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From Center Ring: A Peek into the Judging Process

Show season is well underway. By now, everyone has a few classes under their belt, summer is heating up, and the countdown to Louisville is on. Peak show season is often bittersweet, as riders make goals to improve and fall into a groove. If you’re showing a new horse, it’s likely you understand their quirks and tricks. If you’re showing in a new division, it’s likely you’re feeling confident in its space; excited to take on the last half of the year. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-by-day of showing and forget about the broad spectrum of the experience. Division by division, what is the first thing a judge notices when you enter the ring? Or, during a tough class you want to stick out in, what should you be doing to get to the top of the judges card?

The simple answer? Showing successfully is like a five-star restaurant. It’s all in the presentation and a good first impression. And while the general judging specs are important, each judge has a preference.

“I’m looking at the overall picture,” said Billy Greenwell, previous owner and trainer of Billy Greenwell Stables. Now retired, Billy focuses on consulting and taking the time to judge shows across the country.  “I’m judging them against the ideal Saddlebred horse. It moves correctly and has good motion. They wear their bridle like they’re supposed to. They make a nice picture; have a long, fine neck and small ears that point together and a long, flowing mane and tail. They have good conformation. Sometimes I don’t know which one I want but I figure it out in the lineup based on that rule book. Which horse matches the horse best described in there?”

However, because the sport is somewhat subjective, there is also an element of personal preference that goes into judging – how they like to place the strengths of the breed.

“Obviously you have to go off of what your specs are,” said Jay Wood, trainer at Westwood Farm located in Plato, Minn. “But then you can work off of those for what is important to you as a judge or a horse trainer. Some judges sacrifice some head set for an extreme way of going or a horse that doesn’t use their legs near as much but has a great head set and a presence. That’s all about what kind of trainer you are. Let the specifications work into what your standards are from your own mind and heart.”

Personally, Jay likes a horse and rider combo that really grabs his attention.

“Especially during a horse show like Louisville because the classes are so deep,” he said.

So, how do you stick out from the rest?

“For me, it all starts with the horse’s head set and their general appearance,” Jay said “If they come into the show ring looking cocky. They have to hold their head up and be bright with their ears and eyes. Secondarily, I look for motion and turnout.”

Additionally, channel good, steady energy and personality.

“The first thing I notice is a horse and rider’s charisma and confidence,” said Brittany Balagna, owner and head trainer of Meadow Brook Stables located in Maple Park, Ill. “Expression, presence and suitability to the division are all part of the overall picture that I first notice when a horse comes in. A confident and bold first pass in can make me want to watch for and use a horse in a class.”

And you better make moves fast. Oftentimes, riders have a small window to make a good impression. Judges make card notes and decisions quickly. In a deep class of quality horses, it’s up to the rider to make them stand out.

“I personally think at a small horse show, you get less than a minute to show your horse to the judge,” Jay said. “At a bigger horse show, you maybe get two minutes. But, you have to show your tail off right then or there. The good ones always rise to the top; smart riders never get covered up.”

However, that doesn’t mean getting into a race with the other riders at every corner. It’s about quality, not quantity.

“Some of the best performances are put on by riders who use each corner to observe what is in front of them and behind them,” said Brittany. “Then, they use their corner to bridle, push, and find the spot each and every time that will grab the judge’s attention. It’s not about how many times you get around the ring but how the judge sees you each time you make a pass. A judge is much less inclined to put your number down if nothing about you grabs their attention when you go by.”

And smart riders know their horses.

“Riders know whether they should be up on the rail or cut the corner,” Jay said. “They know how they’re going to best present their horse or pony. Some are better 20 feet away from the judge rather than right on top of them. Some horses have a totally different profile off the rail.”

And “right on top of them” should never actually mean right on top of them.

“Cutting a pass or trying to get down the ring and climbing on the judge, that’s not a good look for you,” Billy said. “If a rider doesn’t think they’re seen and they cut down the middle and make a judge move over…I can’t see you when you're on top of me like that.”

Brittany agrees.

“Those are wasted passes and get dangerous for the judge and ringmaster,” she said.

So, for judges, how important are manners? Quality? Flawless execution? How the pair (horse/rider) look together? As far as certain nuances go, it often could depend on the judge’s preference. But most of the time, success looks different division by division.

“Quality and correct way of going are all paramount to me, but other nuances are dependent on the division,” Brittany said. “For instance, manners are of the utmost importance in a pleasure class; if a horse consistently misses key elements such as flat walking or halting, even if it is the highest quality horse in the class, it doesn’t meet the specs of the class and should be tied down accordingly.”

Billy agrees. He abides closely to the rule book, always.

“In open classes, I’ll forgive a horse for making a mistake,” he said. “Whereas, in a juvenile class or in a ladies class, you can’t forgive them as much. Each division is different. In open, performance is first. There are real valid reasons to why the rule book is written how it is.”

And then there’s the most exciting element of being in center ring: judging a high-quality, deep class. How does a judge separate and compare?

