Let's Fix Hunter Judging

An 'A' circuit trainer and judge speaks out on what's wrong with hunter and hunter-seat equitation judging, and how we can fix it.
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An 'A' circuit trainer and judge speaks out on what's wrong with hunter and hunter-seat equitation judging, and how we can fix it.

You hear it any time a hunter and/or hunter-seat equitation exhibitor is disappointed in how a class was pinned: "The judging is political." That's shorthand for "There's nothing we can do; this judge pins on the basis of personal or business associations"--in other words, it's a way of saying the judge cheats.

Trainer and judge Geoff Teall.? Mandy Lorraine

Trainer and judge Geoff Teall.? Mandy Lorraine

But I think "politics" is a cop-out, a nasty word that short-circuits communication and keeps us from looking at what's really wrong with judging and how we can fix it.

Poor judging may result from lack of a "clean slate." Sure, political judging occurs, but it's much less common than people think. In my experience, 90 percent of judges are honest and trying to do a good job. A judge who seems political may not be confident in his own eye and his own knowledge; so, instead of judging with what I call a "clean slate" (that is, as though he's never seen any of the entries before), he's influenced by expectations that make it impossible for all competitors in the class to start from the same place.

For instance, when a very recognizable, successful horse-and-rider combination enters the ring, the judge expects to see a good round--say, with a score of 90. Any mistakes move the score down from that point, maybe to an 86 or an 84. But when a horse-and-rider combination that the judge doesn't recognize comes in, they start at a different place: The judge doesn't expect a winning round from them; he expects more like a 75, so that's the place they start from. If this second competitor has the ride of her life, the judge might raise her score to an 80 or 82.

As judges, we need to understand this very human tendency and carefully monitor our own expectations when we sit down to judge a class. And as exhibitors, before we accuse judges of being political and dishonest, we need to understand that it's natural to "go with a winner"--to judge on the basis of expectations--especially if the judge is a little unsure of himself.

That's not politics, but it's not good judging, either. So what can we do about it?

Top professionals need to give back to their sport by judging. As an exhibitor, whether I'm winning or losing, I have problems with being judged by people who aren't involved with our sport--who do it because they have the extra time to devote to it, or because they had a horse business that didn't work out. We can't afford not to have the best, most knowledgeable people in our business judging us. If everyone at the top level of the sport would judge just one show a year, we'd make a huge dent in the judging problem. (And, contrary to what you may imagine, judging infrequently actually keeps your eye fresher and sharper than judging show after show.)

The long, expensive process of becoming a full-fledged 'R' judge has kept many busy trainers out of the judges' booth; they simply can't spend the required six days as a "learner judge" at two different shows to get the "r" judge's card that lets them work toward the "R" card. But USAEq's new Fast Track Program, which allows "exceptionally qualified horsemen" to receive their "r" card as hunter and/or hunter-seat equitation judges without undergoing the learner judge phase, halves the time and investment needed. True, the program benefits only professionals at the top of the A circuit who are so well known that the USAEq Licensed Officials Committee can approve their applications solely on the basis of accomplishments and reputations. It doesn't offer the same shortcut to solid middle-level horsemen who are less well-known. But the program's aim is to get as many qualified judges out there as quickly as possible. (If it were up to me, we'd give anyone who requests it the "r" judge's card; the good ones would surface in the process of earning their "R" card and through natural selection by show management.)

As exhibitors, let's stop bad-mouthing judges. Here's another reason top horsemen tend to shy away from judging: Why should they subject themselves to the kind of judge-bashing that goes on? Before giving in to the natural impulse to blame the judge for a disappointment, ask yourself: Do you have some personal judging experience as a basis for criticism? Did you watch the entire class, from the same vantage point as the judge? If you still have a question about the outcome, don't complain to your colleagues; ask the show steward to arrange a conversation with the judge. In most cases, he'll know exactly what your question is and will be happy to explain his decision.

"R" judges can do a better job of teaching learner and "r" judges. Our business needs more good judges. So if you're an "R" judge and there's a learner or "r" judge working with you, explain what you're doing, and how, and why. Tell him or her where it's easy to make mistakes and how you avoid them. Give him your system for keeping track of and scoring entries in a big class. He may eventually develop a different system, but sharing yours gives him a starting place.

As a complement to individual judges' efforts, let's have more, and more in-depth, USAEq judging clinics. Too many judges groan, "Oh, I've got to go take a clinic," or "Oh, I've got to go give a clinic." We can make better use of these for educating our judges. Let's not be afraid to really teach in these clinics, and to make them opportunities to talk about important issues.

Show management can encourage better judging by careful selection. Managers need to rely on reputable top professionals with the best interests of the industry at heart for help in choosing quality judges.

As well as helping our existing system with the kind of fresh, positive approaches I've just suggested, let's really start thinking "out of the box":

Let's start to talk about a standardized judging system. No wonder our sport is so vulnerable to accusations of prejudice and politics: There's no well-defined base of knowledge for which judge candidates can be tested , no scoring system for over-fences or flat classes with standard interpretations for performance for each score. Judging for hunters and hunter-seat equitation will always be somewhat subjective, but right now it's totally subjective.

This column first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For Geoff Teall's assessment of how the judging of hunters and hunter-seat equitation has (and hasn't) changed since he first spoke up on the issue, see his first-anniversary follow-up column in the April 2003 Practical Horseman.