Inside Judges’ Minds

When it comes to the show pen, judges rule. But they're a lot less intimidating once you get inside their world and find out what makes them tick.

They’re the ruling class of the horse-show kingdom, reigning over their subjects from the center of the ring. They make, or break, your show day with the click of a pen. “They” are The Judges: stern figures in expensive hats, clipboards in hand, casting their critical eyes your way. Even seasoned show veterans are known to quake in their chaps under the scrutiny of one of “them.”

If only you had access to their inner circle, and could glean insider info guaranteed to calm your nerves, improve your performance, and win their approval?

Access granted! We put together a panel of experts from the judging community’s top show judges, and asked them to open up about their jobs. (Meet our panel on page 48). What they shared will enlighten and entertain you, and change the way you look at show judges forever!

A Different Perspective
All the members of our panel agree on this: The world looks different from the center of the ring. Especially in rail classes, judges have their hands more than full. Think of it this way: The last time you watched a class, you most likely placed the class in your mind to, maybe, your top three horses. Judges can’t stop there.

“I have to place the entire class,” points out Tim Finkenbinder. “That’s a big responsibility.” And there’s not much time to accomplish it, either.

“If you’re in a class of 20 horses, and it lasts 10 minutes, the average amount of time a judge can visually devote to each horse is around 30 seconds,” observes Dee Dee Douglas.

Rob Meneely concurs. “We only get a few seconds to analyze a horse before the next one comes into view.”

And, as Finkenbinder sums up, “All judges want to get the class placed correctly.” So the pressure’s on.

Truths about judges that may surprise you: They want you to be successful, and would rather reward you for positives than ding you for mistakes.

Getting Noticed
Given those time constraints, good first impressions are the key to the judges’ kingdom. According to our panel, here’s how to make a standout impression:

  • Exude confidence.This means the kind that comes from solid practice and preparation. “Nothing replaces being prepared, and that starts long before you enter the arena,” says Kelly Boles Chapman. Andrea Simons is equally unequivocal: “The one thing that attracts me to an exhibitor is confidence. I love it! And bonus points if your horse is happy and enjoying his job, as well.”
  • Look the part. Have clean, well-fitted clothes and tack. Every judge on our panel mentioned this one. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money in order to look good,” says Rod Safty. “Just search for quality items on sale or on used racks at stores and show vendors’ booths.”

And, if you’re going to err in any part of your turnout, our panelists agree: Make sure it’s not your hat! As it turns out, hat shape, specifically the lack of, is the major pet peeve among our panelists. Why? A clean, well-shaped hat frames your face, completes your turnout, and creates that all-important positive first impression.

“A dirty, unshaped hat ruins your image,” says Teresa Sullivan. You don’t have to sport the latest style, but you do need to have your hat shaped for your face, say our experts.

“When I see a hat worn right from the box, it makes me crazy,” explains Jodi Finkenbinder. (The good news: Most large shows have at least one vendor who can steam and shape hats.)

  • Be on time.If you’re entered in an individual performance class (think horsemanship, showmanship, reining, trail) be ready at the cone or in-gate. “These are time-consuming classes, and if you’re not ready when the judges are, that’s plain rude and disrespectful, to me and the other exhibitors,” says Christopher Jeter. Bonnie Miller cautions, “Don’t hold back to try and make a grand entrance.” You’ll do the opposite.
  • Be ring-wise.This is especially important in rail classes. “Take command of the ring,” stresses DeDe Bisch. “Know your horse, how to rate his pace, and how to stay aware of the other exhibitors, and you’ll give the best impression to the judge.”

Now, how about some discipline-specific pointers?

Judges’ Pet Peeves
A few things to definitely avoid, according to our panelists:

  • Staring at the judge. Especially common in Western pleasure classes?a fad started by a “famous trainer” to make sure the judges knew just who he/she was. “It’s offensive,” says Rod Safty. Adds Sullivan: “Just look forward and show.”
  • Poor sportsmanship. This includes jerking, spurring, schooling, pouting, frowning, and sulking. “Chin up, smile on your face, regardless of the class outcome,” counsels Kelly Boles Chapman. Bonnie Miller adds: “Remember, you’re showing the entire time you’re in the ring. Schooling, before or after your performance, is disrespectful to the judge.”
  • Transparent or suggestive clothing. This was mentioned by judges of both genders. Such outfits are deemed insulting to the judges’ integrity.
  • Chatting it up. Talking on the sidelines (with your trainer or co-exhibitors) when you’re done with your pattern and are still waiting in the arena for the rest of the class to finish “is extremely rude, not only to me as a judge, but to the rest of the exhibitors,” warns Andrea Simons.
  • Carelessness with tack, such as twisted or crooked reins. “Learn to hang your bridle up with the reins crossed evenly on top to maintain the natural drape of the reins,” advises Delena Doyle.

