Thursday, August 8, 2019

The judge conundrum

It's been interesting getting back out there and seriously showing after a couple years off.  The pony is radically different and so am I.  Now I can look back and see where I was getting dinged at First and how the judges were trying to get me back on track.  I read the comments with my more educated eyes and see what they were trying to get us to do.  Theo was not in any way submissive to my aids, I get that now.

Not good

At the same time, I think my horse is very polarizing.  Judges see him very differently even when the video shows a very similar test.  One judge will underline harmony with a smiley face, another will say that we're not ready for the level due to our lack of connection.  It feels like a crap shoot right now.  My horse is becoming more confident and reliable, but my scores are still all over the place.

Seriously, look at this hot mess, but you can see the exact point in the summer of 2018 when we got a clue at First

I've been talking to trainers in my region who know these judges and have shown under them for years and they agree with me, my scores will remain scattered.  Some of them love Theo, some of them hate him, and it's not going to stop.  He's not a purpose bred warmblood that was trained from day one to prance in the sandbox.  He's not flashy or flouncey bouncey.  He will always look different.  Not in a bad way, but he moves different and his outline is different.  Trainer Z calls him her bouncy ball. Verne Batchelder called him a sports car based on his very responsive steering and gait changes (not for his speed, believe me).

Walk - canter - walks with changes of lead every couple strides with my sports car

An S judge that is infamously tough in my area likes Theo because he's willing and soft in the ring.  I show people the scores he got from her and they're surprised.  She's usually considered stingy with the points but I got a 68%.  She likes that he's happy to do the job with his tail swinging like a metronome.  Another S judge nailed me hard for my lack of accuracy in my figures, but complimented Theo's way of going and gave him nice scores.  The message I got from her was that I needed to be a more accurate rider to show off my nice horse.  Fair.  I was informed by a rider that this particular judge will destroy a ride that's behind the vertical so she's not popular, but it wasn't a surprise she liked Theo.  Theo is never behind the vertical and keeps his poll up well.  The judges that like Theo note his relaxed, happy manner, our harmony, and his prompt responses.  Several officials have said that he looks like a horse they would actually want to ride and I consider that the highest compliment.

Other judges want more flexion, more suspension, more power.  They want big, elastic movement with long, flexible necks.  They want warmbloods.  Well, Theo is many things but none of them include being a warmblood even if it says American Warmblood on his paperwork.  His gaits will never be huge and our extensions will always be 'take the 6 and be done' (though he did sneak in an 8 for his canter lengthen in our last freestyle so it's in there).  He's learning to not get in front of my hand when under pressure but he will always be a horse that's more comfortable just in front of the vertical.  His short, heavy neck makes that flexion more challenging and, lets face it, submission is not Theo's favorite word.

Exhibit A:  Getting in front of my hand as he comes out of the 10m circle and I push him forward

I thought I was having sour grapes again but no.  The professional consensus is that I wasn't going to get a better score from that judge that weekend even if we rocked it.  We weren't where she thought we should be and frankly, we might never be.  Save the effort for another day, another ring, another judge.  She's not a bad judge, most riders really like her and she's usually generous with the points, but Theo is not her cup of tea.  We're going to have an uphill battle to impress her any time we go in the ring.  I was last and second to last in her ring at two different levels, the message was loud and clear.

Theo still needs more flexion.  Yes, I acknowledge that.  I will always need to work on that.  That and ground cover.  He will always be the horse where I have to nail the mechanical movements to boost our scores that are more gait based.  There's a reason I practice my centerline to halt so much.  I've started getting 8's on that movement!

I need to fix my position issues.  I've come a long way, but I'm not going to make Third with my hands in my lap and my shoulders tending to get in front of my hips. 

But we'll get there

It's a subjective sport.  And there's a reason some people won't ride in front of some judges.  If you've got a certain type of horse, you don't want to ride in front of someone that will give you lousy scores for things you can't change.  The judge that loves Theo and put a smiley face on his test?  Trainer Z avoids like the plague with her stallion that can get anxious in the show rin.  It's the nature of the sport.

The good news is that I have numbers and can line them all up so I don't get overly discouraged by a bad score.  Several bad scores?  Then I've got a problem, but blips on the radar aren't a call for a course correction.  It's one person's opinion of one ride on one day.  The judge marks what they see with no context, which is the point.  The rider presents their horse to the best of their ability on the day, which is the point.  We can't please everyone with every ride.

He does get all the cute points and that wagging tail of his is kind of his signature

But I can avoid situations that aren't predisposed to success.  I will be looking for that specific judge's name in the future.  And avoiding it.


  1. Ooof, I understand that frustration. IHSA kind of has the similar problem where people end up standing out if they just happen to draw a nice horse. It can suck, but ultimately a good ride is a good ride, placings aside. But man, looking at the graph has my head spinning. Glad that you've got a realistic and positive outlook on this!

  2. If you need scores definitely take these data points and judge hunt for what you need. It's always good knowing your limitations and you've balanced them quite well with your many strengths - a completely holistic approach.