Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse
What Makes a Horse Show?
Judging Must Meet a Higher
by: Cherie A. Beatty
Independent Director of Judging for
"What Makes a Horse Show?" The
answer seems pretty simple - horse and exhibitor, right? Like
all things in life, the answer that seems most obvious can also be
If you have horses, you should believe
that horses make the world go round, but, although horses and
exhibitors are important parts of the equation that make a show,
they are only part of the picture - the raw materials of a show.
Coming together on any weekend for the enjoyment of competing before
an audience, talking with friends, and having hard work rewarded,
makes people turn out for a show but what makes (or breaks) a horse
show is judging.
There can be great prizes, good
paybacks, super food at the concessions, a beautiful facility,
blooded horses, and well practiced exhibitors, yet, without a
qualified group of judges, cognizant of the rules and willing and
able to follow them, horse shows get small and finally die when
people get frustrated and then disgusted with judging. If
people can't believe in the judging they stop coming to the horse
shows and they should stop coming.
Everyone who has a horse has an opinion about how classes should be
judged. Some of the opinions are based on facts about the
process and the standard set by a breed association like the
KMSHA/SMHA. Some opinions are based on whether or not the
judge put up horses that were the same horses that the exhibitor
or spectator would have picked had he or she been in center ring.
Some people's opinion are based on the theory of past performances
or reputation, that this should give them an immediate leg up at
every competition. When the judge doesn't see it their way,
whatever that "way" happens to be, the judging is deemed to be
"lousy" or the judge a fool, and the complaints begin.
It pays to remember, however, that all
horses are not created equal. Some horses are simply better
than others, but, (and it's a huge but,) on any
given day, any properly trained and gaited horse has the possibility
of beating the best in the land, depending on what happens in the
ring at that moment in time. That's why we will always need
competent judges in center ring and that's why people continue to
show horses, because they believe, if the judging is fair, has the
opportunity to be the best, one class at a time.
Mostly, judging is a thankless job.
Why people choose to do it always intrigues me and it's also
interesting why those who complain the loudest often have no
interest in ever getting a license to judge. (There is no
denying that it's easier to stand and complain about the judging,
with no responsibility for the outcome, than it is to stand
courteously while lambasted by angry exhibitors who disagree with
what you did or didn't do.)
When criticizing judges, it's easy to
forget that they are real people who have also been exhibitors.
Judges know from first hand experience what it means to want to win.
They have been disappointed when they have been the victim of
uneducated or unfair judging. They know that half the show
grounds will be watching with an eagle eye to catch any mistake they
make and complain about it, yet they sign up to judge anyway.
That's what I call having the courage of your convictions.
Judges tell me they pick up their
pencils because they love to watch good horses come into the ring
and they enjoy having the chance to reward them. Those are
good reasons for taking a position in center ring.
Exhibitors must remember that each
class is a snapshot of a horse's performance at that moment in time.
It doesn't matter how many classes a horse has won before or how
illustrious his pedigree; it doesn't matter what he did last
Saturday night or that every other judge in the world has thought a
horse was a world beater; all that should matter is what a horse
does from the moment a gate opens and the class is called to order
until the judge walks the final lineup and marks his card.
When judging is fair and done below
the saddle, not above it, each class represents the opportunity for
a horse, whether he comes from a huge barn or a one-horse town and
stable, to leave the ring victorious. All exhibitors should
come to the horse show knowing and believing that it is performance,
not personalities or political pull, which will carry the day in the
ring. Performance - not potential, not history, not name
recognition - is what carries the day.
The willingness of people to believe
in the system rests with the ability of the judges to deliver the
goods which are fairly judged, impartial horse shows that meet the
requirements of the rule books not the requirements of the judge's
personal taste or the "like factor". The questions, "Why
didn't you like my horse?" has been heard after shows by
every judge who ever tied a class in any breed.
There's an old story about a weathered
veteran of horse show judging who, when confronted after a long hard
day in center ring by an unhappy exhibitor, told the man that it
wasn't that he didn't like the exhibitor's horse, it was that he
just liked the other horses better. Still, the exhibitor
persisted, "But my horse did everything right!" Said
the judge, "Well, then, I guess I'd have to say that I liked what
the other horses were doing wrong, better than I like what your
horse was doing right!"
This is a great little story, but I'm
sure that both the judge and the exhibitor were frustrated at the
end of any further discussion. The issue of like is the wrong
issue to address. What exhibitors like and what judges like
should play a very small part in the horse show experience.
Performance is the benchmark for winning a class. It's easy to
get barn blind, to love our own horses so much that we cannot
appreciate the quality in others. It's also easy to have a
good ride and think it was so good that we feel, without seeing any
of the other horses in the group perform, that our ride was the
best. Our friends and neighbors, who also concentrate on us
when we enter the show ring, also frequently fail to observe what
went on with the rest of the ring.
Meanwhile the judge, from his unique
vantage point at eye level, often sees things much differently from
the partisan crowd. If we use what we like as the main
factor in deciding a class, there wouldn't be any reason to actually
come to the horse show, either to watch it or to participate in it.
