How it Works: Horse Show Judging

Horse Show Rider

Have you ever been at a show and wondered what went into a judge’s decision? Yes, we all know hunters and equitation are judged subjectively… but still.  Sometimes it can be frustrating and hard to understand. Understanding the horse show judging process can help you understand.

Or maybe you are curious about how to begin a career in judging yourself. As always, the USEF Rulebook is a great resource.

How Judges Become Qualified

The process of becoming a qualified judge for A-rated shows is, perhaps not surprisingly, demanding. There are three phases: Apprenticeship, recorded judge (“small r”) and registered judge (“large R”).  All three phases require somewhat similar versions of the following, either in order to earn the status or in order to maintain the status:

    1. Be an active USEF competitor within the last 3-5 years.  This is to make sure you actually have competitive experience, which makes you a more competent judge.
    2. Apprentice with at 5-12 different Federation Registered (R) Judges and receive positive apprentice evaluations from a majority of those judges.
    3. Apprentice with an approved Mentor
    4. Attend regular Federation/USHJA Hunter Judges’ Clinic
    5. Pass written judging exam, specific to division(s) you are judging, with 70-85% accuracy (depending upon where you are in the process).

Earning and maintaining a judge’s license is decidedly complicated, because exhibitors demand quality and consistency from their judges.  Also, as time goes by, USEF updates standards and raises in order to reflect the higher standards of the sport, and to keep judges both accountable and as well as reliable and respected authorities.

Separate and Compare

A judge’s primary directive, when evaluating the class in front of them, is to separate and compare the winners. And, of course, to take that class or course as a stand-alone moment in time to evaluate. This means that any earlier moments or preceding reputation are not to be present in their mind. This means that the judge need to come up with a portion of the class that are markedly better than the rest.  And this is why you might sometimes get a score that seems somewhat lower than you might hope for, or perhaps higher than expected. The judge is separating you into a category for that class.

For some classes that group is 6 horses, for others that group is 8 or 12.  So once the judge has separated the “winners,” he or she must compare them. To do that, they will look at technical aspects first, and then aesthetic/ stylistic. So a technical aspect would be a more factual component. For example, picking up the wrong lead to begin would be a technical mistake.  Adding an extra stride in a line in a hunter class- technical mistake. These items would be akin to grammatical errors in your creative writing assignment. Regardless of the quality of the story, those building blocks are wrong and therefore, points off. These are more objective evaluations.

Secondly, the subjective piece becomes more prominently as the judges evaluate the form and technique of the horse or rider, and the overall flow of the course, or the general performance presence of the pair. The priorities for this evaluation will be different, depending on the class.  For beginner classes, it’s important that the horse is especially pleasant and well-behaved (manners) Since the fences are lower they don’t get as much chance to show off a spectacular jumping style. In higher level classes, judges have more of an opportunity to scrutinize the nuances of their jumping style and course navigation (brilliance).

From the Rulebook

Although judges can have their own preferences and opinions, they use the USEF Rulebook to make sure standards are consistent. The rule book lists faults that the judges should penalize- but at their discretion.  Major faults, such as a knockdown or refusal, incur severe penalties In these cases, horses usually receive a very low score for that single major flaw, often around a score of 40- which separates them from the group.

Other major faults are usually not penalized as severely, as they are more discretionary.  For example, trotting on course and missing a lead change are both considered major faults.  So if you fail to change your lead by the corner, it’s up to you to decide whether to trot and fix it or continue on the wrong lead- it’s up to the judge to choose a preference between the two.  However, a late change is only a minor fault so if you can change in the next corner without sacrificing your jump, that may be preferable.

It’s also worth noting that the lesser group of faults can be considered major OR minor- again, according to judge’s discretion.  It’s worth checking out these lists on page 12 of the hunter section of the rulebook, to make sure you understand what sort of things are most likely to be penalized. 

Record-keeping & Symbology

Another major component of judging is record-keeping and organization.  Judges must keep track of hundreds of trips per day, and often multiple classes at once.  They must be able to pay attention for long periods of time, and to stay alert for changes or issues. They must know if a competitor jumps the wrong fence, or takes the wrong number of strides in a line.  And then, they have to be able to very quickly and easily notate it on their cards so that in the end, they can efficiently rank them.

Record keeping is one of the most challenging, and important components of judging. If a competitor wants to see the judge’s card after a class, they must speak to the steward at the show. A steward is the only one who is able to make those arrangements.  However, this is typically uncommon, as a judge’s decision is final, and most competitors have respect for that, even if they don’t agree. If you do get a chance to look at the judge’s card, you will see a lot of markings and shorthand notes that may not make sense to you. Judges use symbols to indicate faults, or good jumps, or other remarkable components of the course.  Most judges develop their own system of anywhere from 20-50 markings or abbreviations to help them rank horses. For example, an inverted “U” us often used to indicate a good, balanced jump.

New judges often keep a notebook of the symbols or abbreviations they use to indicate the way a horse performed.  Some judges will just note a score, whether or not it is a “scored” class, in order to quantify the performances. Ultimately, it’s up to the judge to decide how they want to keep track. But a good judge can often reference their cards very quickly and then use their notes to remember exactly how a trip went for a particular horse.  This can come in handy for the occasional snafu or confusion at the in-gate.

First Steps

Remember that in order to get the experience that qualifies you to become a judge, or to really develop an appreciation for how a judge will evaluate you, you must show.  Compete! Develop your sportsmanship, your character, your horsemanship, and a true understanding of how to compete successfully. A great trainer is crucial for framing all of these experiences properly.  So, North Carolina riders- you know who to call! Alicia Wilkinson of, who has the horses and the experience to help you find horse show success!


Above photo courtesy of Meggan Shaw-Butler

Jenn Crow
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