Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News

Nov/Dec  2006


Taking It to the Next Higher Level

By: Cherie A. Beatty

Independent Director of Judging for the KMSHA


Enough time has passed since the conclusion of the 2006 International in October, that meaningful post show analysis has been done and plans advanced for the 2007 show season. Those plans can best be summed up as the need to “take it to the next higher level.” Before we talk about plans for the future, let’s take a minute to do some post-show review.

No one can deny that some truly wonderful horses performed at the Lexington Kentucky Horse Park this year. The majority of the entries were well presented and reflected great credit on the mountain horse as a breed and on the Kentucky and Spotted Mountain Saddle Horse Associations.

The majority of the classes judged by the three judge panel were judged by the book and below the saddle. This produced final placements that put new faces in the winner’s circle when they deserved to be there; rewarded exhibitors who have been consistent winners all season long by putting them in the ribbons when they deserved to be rewarded; and put some crowd favorites out of the money when they didn’t make the grade of performing to the standard set by other horses in the class.

Fueled by cool temperatures and horse show nerves, some horses were “hotter” than they have been at other shows in the season and worked their way right out of the requirements for their usual division, while other horses who were fresh at the beginning of the show began to lose their bloom at the end of the week simply by virtue of having been shown and shown and shown. One of the comments on a critique sheet written after the show was that the same horses that won earlier in the week were not the same horses that ended up winning the championship classes. This comment was meant critically and it shows a lack of understanding about the judging process.

Exhibitors may not believe it yet, but over time, I hope that everyone will come to understand and believe that each class begins and ends when the gate opens and the cards are turned in. What a horse did in one class has no bearing on how he does in the next one or how he will be placed. Each time you enter the ring, you start your horse show afresh. If you deserve the win, you are going to get the win, even if there are other horses in contention who have a better show ring history than your horse has, even if they just finished beating your horse a class or two before. We judge the performance of the moment, not the performances of the past.

Qualifying classes are simply that - the opportunity to qualify to advance in competition. You might win the qualifier and finish out of the ribbons in the championship. It all depends on what you do in that particular performance.

Remember too, that in championship classes you may face horses from other qualifiers that you have not faced before. Your horse may perform as well in this new class as he performed in the qualifier, but the quality of competition gets tougher as the show progresses. Having “as good a performance” may not be good enough for a win the next time you show. In an honest judging program there are no winners predetermined by performances earlier in the show or earlier in the season. Judges don’t tie reputations or sentimental performances. They can only tie what they see, right now, in front of their eyes, and that is as it should be.

There were also some complaints about the use of the Point System at this year’s International. The more easily understandable Majority Opinion System appears to be preferred by some exhibitors.

The judges’ program doesn’t have a dog in the hunt when it comes to which adjudication method is selected. That is the decision of show management. There are good and bad points about each system, but the consistency of the results from the International’s rail classes, where three judges marked cards, using the Point System might surprise you.

In 22 classes, judges Davis and Lampson placed the winning horse first; in 16 classes, judges Davis and Harding placed the winning horse, first; in 15 classes judges Lampson and Harding placed the winning horse first.

In only 7 classes, under the point system, did the cards show 2 judges placing a horse first that did not go on to win the class. This result occurred most commonly when the third judge saw something like a gait break or other problem that the other two judges didn’t see and marked the horse sufficiently low enough on the card that it couldn’t recover its first place position.

There were also a few classes at The International where I, just like you, sat back in my seat and thought, “Now how did that happen?” Have you noticed that reality always intrudes on the desire for perfection?

It’s time to say it: there will never be a perfectly judged horse show. The people who judge shows are not automatons; they miss things; they overlook things; sometimes, even with the best of instruction, they fall in love with a horse that is the wrong horse for the class and tie him anyway. Mistakes will always be made, but working towards the perfectly judged horse show must remain the goal. Giving constructive feedback to judges, while holding them to the standard set by the Associations, is the bedrock of the judging program. If judges fail to internalize that criticism and refuse to conform to the standard, they will not be judging for KMSHA/SMHA. It’s that simple.

This year the obvious error rate at the International was low; next year it will be lower still as judges begin to benefit from an aggressive training program and are held to consistency in standards. This is called taking the program to the next higher level.

In November I taught a three day judges’ seminar that included 29.5 hours of class room instruction, including video and live judging sessions and critiques of those sessions. We had lively discussions over the course of the three days and continued to work through varying points of view until we reached consensus about the standards for divisions and the ordering of values.

The clinic was open to one and all. There were licensed judges, prospective judges, and five interested exhibitors who participated in the full program. I admit I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more trainers and exhibitors in attendance. Having a better educated judging pool is a necessity if there is to be a first class show program, but having a better educated pool of trainers and exhibitors is also necessary if the standards of judging are to be understood and accepted when they are applied.

