Horse Judging

Judging by the Rules

I am often asked to give clinics dealing with “What Judges Are Looking For” to help exhibitors and owners take some of the mystery out of show results. While it is easy to refer to rulebooks (and if you haven’t, you should!), there are many areas which are open to interpretation. In addition to very specific requirements and infractions, horse show rulebooks specify desirable qualities which are intangibles, not easily measured or quantified.

Horse show judges must apply their body of knowledge against the written rules of the particular show, association, or registry. Judges who work in a single breed or discipline need only be familiar with only one set of rules, which may readily be committed to memory. Judges who judge a large number and variety of breeds and disciplines must be familiar with all of the applicable rules and must be able to apply the particular rules in any situation. Good judging depends upon a correct observance of the fine points and the selection of the best horses for the purpose described by the conditions of the class. (AMHA Rule Book)

A judge who refers to the rulebook in the show arena is not demonstrating a lack of knowledge or insecurity, but is showing a willingness to verify or confirm the specific application for that situation. While class names may be the same from association to association, or breed to breed, the class routine, attire requirements or patterns may vary.

Judging criteria and order of application can vary according to the class description, so that in a junior exhibitor or ladies class manners may be paramount with performance and way of going being secondary, while in an open class performance may be given a higher weight than manners. This can result in a perceived lack of consistency in class results.

“A judge serves three interests, his/her own conscience, exhibitors, and spectators.” (AMHA Official Rule Book)

In general, show rules will specify the purpose or intent of the class, the required appointments, the gait calls and the class procedure, the causes for disqualification, and the desirable qualities to be displayed by competitors. While some of the class descriptions are very concrete, often the desirable qualities are intangibles which are not easily measured, defined, or quantified. That is where the judge’s body of knowledge comes into play, and this is often where the mystery lies.

Two intangibles which heavily influence my own views of a class are “balance” and “quality.” Saving the concept of “quality” for another article, I would like to address the subject of “balance.”

Balance is a word that is often included in the rules of many breeds, but without a definition. The NFHR Breed Standard states that “the gaits are well balanced”, and the canter “should be balanced and free.” The AMHA breed standard refers to “a small, sound, well-balanced horse”. The APHA Western Pleasure rules state that “the jog trot should be square, balanced, with a straight forward movement of the feet”, and in APHA working hunter the gaits should display “cadence, balance and style.” The IALHA rules state that “all gaits must be performed with willingness and obvious ease, cadence, balance, and smoothness,” “the trot should be free, forward and balanced” and “the canter should show impulsion, balance, and engagement.” In USDF dressage tests one entire movement score is often based on “balance during the transition.”

Balance should be evident in stance and movement. But how does one judge balance? Perhaps it is necessary to look at what is and what is not balanced. A balanced horse stands squarely over its feet, carrying it’s body weight distributed in proportion according to its conformation. The horse should appear to match from front to back, and from side to side, without obvious disproportion between the mass of the forequarters and the hindquarters. A horse that leans over it’s front end, or hangs back over it’s hocks does not appear to be balanced. A horse carrying a large amount of muscle through the neck, chest, and shoulder that is lean and light in the hindquarters is not a balanced individual. A horse that displays great symmetry and harmony of proportion is a well-balanced horse.

In movement, a horse that is heavy on the forehand is less balanced than a horse that is light and airy in its movement. A horse displaying asymmetrical movement is less balanced than a horse that is rhythmic and even. A horse that rushes is less balanced than a horse that moves with a measured and regular cadence. A horse that lays on the bridle or pushes into the riders or drivers hands is less balanced that a horse that is in independent self-carriage.

Here is where the variation observed in judging comes into play. To one observer, a horse that simply remains upright may be considered to be sufficiently balanced, as may a horse that is in balance only through the rider’s or driver’s obvious efforts. Just as soundness may be of varying degrees, so can balance.

When showing, an exhibitor can act to enhance or destroy what natural balance a horse may possess. A horse that possesses lovely balance may be stood in such a way that the natural balance of the horse is not evident, or a horse with normally balanced and cadenced movement may be rushed off it s feet and out of its natural balance. An unbalanced rider can destroy a horse’s balance, as can improper vehicle fit. Or an exhibitor can help a less than perfectly balanced horse stand well, or subtly support a horse that may rush.

How judges determine a horse s balance can vary. Simple tests such as transitions between gaits or within gaits will give evidence of a horse’s balance. Asking a horse to rein back gives additional evidence of balance or lack of it. Here, too, the exhibitor can help or hinder the horse s efforts.

Good judges work very hard to develop and maintain the skills needed to evaluate and adjudicate these intangibles An exhibitor desiring to understand what judges are looking for would do well to do the same.

NFHR Breed Standard and Judges Rule Book
2005 Official Rule Book of the AMHA
2005 Official Rule Book of the APHA
2003 USDF tests

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