You bring your horse down from the canter and prepare for the final trot into the line-up. The class is over, and as you join the other horses and riders in center ring, you’re mentally walking through your performance – every canter lead and gait change. You guys did great, except for that one little flub, but you don’t think the judges noticed. Just a few more steps, and you’re next to the other horse and rider combinations. That’s when you look down, contemplating how you will smile humbly and accept your ribbon, when you notice in horror just how dirty your boots are. Maybe the judges won’t care. At least, you hope they don’t.
The first ribbon is given out. Then the next, and the next. And suddenly, you’re leaving the ring without the ribbon you thought you deserved; you thought you had earned it.
Apparently, the judges thought otherwise.
You want to know what went wrong, but are you even allowed to ask the judge for feedback? You can, but industry experts say that the process should always be approached carefully and in the proper spirit.
During a show, there are rules for how and when exhibitors can talk to judges. Kent Swalla, United States Equestrian Federation judge, World Cup committee member and owner, trainer and instructor at Glendale Stables, stresses the importance of following these rules when approaching judges for feedback.
“I think the proper thing to do is always to ask the management or the horse show steward to speak with the judge, but I’m not opposed to anyone asking me by any means,” he said.
According to USEF rules for competition participants, found in section GR1304, “No one shall approach a judge with regard to a decision unless he first obtains permission from the Show Committee, steward or technical delegate who shall arrange an appointment with the judge at a proper time and place. No exhibitor has the right to inspect the judge’s cards without the judge’s permission.”
Of course this only applies to USEF licensed competitions. At non-USEF shows, Kent said, though it isn’t required, it is nice to ask the horse show management. There are no rules that prevent an exhibitor from approaching a judge once either type of competition had officially ended.
The proper approach
When approaching a judge, Richard Wright, trainer and owner at Black Tie Stables said, be courteous and prepared.
After the show, Richard said, it is common for competitors to thank the judge for their efforts and coming to judge their horses. This does three things – first, it allows the competitor to genuinely thank the judge; second, it gives the judge and competitor an interaction; and third, it serves to help remind the judge who the competitor is for any after-the-show following up.
Before making the decision to approach a judge, Richard, who serves on the USEF and UPHA equitation committees, is a World Cup Trial judge and has judged in both Canada and South Africa, suggests seeing if you have access to video footage of the class, and watching it.
“You might realize you don’t really want to make a call,” he said.
He prefers digital contact, through email or Facebook first, rather than a phone call, where the rider is specific about who they are, who their horse is, what class they were in and any memorable activities that happened during the class.
“Not every judge remembers, and not all judges remember a horse by their number,” he added. “Give the judge enough information to recognize the horse… or what color suit the person had on… so someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t know your horse can figure out who you were.”
Being respectful of the judge, and their time, and keeping in mind that their job was over once the show was over, is imperative.
Feedback after the show – whether it is asking if your horse shows potential, or should have been higher-headed or lower-headed, faster or slower – will help the rider, if the rider contacts the judge with an open mind, Richard said.
“Ask for feedback on what was bad to use as a learning tool,” he said. “The number of people who want to call a judge after a show to explain to them how wrong their decision was, well, that is never a good decision.”
Mary Orr, USEF judge and William Woods University alumni, suggests riders wait long enough to contact a judge to give perspective, but not enough time to be forgotten.
“We’re very passionate about what we do, and that gets in the way as an exhibitor,” she said. “When you’re proud of what you’re doing and disagree with what they did, you want to know why, and that’s difficult to not take it personally.”