"Show your horse to their highest potential and convince us that we want to ride your horse." Photo by Andrew Bailini, courtesy Canadian Sport Horse Association

“Show your horse to their highest potential and convince us that we want to ride your horse.” Photo by Andrew Bailini, courtesy Canadian Sport Horse Association

What better way to learn what judges are looking for than to just ask!

Recently I was able to spend a day at the North Carolina State University Horse Judging School which puts out the best materials and training sessions on the east coast, hands down. Many judges get their start here at the training seminars and through their judges certification program so when I was presented the opportunity to participate, I took it! While I didn’t have time to do the full course and certification this year, I attended the “Coaches Clinic” designed for 4-H horse judging team coaches to equip them and any of their students attending to learn. While I shuffled my girls down the hall to the judging classes, I got to sit with some of our country’s up and coming top judges; men and women who have placed through competition world level shows and have amazing national titles.

I’m often caught at a show watching the judge and saying to my kids or friends, “This judge seems to pin ______,” so be aware of that. While many tell me “don’t show to the judge, show for yourself,” I’d like to be realistic for a moment. If I am spending good money at a nice show under a well-trained and qualified judge, and the judge sees something major that I as a competitor need to be aware of, I need to pay attention to that in my own riding. We pay them to be there, don’t we? And yes, you get that occasional judge that you just can’t figure out and you don’t know where they’re coming from. But really, most are consistent in what they are looking for. So let’s take a page out the manual and see what we can learn!

Halter/Conformation/Breeding Classes

Balance – Absolutely the most paramount. Whether it’s a Quarter Horse in a stock class or a pony on the line at Devon, balance is key. Balance across the thirds of the horse’s body and balance from wither to croup.

Muscling – Is their muscling and bone smooth, clean and tying in well at the joints? Are they well-muscled and looking as though they are fit to do the job that their class would ascribe them to? (Is your hunter in hand looking ready to hunt? Can he make it through the hunt?) By far as a judge this is one of the easiest places an exhibitor or owner can make a difference! Keep your horse fit, on a nutritionally correct feed, and looking his healthiest!

Structural Correctness – This is where you hear those common dirty words about your horse… Knock-kneed, splay-footed, bow-legged, calf-kneed, sickle-hocked, cow-hocked and pig-eyed. These are terms used to define any structural issue as opposed to the “ideal”

Breed/Sex Characteristics – A mare…should look like a mare. A stallion… should look like a stud muffin. An Arabian should NOT look like a Quarter Horse. And a Saddlebred should not move like a hunter pleasure horse. These little refinements help pin between first and second. A feminine head, a masculine jaw, a clear throatlatch, and high quality natural action in the trot can set one horse apart from the others while pinning a class.

Performance Classes of All Disciplines

Consistency – The consistent horse doing his job to the maximum potential of his conformation is what we want. For those of us who have a horse with four speeds of trot, of which I am supremely guilty, just pick one speed for the class and hold your horse to it. Judges want to see the gait that reflects the horse moving at his most free and natural ground-covering stride that he can hold in both directions for the entire class. In judging, if you break of gait, we drop you down the card.

Manners – This means more than the hateful mare faces my horse likes to give all judges. In theory a horse in a show should be trained for and enjoy his job. We should see greater expression through the bridle and a horse who wants to be there. The manners that get you noticed for all the wrong reasons include: a horse who appears “intimidated,” which is a nice word we use to explain the horse who is consistently behind the bit and looking like he’s not a joy to ride; the horse who fights you with his face the whole ride, AKA the horse who does not like contact and today the rider decided to introduce more contact resulting in rampant head flipping; and of course, the horses just not suitable to be in the ring… the kickers ,the buckers, the horse who tries to break the in gate down and leave the class (guilty).

Way of Going – This is our little place where breeding and conformation lead to form. Is your horse a quality mover? Are you exhibiting him to his highest potential? We are looking for quality footfalls, depth and reach of the hocks forward into the stride. We’re looking for the horses that aren’t looking for permission to move their feet, but the ones that possess natural, forward, light-on-the-forehand movement.

Also under ‘Way of Going’ come the last three elements:

Self Carriage – Regardless of discipline, your hands should not have to hold up the entire front end of your horse. We want horses who can carry their own body and use themselves, and we are talking true self carriage, not a false frame. Anyone can throw a pair of draw reins on and fake a headset, but we are talking about a horse who can use his entire body – from poll to spine to croup – to hold himself in natural collection suitable to his breed and discipline.

Cadence and Rhythm – These little terms are essential to picking out a quality mover. In the trot, the rhythm is the 1,2,1,2,1,2 beat of the gait. Cadence is the term used to describe if those two “1” feet fall at the same time. A clear rhythm and cadence are important in all gaits.

How are they judging all this at once?

This answer may be hard to understand, but it’s training and guts. We spend hours training by watching horses and judges, live and in film, in classrooms and arenas, learning what it takes to be the best moving horse in a class.

With all that training under our belts it comes down to guts – trusting your gut to be specific. I was nailed at judging school for being slow to pin and evaluate. As the instructors told me, “You don’t have that much time to judge, you have 2-5 minutes to sometimes decide the entire fate of a horse’s career by placing them. You want to explore every angle but you need to move. There’s 20 other horses waiting for their back number to be called in that 5 minutes.” No pressure right? We tend to forget those on the other side of that booth! So to work on my speed, we did some speed drills! I watched the horses go and only got 30 seconds at each gait. I had to pin the class every 30 seconds and then at the end I was able to see how I needed to place the class. It forced me to use my training and follow my gut without over processing.

As a coach of a 4-H horse judging team, we used things like this to help train our kids to be better judges. Especially with the little ones, we work hard on teaching them intuition. We show a class and tell them, “You have to go in there right now and get on a horse, and the horse you get on needs to be the one that would win you the trophy.” They get it right more often than they realize!

The most important message for riders we can give you as judges is to remember that every second after you enter the in gate, we are judging you. Show your horse to their highest potential and convince us that we want to ride your horse.

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