You Be the Judge

What better way to make a name for yourself than to become a judge? Here are the pros and cons.

Reining horse trainer Mark E. Turner runs Turner Stables in Evansville, Indiana. But about five or six times a year, Trainer Turner dresses his best, morphs into Judge Turner and heads out of town to officiate at National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) shows around the country.

He’s been swapping his “trainer” and “judge” hats for the last 15 years. “For any trainer, judging is a great tool,” he says. A lot of trainers in all manner of breeds and disciplines agree with him.

Turner decided to add judging credentials to his resume when the NRHA revised its judging system. Turner says he liked what he saw of the new system, wanted to be involved in it, and saw judging as a way to give something back to the sport that supported him. Contributing to their sport is the reason cited most often by judges when asked why they do it.

Terry Wegener and his wife have run Wegener Training Center in Bennett, Colorado, since 1985. Wegener got his judge’s card because he felt there was a need for judges who, because of their training background, had a solid understanding of the reining maneuvers. “Some judges don’t ride at all but are excellent evaluators,” Wegener says. “But it gives you an edge, a ‘heads up,’ on evaluating maneuvers if you ride. It helps you use the scale a little more.”

Judging can also increase a trainer’s skills. Both Wegener and Turner comment that judging in other parts of the country gives them a fresh perspective on what other riders and trainers are doing and what is effective in the show pen. That, in turn, has helped them be better trainers.

For example, Wegener began noticing that when a rider held his hand closer to his horse’s neck, it gave an illusion of greater control and more subtle equitation. Based on his judging observations, he began making small changes in how he and his amateur riders presented their horses. “That has made me thousands of dollars,” he says. “It has helped improve how I show horses by 10,000 percent.” When you judge, he says, you know what’s expected when you show.

Networking with their peers is another important perk for judges. Turner says the opportunity to compare notes with fellow judges at clinics helps him develop his own eye as both a judge and trainer. Wegener especially likes clinics that allow riders a “rerun” after the review judges comment on their performance. “That’s the do-over, the mulligan everybody wants to have,” he says. The result is that everybody improves.

Don’t expect judging to bring clients to your door, says Wegener, because training businesses are based on geography and judges typically don’t officiate in their own backyard. However, he says, holding a judge’s card does add to a trainer’s credibility within the industry and might influence horse buyers working with you long distance.

“Professionally, judging keeps my name out there,” says hunt seat trainer Cindy Mooney of Four Green Fields Farm in Woodbury, Connecticut, who judges unrecognized shows in Massachusetts and Connecticut six or eight times a year. And while judging may or may not bring in new business, she appreciates the opportunity it gives her to be a positive influence on her sport. “One of the biggest reasons I judge is to try to change the way other people judge,” she says. She is upset when she goes to small local shows where youngsters should be having fun and, instead, finds them petrified of the judge. They perceive the judge as someone who is there to deem them unworthy, she says.

“I almost ‘clinic’ when I judge,” Mooney says. “I’ll walk up to people on the show grounds and discuss their rides. I’ll tell a kid how proud I am of their ride even if they didn’t get a ribbon, that it was incredible the way they got back on after they were bucked off.” Some of the more serious shows are put off by this, she admits, but generally she finds both youngsters and their parents are grateful for constructive criticism.

Mooney points out that instructors often put their best riders on the rankest school horse when the group heads out to local shows. The result is that the best rider often gets no ribbons while the poorer riders mounted on packers do well. When she gives that rider a word of encouragement, the fact that the judge really saw what was going on and acknowledged their sportsmanship can mean an enormous amount to a youngster.

Not All Roses

Like any other choice in life, being a judge has its downside as well as its benefits. “Judging can be a miserable way to spend the day,” says Mooney. “It’s always either hot or cold.” The show committee gets the judge to reduce her fee then forgets to bring her so much as a cup of coffee or to provide a lunch ticket. The show that was supposed to end on Sunday afternoon in time for the judge to fly home that evening runs late. He misses not only his plane but also the training workouts he scheduled on Monday morning.

Judges do not expect to get rich. Judges at recognized shows may get $300 to $500 per day plus expenses for travel, lodging and food. Those judging unrecognized shows may get $100 to $250. Judges at very small schooling shows may only earn the show committee’s thanks and perhaps a token gift. Trainers who judge also incur real costs in terms of lost training time. However, judges don’t do it for the money. “We do it because we enjoy judging,” says Turner.

Another drawback to judging is that the trainer’s current clients and people he or she has had financial dealings with in recent months are prohibited from showing at events where the trainer is an official. Mooney notes she has 40 to 50 students and they are sometimes disappointed when she tells them that a particular show will be off limits that season because she will be judging.

Some judges reduce this problem somewhat by sticking to shows well outside of their geographic area. Conflicts can still come up, however, when the judge is asked to officiate at a national event. When Turner is asked to judge a major show, he checks with current and past clients to make sure that none of them plans to attend that show before he commits. Conflict of interest can become a thornier issue for trainer/judges in breeds that use a multiple judge system to enable horses to earn points faster.