All we would need is one type of horse, under one type of horse show
judge, go out and collect all the ribbons. We could be done
with the show by noon, forget about judging clinics, breeding
programs, rule books or standards. Of course, each person with
a set of likes would have to start his own horse circuit, but then
everyone might be happy with the results, at least for a minute or
two, until the next breakaway took place.
Horse show judging is not about tying
the horse that the judge likes the best. Judging
isn't about tying the horse that the audience or the exhibitors
likes the best. Unbiased judging must reward the
horse and rider that present the picture that is the truest to the
type or division established as ideal by the breed standard.
Good judging is about tying the horses
that best meets the standards established in the rule book for gait
and for way of going and for manners. In the in-hand classes,
conformation and soundness must carry the day. Only when you
have two or more horses that equally meet the demands of the
standard should the judge's personal opinion of what he or she likes
come into play. Although there will always be some
subjectivity in judging rail classes, educated objectivity must come
first. This is the rigorous philosophical standard that the
KMSHA/SMHA program is establishing for its new judges' program.
The KMSHA/SMHA has made a serious
commitment to develop a program that will protect and preserve the
breed as a true gaited horse. That means KMSHA/SMHA has made a
commitment to the long term economic viability of the horse as well,
for if judges continue to reward off-gaited horses in the ring ad
make champions out of horses that are no pleasure to ride, people
will stop buying Mountain Horses and look for a breed that has truer
gaits and it not so difficult to handle. Trainers train what
judges tie. When horses that don't meet the standards get the
blue ribbons, in no time people are emulating that nonstandard
performance. This is the slippery slope that has ruined other
Making the judging reach a higher
standard won't happen overnight. The program has to be policed
and be self-critiquing. The goal is to achieve the only
acceptable standard of judging - consistency - brought about through
oneness of purpose and ongoing education and training.
What do you think the hardest class to
judge would be? Hands down, judges will tell you that the
hardest class is the one where all the horses are not quite correct,
yet, each exhibitor likes his horse just fine. When a class of incorrects comes into the ring, the judge has to pick the best of
the worst, based on his personal opinion and reading of the rule
book of which faults are most or least egregious. In such
classes, you can be sure that only the winner leaves happy.
Then, when he comes to another class, where the quality is better,
and he doesn't win, he will surely be unhappy. Why?
Because of unrealistic expectations based on a previous victory pass
- the reward for a single moment in time when nothing was quite
right. Exhibitors must learn the hardest lesson about showing
horse: to be honest about what they do in the ring when up against
real quality, and how well performed in every class in comparison to
Education and training is a two-way
street. To be able to really evaluate how successful judging
is requires better educated exhibitors, defined as people who know
and value the rule book, respect the standards, and willing to
produce horses that meet the requirement, rather then ignoring the
standard in favor of producing horses that they "like." The
standard is there for the good of the entire breed,
now and for the future. That is what we must continue to
As we come into this show season, each
of us must have realistic expectations about our horses, our judges,
and ourselves. It is unrealistic to believe that everyone who
leaves a horse show will be happy with the judging at its
My expectations for 2006, however, are
both simple and realistic. I don't expect that KMSHA judges
will be perfect this year; I do expect and will demand that they
know the gaits and the standard. They must follow the book,
tie to the book and be able to explain their placings, when asked.
They must work as hard to produce a well judged show as you worked
to produce the sort of horse that is worthy of being presented to
the public. I do expect that consistency, the by-product of
having all the judges on board and in harmony with the standard of
the KMSHA/SMHA, will improve as we begin the serious work of making
the judges as show worthy as the horses are.
In the next issues of the KMSHA
magazine a regular column on judging issues will run. If you
have questions about the judging program, I'll be happy to answer
them within the column if the questions are of interest to the
broader audience or I'll send you a personal answer if your focus is
more narrow. Please direct your questions to the
Editor of the
magazine and they will be forwarded to me. To submit a
question I'll need your name and address and also the specifics
surrounding your question if it concerns a recent shows.
Meanwhile, you can help to build this
judging program by becoming proactively involved. Become
familiar with the rulebook and put your horses in the right
divisions. Know what separates mediocre horses from good
horses from great horses based on the Standard. Then, train to
the standard and look at your horse as critically as a judge will
look at him.
Be honest about your horse's gaits.
If you are over-riding so that the horse is pacing or slick pacing,
Use adherence to the standard as your
criteria for evaluating your own placings at the show as well as in
evaluating the judges.
Forward your comments, based on
specifics, not on general likes and dislikes, about the judges.
Use the evaluation forms available at the shows in the officer area
to give your educated perspective on what happened during the show.
In this inaugural season for the new
judging program, we begin the process of growing together. In
time, this program will stand as an example of how horse show
judging should be done. The goals are quality, consistency,
adherence to the rules, and fairness to each exhibitor. In the
final analysis, nothing else is or should be acceptable.
Cherie A. Beatty
Independent Director of Judging for