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Horse Sense: Walking in a judge's shoes

By Kim Lemmon, Managing Editor for Ohio’s Country Journal

As some of you may know, I have been a 4-H horse judge for about a dozen years. In the beginning, I judged about 12 shows a year. I currently judge three or four.

I became a judge because I wanted to ensure that horse shows were run fairly and that exhibitors were treated with respect. I also needed the money to supplement my horse habits.

As a seasoned 4-H horse judge, I realize that no matter what I do, I cannot make all horse shows run completely fairly. I cannot change the weather, the state or county rules, the show committee, or any number of other things that can affect the way a show runs, but I can give the best of myself during the time I am at the show. Faced with this reality I now judge for fun and to help the exhibitors and show committees, and yes to buy hay for my horses.

Judging isn’t an easy job. I used to judge anywhere, at anytime, for any length of show. Now I go places I feel comfortable going for relatively short shows. I am often asked back to the same counties several years in a row so I must do at least an average job most of the time.

My goal is to judge shows where I can drive from my house to the show, judge the show and be back home in 10 hours or less. Yes, that is a short day for a horse show judge. If you do the math, you can figure out that long days are a part of the job. My general rule to live by at horse shows is, “You can be a fast judge and a bad judge, but you can’t be a slow judge and a bad judge.”

That is a joke, but generally it is true that speed and consistency in evaluating exhibitors helps in their overall outlook and mood for the day, as often the same horses and exhibitors are shown in class after class after class at 4-H and open shows. There is no point wearing them out in the first couple of classes. I know what I like and I’m decisive. Many people hire me for my ability to run safe and speedy shows.

Part of my judging days are spent driving to and from shows, but on most days I still get up as early or earlier than the exhibitors and I arrive home later than they do. I also spend time during the previous week preparing patterns and reviewing the rulebook. I also have to iron my clothes, dress up and put on make up, which are all chores for me. I take the job seriously and put time into it. It is no easy feat when I am already employed full-time and have a husband and critters at home.

I often talk about my horse show experiences at work. Often exhibitors make a lot of mistakes that are easy to fix. Most of the time the little things exhibitors do that affect their results at horse shows are not against the written 4-H rules but they can affect their placing none-the-less, so the staff here at OCJ thought it would be helpful if I put some tips together for horse show exhibitors.

Please remember that I am one person and these tips are my opinions only. I also only judge 4-H and open shows. I’m not a carded judge in any other association, but I do think that is the reality of most 4-H horse judges. There are only a few of us that have multiple judging cards and judge more than a few horse shows a year.

It may be cold out, but it is never too soon to start preparing for next summer’s horse shows. You can visit our Horse Sense page in Ohio’s Country Journal for specific tips for showmanship, riding classes, western riding, and free style reining.

Every exhibitor needs to understand that judges make mistakes. It is hot and dusty and sweaty and quite frankly can get kind of nasty standing in the hot sun all day. It is a lot of work to concentrate on so many things when you are so uncomfortable.

All judges do their best, but we will make mistakes. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being human. Remember this when you are upset about how you placed.

Never, ever, approach the judge. It is best to listen to what the judge tells you in the ring, if they tell you something (4-H judges are encouraged to give comments) and let it go.

If you cannot let it go, approach the show steward (not the ring master but the show steward).

I personally do not like to talk to parents or exhibitors. I have said what I needed to say to the exhibitor during the class and I have nothing more to say. Often, conferences outside of the show arena implode and become verbal warfare or at the very least delay the show.

Not everyone likes how I judge and not everyone agrees with me. After all, judging, when it stays within the rulebook, is opinion based on what happened at one time on one day. Keep it in perspective. It should be fun. If it isn’t fun, don’t waste your money. Find another less expensive hobby.

If you really dislike a certain judge, there is usually a simple answer. Avoid him or her. Sometimes this isn’t possible if they are hired to judge a specific fair that you are required to attend, but go and be polite and voice your concerns politely at a later date to the show committee. Try to make sure the judge is not hired again. There may be more folks that feel the same way you do.

My cocky answer is always, “If you don’t like me, write my name down and do not attend shows I judge.”

That really is the simple answer. Walk one day in the shoes of a judge and your attitude about horse shows and judging will change significantly. A lot of time and effort is put forth to be a good judge. It is not easy, and we all come with our own likes and dislikes already in place.

Some judges just do not like the way some horses move, but remember above all to be respectful, have fun and have a good attitude. Due to the incredible amount of time and money spent on horse projects it is easy to become caught up in winning and blaming the judge or others when you do not place well. Keep in mind that 4-H is supposed to be fun and the goal is to “Make the Best Better!”

Obviously, there are many more topics and classes that could be covered, but space and time doesn’t allow for it, so I just hit a few of the basics. For access to score sheets, 4-H rules and other resources, visit horse.osu.edu.

Good luck, have fun and PLEASE remember to be nice to the judge. It just might be me!


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