For Billy, top honors go to the overall performance of the nicest horse.

“There’s personal preferences, of course,” he said. “That’s why there’s three judges. Color means nothing to me, for example. The judges aren’t judging by that. I’ve seen very nice horses that are real close to the ideal that are all different colors. You’re looking for the horse that meets all the criteria and made the best show.”

Photo by Julia Shelburne-HittiFor Brittany, it’s all about consistency in that presentation. She looks for riders that are finding ways to be seen. Turn the arena into your own stage. Show off all you’ve been working on all season long.

“Some of the things that I look for to sort out the top spots in tough classes with quality horses are consistency paired with boldness of passes, cleanliness of transitions, charisma and showmanship,” she said.

So, when the gate opens and the class is underway, what is going through the judge’s mind?

“When you come into the ring for a class I’m judging; especially for Louisville, if you light me up right away, I’ll write your number down,” Jay said.

His process is well organized and easily modified to track mistakes and moments that impress him for each exhibitor. He starts by filing solid first impressions.

“I put a column and write three or four numbers that look like they’re my top right away,” he said. “Then, I’ll write down some in a middle group and a group on the lower end of the judging card. If they didn’t trip my trigger enough, they’re not at the top of the class.”

That puts three or four horses at the top, middle and three or four additional horses near the bottom ones to fill out his judging card. That doesn’t mean the horses near the bottom are bad, per say, they simply didn’t fill the top of his card.

“If one of these horses screw up, I’ll put an X mark next to them,” he said. “Or, if they’re doing well, I’ll put a check by their name, multiple, if appropriate. And if they have too many Xs they’ll get scratched off. For Louisville, I might start a second column when they reverse and start sorting up the top and middle three.”

But, sometimes, favorites don’t stay at the top.

“If it’s a big, competitive class, and there’s one that I really like…if it totally screws up, stands up on its hind legs or something, (just so I know that there’s no chance I can use that horse) I will write that number down and put a box around it,” Jay said.

Rule of thumb: don’t get your number boxed.

“If you have a box around your number, you’re in jail and you’re not getting out,” he said.

Following this, judges often work through errors and observe, narrowing down the top contenders.

“I have my own system,” Billy said. “I try to write down all my numbers as fast as I can. I like to stand on the side they come on when they enter the ring because I get their number right away, instead of getting them after an entire lap. I write their number down on the page where I think he might end up [in the results]. Top horses I’ll write at the top. All my best horses are in the top left side of my paper and my bad ones at the bottom right. A lot of it is secretarial; how you write your numbers down and organize how you’ll tie them on the paper. You can end up with a mess if you’re not careful.”

So, the general consensus here? Big errors will rule you out of the running, but lesser errors have the potential to be overcome, so ride it out; make a pass.

“As the class progresses, I generally check in on the horses that are performing in those top ribbon slots, making sure to observe each gait for continued correctness as well as how they are making passes compared to their closest competition,” Brittany said. “But I’ll start trying to sort through the middle of the pack. This is where making that really great pass that catches my attention can help a rider move up, or subtle issues can push a rider further down.”

However, judges may already have their cards and minds made up by the time you’re moving into the lineup.

“By lineup, my card is generally set, barring any major mistakes on lineup such as failure to back or not standing when required in the specs of the class,” Brittany said.

On the other side of the judging spectrum, what are their pet peeves? As previously mentioned, spatial awareness is a big one. For Brittany, sloppy transitions are also a no-go.

“Sloppy transitions also demonstrate a lack of attention to detail as well as a lack of understanding of how to set a horse up properly to move into the next gear, whether transitioning down or up,” Brittany said. “I appreciate a rider who takes the time to communicate to a horse properly to best set the horse up for success.”

Other judges don’t like distractions.

“In the rule book, they say ‘conservative colors on riding suits,’” Billy said. “If a rider comes in there with a gold coat and big, red flowers, all of the sudden you’re drawn to that coat. I don’t like distractions like that. You’re not looking at the overall picture anymore.”

The same goes for the horse.

“Sometimes, artificial tails can be applied conspicuously,” Billy said. “They’ll put a white switch in a black tail and it’s a distraction. Now, all of the sudden you’re looking at his tail and not the overall picture. A gold bit, a gaudy browband, or white gloves not in an equitation class. Those little distractions like that…you lose time. You only have so long to look at these horses. I like to stay focused on the overall picture.”

Above all, keep it classy.

“Sometimes, for me, different is not good,” Billy said. “There’s a routine and a showmanship. I don’t want any clowning around or cutting across the ring. I remember when Sam Stafford rode Yes It’s True in the walk/trot stake at Louisville. Sam never had his hands out of place. It was just a class act. That’s what I like. I like the horse to do the talking, not the rider. He made a first-class presentation of that horse.”

That, after all, is what it’s all about.

“Just show your horse,” Jay said. “Lay it all out there right away and if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Know how are you going to rebound from those mistakes, and show until the very end.”

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