Earning Credentials

Years of showing and training experience provide many judges with informal credentials from the school of hard knocks. Mooney, for example, did the Medal Maclay circuit as a youngster and was long-listed for the USET eventing squad under Jack LeGoff. She settled down to teaching after a stint of show jumping in Europe and the arrival of three children.

These judges learn the craft of scoring and placing at small local shows and may or may not decide to go for official recognition from a breed association or the governing body of a particular sport.

Becoming a card-carrying judge requires a significant commitment of time. Learners also pay their own expenses when they attend clinics or travel to sit with recognized judges.

The requirements of different disciplines vary widely. Generally, a prospective judge starts by building judging experience at small, local shows. When learners feel they are ready, they submit applications describing their horse and judging experience to date and include recommendations from working professionals and other judges. A committee reviews these applications, and those accepted are invited to a judging exam (typically given once a year) that tests their knowledge of rules and standards.

Between acceptance of their application and the time they take the exam, candidates must work alongside a registered judge as a learner at a specified number of shows. The requirements for this vary from sport to sport. The formal process can take up to two years; some organizations put a limit on how much time can elapse between acceptance of an application and the taking of the exam.

Without judges, there could be no horse shows. That simple fact, coupled with a shortage of qualified judges and a desire to improve their breed’s or sport’s overall standards by exposing more people to judging, have led two organizations to create unique development programs.

The American Paint Horse Association started an apprentice program two years ago. Apprentices attend one of the APHA judges’ academies scheduled in February and December to review rules, study standards and learn how to fill out score cards. They can then take as long as they want to acquire judging experience before they apply to take the APHA judging exam. Trainers who do not necessarily want to become recognized judges can still attend the academies in order to learn more about the judging process and be better qualified to judge local events.

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) has an education program open to competitors and trainers who may or may not be interested in becoming recognized dressage judges with the U.S. Equestrian Federation. The program consists of educational sessions and exams plus opportunities to scribe for and sit with credentialed judges.

USDF developed this program to help competitors and trainers understand how judges arrive at their scores, to develop a pool of people qualified to judge schooling shows, to help individuals meet the criteria for entering the U.S. Equestrian judges training program and to offer licensed judges continuing education opportunities.

Given the judging shortage, judges recognized in one breed or sport may be allowed to judge others as well. For example, U.S. Equestrian Federation rules allow recognized hunter judges to officiate in certain Welsh pony and pony hunter breeding classes. Hackney pony judges can also judge Shetland pony and roadster classes.

For specifics on the requirements for becoming a recognized judge, trainers should contact the relevant breed association or sport governing organization for the divisions they would like to judge.

From the Judge’s Mouth

There is much more to judging horse shows than standing in the middle of a ring and backing up your opinions by presenting ribbons. Hallie McEvoy, a U.S. Equestrian Federation licensed recorded judge in hunter and hunter-seat equitation who lives in Vermont, explains it all in her book, “Horse Show Judging for Beginners” ($16.95; ISBN 1-58574-466-2; The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT 06437; toll-free 1-888-249-7586;

McEvoy describes the range of potential judging opportunities, both at recognized and unrecognized shows, and offers many reasons why judging is rewarding. She is, however, a realist when it comes to describing the difficulties of getting started, the low remuneration, and the environmental conditions judges contend with. She offers no-nonsense business advice on how to negotiate fees, expenses and working conditions.

The most useful part of the book for those just getting started may be the chapter describing how to mark your judge’s cards, keep track of riders, and quickly take clear notes you can refer to later if someone asks you about a particular rider’s performance in the class. The author does not flinch from discussing controversial points such as the delicate issue of rider weight and whether it should affect a judge’s placings.

McEvoy offers advice on dealing with other show officials, how to make sure you won’t find any surprises when you arrive at the show grounds, and a lot more practical tips for making judging a positive experience.

Those keen on judging, say, just reining or western pleasure may find the book’s general overview frustrating. McEvoy does not attempt to offer step-by-step guidance for becoming a judge in specific breeds or sports disciplines.

As a starting point for anyone thinking of adding judging to their equestrian skill set, however, the book’s clear organization and modest price make it an excellent research investment. Competitors who are constitutionally inclined to gripe about judging should read it to gain a better appreciation for the difficulties faced by even the fairest of judges when they stand in the middle of the ring. —BK

Where to Start

Over two dozen breed and sport organizations offer training and certification programs for judges. Contact the following major organizations to learn the specific requirements of the certification process for the specific breeds or disciplines you would like to judge. The organi­zations post judging information on their websites.

American Paint Horse Association (817) 834-2742

American Quarter Horse Association (806) 376-4811

American Reining Horse Association (405) 946-7400

United States Dressage Federation (859) 971-2277

US Equestrian Federation (859) 258-2472






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