Covering horse shows of multiple disciplines around the region, I see a lot of different ways shows are run. And one of the big differences that I see, and have also experienced as an exhibitor, is the placement of the judge during a flat class.
In the AQHA/stock horse-led culture that I grew up in, the judge was always in the arena for the flat classes. Often they place themselves off to one corner. From there they can see most of the arena plus hear the footfalls of the horses behind them. But when I started showing hunters in college, the judges were always sitting outside the arena. Sometimes they were hard to even find. I always found this disconcerting.
Part of showing includes your presentation to the judge. At the district horse shows I attended as a teenager only the first- or second-place horse moved on to the state championship. Three judges were used and their scores were averaged to determine the final placings. One year, while two of the judges were consistently placing me high, one judge wasn’t using me at all. This was sending me down to sixth overall and outside of qualifying for the state horse show. Part of my instructions from my coach included to make eye contact with that judge as I came toward him. Did it help? I have no idea. But it was part of the showmanship: Confidently showing your horse to the judge, and let’s face it, finding a spot to make an adjustment behind the judge’s back.
I was reminded of this difference at the last show I attended: the Virginia 4-H State Championship. In the hunter pleasure classes on Saturday afternoon, the announcer had to ask each class to look up at the stands at the waving judge and then explain that they shouldn’t ride down the rail on that side of the arena as she wouldn’t be able to see them. It made for a very lopsided ride for the exhibitors with awkward turns at the corner so they could ride off the rail down one side. Maybe not so awkward if you are alone in the arena, but in classes of 15-18 horses, some exhibitors would be coming into the corner three deep. Some of them resorted to riding a little circle in the middle of the arena, which appeared to suit the judge just fine but didn’t make the horse look so great.
At the end of the class, the lineup had horses stacked up in just a tiny part of the arena so that she could see the numbers. If she couldn’t see numbers in a normal lineup, what else couldn’t she see?
I saw one very nice horse miss its lead not once, but three consecutive times, before giving a little buck and taking the correct one. This happened right in front of the judge but perhaps too close to the rail for her to know. It’s hard to say that was the case, but it was a major error that ended in a reserve championship.
Sitting in the stands seems to me to be so disconnected from the exhibitors. I couldn’t help but think to myself that all of this could have been avoided if the judge would simply come stand in the arena.
The Virginia 4-H State Championship had some judging inconsistencies. Some disciplines had just the one judge, such as the hunters and dressage equitation. One person’s opinion to decide the state title. However, when I switched gears to watch the Western divisions, there were two judges. (Both in the arena I might add.) I believe multiple judges is the more appropriate choice at a state championship. Three would be even better than two as you’d have fewer ties. Of course, the cost of paying the judges becomes a factor.
And as a further argument for judges in the arena, the exhibitors got to lineup in front of each individual judge before the final results were announced. Often the judge would chat with the winning rider as they stood there. That’s a memory that is likely to always stick with that rider.
I know that judging is a long day and they deserve a seat. And classes that involve patterns or jumping a course are a fantastic chance to allow the judge to sit. However, for the flat classes on the rail there is no reason to be up in the bleachers. Exhibitors who put their heart and soul into that weekend of showing deserve to get the chance to look their judge in the eye and show them just what they’ve got.
What do you all think? Do you have a preference as to where you find the judge?