See For Yourself (Hot Tip!)
To bridge the gulf between what you see as a spectator or exhibitor and what the judge sees, volunteer to be a ring steward. “It’s a real eye opener,” says Andrea Simons. “It’ll change the way you show,” vows Christopher Jeter.

Class Notes
Our panel had strong feelings on certain classes. Here’s what they shared for:

  • Showmanship: “It’s not a race,” says Tim Finkenbinder. “Present your horse properly and square, even if it takes a few extra seconds. I reward exhibitors who do.” Also, adds Dee Dee Douglas, “Don’t stand directly in front of your horse’s head to back him up. It’s simply dangerous.”

Andrea Simons cautions you not to “pull or jerk your horse’s head down before you start your pattern, or look back after you leave or pass the judge.” And, finally, “No crepe-soled boots in showmanship, ever,” says Rob Meneely.

They really don’t care whether you’re decked out in the latest duds or more blinged-out than anyone else (it’s your performance that they’re watching)

  • Halter: “Be sure to walk your horse straight toward the judge, and trot straight going away from the judge,” cautions Meneely. “Anything less, and you short-change yourself. I can’t do my job if you can’t put your horse in front of me.”
  • Rail classes: “Don’t delay your gait transitions, especially to the lope or canter,” says Dee Dee Douglas. “You should be able to step right off if you have the room in front of you. I’ll give you credit for it.”

And, “if the horse in front of you isn’t going,” advises Teresa Sullivan, “come off the rail to execute the transition. You’ll get bonus points from me.” Christopher Jeter says it succinctly: “Just go!”

  • Hunt seat/English pleasure classes: Several panelists decried exhibitors’ habit of showing so far off the rail (in an effort to “be seen”) that judges “are actually in danger of being run down,” as Rod Safty puts it. Instead, he adds, “ride reasonably close to the rail, no more than maybe 10 feet off it,” and rest assured, the judges will find you.

And they love nothing better than seeing an underdog rise to the occasion and be the best rider of the day!

Hey, They’re Rooting for You!
Regarding the so-called “politics” of the show pen, our panelists hope to reassure you. Several of them commented that when you see them chatting with the ring steward (or each other in multi-judge events), they’re honestly not gossiping about you or your co-exhibitors.

“Most often, it’s about where we’re going to dinner!” laughs Kelly Boles Chapman. “Really,” she adds, “all the political stuff that people think is happening?like who won what and where last week and how that’s supposed to influence us, that’s far too complicated for me to think about. I’m concentrating on sorting the class in front of me, making sure I get the top horse that day to the top of the class.”

Teresa Sullivan agrees. “Rarely do exhibitors or horses make it into our conversations,” she says. “We’re out there trying to be professional and to enjoy our jobs. We’re more likely talking about how long we’ve been on our feet, or the fact that we’re freezing!”

You might also be pleasantly surprised to know that the judges are actually on your side. “Truly, judges pull for the underdog,” says Christopher Jeter. “If a young trainer or youth or amateur is having a bad day, the judges are all hoping for something to go right for them, so we can recognize their contribution and efforts.”

“It’s true,” adds Teresa Sullivan. “When that exhibitor finally pulls it together, it’s important to put them on my placing card to reward them. It makes me feel good.”

DeDe Bisch sums it up this way: “The majority of judges judge from the positive, not the negative. We’re looking for the things you do right, not wrong. Really, the judges want you to have a good go.”

Parting Words
Here are a few closing thoughts from our panelists:

“I wish exhibitors knew how close the class placings often are, and how the little things we’ve talked about really can make the difference between a placing and the win.”

-DeDe Bisch

“When an exhibitor gets more talent capacity out of a less-athletic horse, then I really appreciate and respect that exhibitor’s efforts, and will reward that.”

-Kelly Boles Chapman

“In every sport, an athlete’s form plays a major role in the outcome of his or her effort. Master the proper form for effective riding, it’s the basis of success and a necessary element to be competitive.”

-Dee Dee Douglas

“Please know that we take our jobs seriously, we invest a tremendous amount of time in earning the right to be a carded judge, and in attending continuing education classes to stay current in the industry.”

-Bonnie Miller

“As a judge, I share with the exhibitor the excitement of a winning run, and the disappointment when things go badly.”

-Delena Doyle

“Judging is fun, and a lot of hard work. Don’t be afraid to ask us questions, or come up to us at the end of the day. We’re trying to do our best out there, too.”

-Christopher Jeter

“Regardless of the money you spend, you can level the playing field if you become adept at presentation. The ‘wow’ factor comes from a total package that looks professional, well trained, and well presented. Remember, too, that good sportsmanship is the only thing everyone can put forward, regardless of the quality of their performance or horse. Judges always appreciate someone with a smile.”

-Tim Finkenbinder

“I want the best horse to rise to the top, and I hate to be influenced negatively in that quest by an exhibitor’s bad behavior.”

-Teresa Sullivan

“It’s the details that separate you from the crowd: clean boots, proper pants length, round circles, a sincere smile. Enjoy the ride!”

-Jodi Finkenbinder

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