During one of the clinic’s live judging groups, an exceptionally nice class of trail pleasure horses was presented. This was the same sort of class that judges would see in any good Saturday night horse show in Kentucky.

The 18 clinic attendees watched the class through the prism of the education that had been provided. They placed the first and second place horses very consistently. No one was in disagreement about the quality of the two horses in question. Some would have used the first place horse second, and the second place horse first, but no one would have selected a different horse for first or second place. That’s consistency. The panel continued with consistency down through the third through seventh place horses.

Selected judges were asked to give oral reasons concerning their placings and they did a very good job of showing the complete thought process that goes into tying a class of horses. The sticking point came, however, over misunderstandings by some of the watchers on the rail over the use of the term “performance” and the delineation of faults that took away from performance.

Lacking the background of the three days of clinic preparation, there was some confusion and unhappiness in the spectators’ ranks over the way the class was tied. Although you can’t explain in ten minutes the consensus that it took hours to build, demonstrated in the tying of the class, in a nutshell, you could say that a change in mindset is needed in order to recognize that the measure of performance in under saddle classes is not based simply on the elevation of a horse’s legs and the speed with which the gaits can be executed.

Performance, as the judges are being trained to evaluate it, consists of the entire picture necessary to present a balanced horse for evaluation. This includes, first and foremost, the necessity for correct and consistent gaits, showing a change of tempo, in every division. Next comes the retention of the true qualities of a pleasure horse in every division. Then, there must be the proper level of animation and balance of execution of the gaits in every division. Finally, proper presentation, including wearing of the bridle, correctness of way of travel and way of going, style, and the execution of division specific competencies in every division are all factored into the judge’s decision.

The spectators weren’t looking at the horses with the same eyes as the judges who were very much aware of all the qualities that the KMSHA/SMHA wants to see in its horses. That lack of a common base of knowledge causes problems in understanding how horses are tied.

In 2007, judges will look for horses who have not only natural ability and are correctly gaited but also show that they are well trained and well presented athletes. When judges see these horses they are going to place them at the top of the card. Look in the soon-to-be-published 2007 rule book for expanded descriptions of the division that will be helpful in determining where horses should be placed for competition. In the future, please take advantage of the opportunity to attend any clinic where judging horses is the main topic of concern. Judges, trainers and exhibitors, working together can accomplish wonderful things in the show ring for these talented animals.

As the horses improve, it becomes more rigorous to judge horses. As the horses get better, it will become harder to win a ribbon in a class. When we take it to the next higher level, every trainer and rider will need to constantly improve themselves and their horses if they want to stay on the cards. That’s going to make competition intense, classes fun to watch, and victories precious.

We had our first hint at this new reality during the 2006 International Classic Pleasure Grand Championship. The horses that entered the ring were all of excellent quality. The horses that made the workout in that class put on a horse show. The video of the class shows that the top two horses were so close in performance that only slight variances in presentation made the difference for each judge. That’s when the final part of judging comes into play. When all other things are equal, and all other requirements have been met, the judge is allowed to exercise his right to select the horse he likes from two that are essentially equal in competence; that’s the only time that what the judge likes becomes a factor.

This means that while overall performance is foremost in evaluation, the presence of faults also must play a part in judging horse shows. As an example, when correct gaits are not present, in 2007 all judges will use the following order of preference, from top to bottom, in selecting horses to be placed among incorrectly gaited entries: stepping pace, rack, running walk, fox trot and hard pace. This ranking is based on the closeness of these gaits to being true four beat rather than two beat gaits.

As another example, judges will be looking for horses that travel on true lines rather than going around the arena counter bent. Let’s suppose that there are two horses whose gaits are equally good and who meet the requirements of the class, yet one travels true and the other travels counter bent. The true traveling horse, the one whose nose follows an imaginary medial line drawn straight out from the center of his chest, will get the nod on the card. The true traveling horse is considered to be the better balanced horse; counter bending is considered to be a fault.

Look for the 2007 rule book to have updated information on conformation judging and equitation judging in addition to expanded division definitions. The rule book is the road map by which horses will be judged in the upcoming season. Judges will be receiving monthly education material at home to keep the ideal of the mountain horse in their consciousness.

The basics of a world class horse show program are now in place. The rest is up to the trainers and the exhibitors. Keep in mind the words of Lucy Rees, writing in The Horse’s Mind: “Riding is a partnership. The horse lends you his strength, speed and grace, which are greater than yours. For your part you give him your guidance, your intelligence and understanding which are greater than his. Together you can achieve a richness that alone neither can.”

When you achieve that richness, your judging program will be there to reward it, and the audience will be there to applaud it.

As the 2006 show season is now officially complete, it’s time to thank you for your assistance in making it a success. Paul Willis and Billy Caudill have my special appreciation for their leadership and their support in my first 8 months with the program. Working together we will transition from one level of performance to the next level of excellence. 2007 is going to be an exciting year!



Note .


Issues of the KMSHA News will contain 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