Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News

May/June 2006


What Makes a Horse Show?

Judging Must Meet a Higher Standard

by:  Cherie A. Beatty

Independent Director of Judging for the KMSHA/SMHA



"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 incorrect.


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 gaited breeds.


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 the standard.


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 remind ourselves.


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 conclusion.


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.





Note .


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, slow down.


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 the KMSHA/SMHA