I wonder if I am the only one out here that doesn’t have a problem with judging. The number one most complained about topic in the hunters – is judging. I can’t figure it out, people have asked me to write about it but I haven’t had much of a complaint about the way hunters are judged. Riding a show hunter is very difficult. Choosing a hunter is very difficult. Training a hunter is very difficult. There are no short cuts. The high difficulty level probably explains the rise in drug infractions in our sport, which should not be pinned on the hunter judges, that isn’t completely fair. Many of our judges are or were exhibitors themselves, or are still trainers in our business. They really do pay attention when you walk in the ring, they do want every horse to be successful, and they get excited when horses perform well. They are perfectly aware of the time, money, and energy this sport consumes, and they do not take it lightly.
Our lack of education might deserve more of the blame. For riders, the lack of hunter clinics versus the jumper clinics could be a good reason (let’s face it, jumper/equitation clinics far outnumber hunter clinics). Maybe everyone thinks they know it all already, or the clinics are too expensive, or the top riders don’t have enough time to spend teaching clinics, (fair assumption), but it seems to come back to education.
It is hard to find places to solely train on hunters, even in a highly dense area like mine, unless you are willing to be on the road. Really good trainers don’t stay home, they go compete, we don’t have the depth of horsemen unwilling to travel that will take the time to teach young (or any age) people the secrets of riding hunters for weeks or months at a time. In the eventing world there is a better chance of being an educated working student, because 3-day horses really cannot compete every weekend, so they spend more time at home. In the hunter world, good hunter riders/trainers get paid to ride on the circuit, and our shows start early in the week. How can you blame them for not being available at home long enough for a proper education? Those who make a living on the A-Circuit are only home on Mondays, if at all, and try to make an attempt to close the barn that day to catch up on some sort of life outside the stable. They have to make a living, somehow, and also be a human. Hunter horses can show a lot more than 3-day horses, and an average hunter rider/trainer can get paid to show almost every week of the year, especially if they are catch riding for multiple trainers.
Over the past few years I have been paying closer and closer attention to scoring and judging, trying to look for patterns, and trying to make sense of what all the complaining is about, but I haven’t really been able to find anything remarkable about the process. A horse goes around, with its ears pricked; brings its knees up; uses its back; lands on the correct lead; seems to like his job; – then on to the next. To me, I see the most athletic horses winning, which is a good thing. Athleticism is key over beauty when it comes to portraying a show hunter. Beauty is kind of like the icing on top. Every person out there deserves an opinion on what a classic show hunter should be, and some days you are going to win, others, you will not be better than third. If a young horse gets wild in the ring guess what? His jump will be wild and too quick off the ground, and he won’t win. Maybe his rider just spurred him off the ground or was too stiff to cause that anxiety in the air. Who knows. We are not all perfect riders. The busier the show stable, the more difficult it is to gently prepare a young horse for the ring, but that is not the judge’s fault. I don’t believe in excessive lunging, either, but I have learned that I can no longer take 15-20 horses to a show and expect perfect results. I had to make a really tough choice based on what I could afford to do well, and what I wanted to do well.
There have been a few exceptional horses, of course, Rox Dene was the most classic hunter I can remember, and won an extraordinary amount in her career. Each decade seems to have a prominent classic winning hunter, but I don’t think muddying the waters with numerical scoring on each fault will solve the problem. I can’t support this. It has been suggested only a few points be detracted from the score for a rail falling on course. A rail falling on course does not bring an Olympian a gold medal, so why should a rail falling in a hunter ring still bring a first place at Derby Finals? Subjective scoring has a place here, otherwise there is a jumper division available.
I think what keeps people coming back to the ring is the fact that everyone still has a chance to win that day depending on the judging. If the same horse wins EVERY weekend, why would anyone bother to show up to compete against it? The way it stands now, I actually have a chance to beat Kelley Farmer if she has a rail. It will be my day that day. I don’t think this is wrong, I think it is what keeps me in the sport. I like my horses, but I don’t prepare them like she does, so I can pretty happy when I jog at the top of a class at Upperville, for instance, despite the championship going to her or someone else. It is an honor to even be in the same class, really, but I have a realistic mindset about the ribbon color I am going to receive. It makes me be more selective about the competitions I choose, as well. I will choose where I LIKE to show more often than where the ‘trendy’ place to show is. For example, I will NEVER again show in a class with 150 other horses. To me, there is no point, even if my best friend thinks otherwise. I set my goals differently, and plan according to my own personal agenda. I am never going to show at a venue where show staff is mean to me, I am going to be handing my money to Classic Company, for example, because I have never been mistreated at any of their shows.
Education is the blame here, not necessarily the judging, I see judges trying really hard to do it right, and even more so now due to online streaming of major events. All the major venues are streaming live from here on out in our sport, more classes are being videotaped from beginning to end, (Tryon in N.C. and Swan Lake Stables in P.A. have EVERY round taped in each class for anyone to watch) and it seems that the judges are doing a better job. If they are not getting it right, they aren’t going to get those same jobs in the future, so why would they screw up now?
Politics probably still play a part, but it is waning more each year. The equitation ring might be different, but as far as watching the hunters, the judges can’t be held responsible for the detriments of our sport. It really has to come back to education. Our system isn’t quite set up as easily as training be a Grand Prix rider or winning 3-day rider. Don’t let the stigma of the hunter ring keep you from competing these days, the trick is figuring out how to do it all correctly, not quickly. Good show hunters take years, not months to make, and you may have to search for the right way to learn it; this time it is not all right in front of you. You might even need a book!!
To me the most frustrating times when watching major events like WIHS, is when the horses don’t seem to have an even playing field. The numbers are no longer big in the professional divisions at that show, and I think it comes down to the aggravation of the venue. The ring is SO different to what the horses see all year long, and all of a sudden, these giant flowered pillars are squished together, and it becomes entirely a competition of who has the least spooky horse that day. It is painful to watch. If there was just ONE opportunity to jump one or two of those jumps before they head into the ring, we might be seeing a more even class. It isn’t fair, so each year owners balk at the thought of competing in downtown D.C., and rightly so. The lighting changes, the craziness of horses hacking at all hours of the night together is not only unsafe, but silly, there are merely a few poles with which to practice, no walls, no greens, and we end up having horses with scores in the 60’s pinning. I think this year only 6 conformation horses bothered to show up. My husband could have judged those classes, and it didn’t make for a very good competition for the supposedly best horses of the country. I still love the show, but I can’t convince my clients to fork over that much money for a 5% chance of success.
Progressive solutions need to come forward to help, not hurt the industry, not only for the public, but for the people involved: owners, riders, and trainers. And we need more hunter clinics. And at the very least, we need more hunter clinics for riders.
The door is also wide open for you to become a judge yourself. The age requirement? You must be over the age of 18. Get familiar with the rule book, get familiar with the process, there are a lot of horse shows out there, not enough judges to fill those slots. With the opening of some major venues over the last couple of years, and more divisions being offered, we need you on both sides of the in-gate.
Danny Robertshaw wrote a great article for Practical Horseman on judging hunters – I think Betty Oare has done the same thing – certainly Linda Andrisani is very outspoken. She points out almost 30 faults she has to take into consideration when she is judging. She made an effort to explain it all to you in a DVD. Go read what they have to say, it makes a difference. Take their advice. Buy the DVD. It is good stuff.