show that views themselves as “highly competitive” require a scribe for every ring so that every judge can pay attention for every second of the two minutes in the ring for a final that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to qualify for in the first place.

Are these judges to blame? Yes, but the system is also broken. Let’s fix it. This is not a hard one. I volunteer to scribe for any horse show who needs me to get started. I bet you would also to get this sport moving in the right direction and let our judges do what they do best: watch and evaluate the performance they are watching.

Previous article20 Things That Scare Adult Amateurs Way More Than Goblins and Ghosts
Next articleEric Lamaze and Hickstead Inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame