In the Judge’s Booth

Photo © Evelyn Szczepanek / ES Equine Photography

by Ann Jamieson

We’ve all been there. You put in a terrific round, and you get…nothing. Or you were a disaster, with multiple chips and missed changes. Yet, unbelievably, you get called back in third place. What happened?

Judging a horse show is a balancing act, something that depends on so many variables that it makes the work of a computer look like child’s play. No computer could possibly sort out everything that judges do…and do in seconds.

Judges are on your side (well, the vast majority are). We want you to have a good trip; we’d love you to have a great one! There are times I wish I could jump up and hold a “10” card after a particularly smashing round. Those trips make our day; we live for moments like that.

We want to do the best job we can, to be absolutely fair. We are very serious about our jobs and sweat over making the best decisions. But, like everyone else, we are not perfect. As Betty Oare says, “You have to give everybody the best chance you can, but we all make mistakes, that’s just human.”

Bad rounds happen; it’s part of competition. At times we end up being scorekeepers sorting the worst of the worst. “Let’s see, this one had two rails, and this one stopped and this one left from a death-defying distance and moves like a sewing machine.” It becomes a math exercise, trying to figure out the faults in order to place the horses.

Sometimes classes sort themselves out so clearly there is no question how they should be pinned. Other days, several horses are so good it’s hard to place them; they are separated barely by a few tenths of a point. On those days, I wish I could go out in the ring and talk to the riders and let them know how good they all were and I wish I could give blues to everyone. A rider might receive a fourth, but it was a really competitive fourth!

While jumpers are objective, there are crazy situations that can arise which are very hard to call. Did that chestnut horse stop at that fence or slide into it in the slippery footing? He already had a stop. Now he’s on the other side and the fence is down, do I call it a refusal (and elimination), or if I think he slid, let him continue with a knockdown? To paraphrase Olympic jumper judge, David Distler, “Judging jumpers is eight hours of tedium punctuated by 10 seconds of pure terror.”

Hunters and equitation, however, are subjectively judged. Each judge’s leanings on any one aspect come into play. We all have things that we weigh more heavily, and things we weigh less heavily. But overall our placings should be similar. 

When I was learner judging at the Hampton Classic, I pinned the same horses as the judge I was sitting with, but in a different order. He looked at my card and commented, “You pinned the better jumpers higher, while I pinned the ones that were more consistent higher.”

It evens out. Sometimes the judge you show under will prefer the way your horse goes, or your style of riding, other times a judge will prefer someone else. I used to keep a list of judges I would show under, and wouldn’t show under. My first horse was a very fancy Quarter Horse. Most judges loved him. But some weren’t fond of Quarter Horses, so I just didn’t show under those particular judges.

Photo © Evelyn Szczepanek / ES Equine Photography

Of course, basics are crucial. We will never give you a high score with a wrong lead, a death-defying jump, or a horse that’s off. Please don’t even think of entering the ring with a lame horse. That’s awful horsemanship, and terrible for the horse.

Yet, all judges have to deal with it. I hate to embarrass kids, but I’m not going to let a horse suffer. If the horse is off, it gets excused from the ring. If it’s an adult or even a professional…why are they even in the ring? Once I even had a horse come back for another class after I had excused it earlier! I excused it again. I never got called back to judge that show again, but the important thing was to do right by the horse.

Judges are expected to have 180-degree vision, juggle three, six, or more cards with ease, keep all the numbers on the correct trip (and write the numbers down correctly), keep a stagger on every one of those cards, notice the slightest spook, break, disobedience, bad fence (or great fence!)—eat and drink while keeping their cards—and do it all fast so the show doesn’t run until midnight. 

“R” judge Susan Horn adds that a judge needs “to be able to sit still for eight to 12 hours a day or more, and have the ability to wait patiently when there are ring conflicts.” With two adjoining rings, “It can get confusing when the starters have similar voices.” If a number is called as the rider enters, and you write it down on your card, you need to check when the horse goes by to be sure it was the horse coming into your ring. If it wasn’t you need to quickly change the number. If you don’t catch it, you’ll realize something is wrong when you call in results…and there’s no such number in your ring. Now you need to fix it, and the first horse in the next class is already on course and heading to a fence.

Though most shows do try to keep us fed and watered, there are those where you find yourself way out in a field totally abandoned for the day. I always make sure to bring several bottles of water with me and at least some fruit to sustain me. That of course leads to the question where do you find the portapotty and the time to run to it! 

Sometimes there is no shade (I always have a wide-brimmed straw hat with me); sometimes it’s freezing and sometimes it goes from one extreme to another during the day. Now of course competitors know this from showing. But when you’re showing you are not confined to one location; generally you can find shade or water. When you’re judging you are at the mercy of the weather and management (though most management does take very good care of us).

If it’s an unrated show, with no steward, you are also at the mercy of ignorant competitors (or ignorant parents of competitors). At one show, I was judging the jumpers and a rider failed to go through the start line before beginning his course. I blew my horn twice. The rider continued. I blew it again, no reaction. I had the announcer let him know he was eliminated. He continued. He finished his “course” and left the ring. I had the announcer again say that the rider had been eliminated. 

The next thing I knew a man burst through the door to the judge’s booth (that door with the big “Do Not Disturb” sign on it), screaming that his kid wasn’t eliminated and he was going to report me to the USEF. I explained that his son had never gone through the starting line. He told me that didn’t matter, that his trainer had told him his son was clean and should get a ribbon. He kept threatening to call the USEF on me and I invited him to go for it. What was even worse was his “trainer” came over and started berating me as well! I asked them how they thought I could determine the time if he hadn’t gone through the start? I always prefer shows with stewards!

Ann in the judge’s booth. Photo © CMS Photography

Judges never know what will happen. I’ve had a pig run out on course right in front of a jump as the horse got to that fence (they both survived). Fences have blown down in the middle of a jump-off. Horses that have come in as the next entry have jumped the first fence before the rider already on course finished. And we have to figure it all out on the spot.

Sometimes judges get to work with awesome crews who make our job easier and fun to boot. Other times we may have a distracted gate person who gives us a wrong number or the competitor is wearing the number for his other horse, and that totally throws us off. When we call in our results we find there’s no such number and now we have to figure out what happened, while the first person for the next class is already in the ring ready to go (and often already on course).

When it’s very windy our cards blow all over the booth—while a horse is in the middle of its round. We have to pick them up while keeping our eye on the horse and get them in the right order. I’ve learned to gather rocks on a windy day!

A great crew makes our job so much easier, a poorly trained or disinterested crew makes it nearly impossible to do a good job. You never know what you’re going to have to do. I’ve announced, been ring crew (picking up downed jumps and running back to continue judging), and turned into course designer when I’ve confronted courses that were literally impossible to jump. 

Getting to the show can be a challenge. At one show I flew into the manager had forgotten to book a rental car or hotel for me. It was a holiday weekend and I went to one rental kiosk after another at the airport desperately trying to find a car. Finally, at the last one I was able to rent one (the show manager I was frantically calling never responded). As I was driving the weather turned ominous and tornado warnings were being issued. I just barely missed a tornado! And I discovered no room had been reserved for me when I finally made it to the hotel.

Kathy Pinera was called in to judge a show at the last minute when another judge couldn’t make it. She drove to a place she’d never been to late at night, was given the wrong spelling for the name of a hotel and therefore couldn’t find it. When she finally got directed to the right hotel, the code for her door didn’t work! (and there was no one in the office.)

Judges can always tell you stories…

While we have our challenges, for the most part, judging is a fantastic occupation. The chance to see phenomenal horses and riders, to hopefully make a positive impact on our sport, see new places, make new friends, and see how our sport differs in other areas of the country, is something I would never have experienced without my judge’s licenses. 

And hey, watching horses all day long and getting paid for it? How much better does it get?

About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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