Skip to main content
Horse Judging Team 2004

FOO Chronicles: Horse Judging Team

As a youth I was heavily involved in 4-H, and while it began as a venue for me to show horses it eventually evolved into much more. I credit a lot of my early life lessons, as well as my success in horses to the knowledge I gained while participating in local 4-H, as well as the people I met through the various programs. One such program was the Horse Judging Team. The Ohio 4-H Horse Program actually has several different avenues for horseless competition, including demonstration contests, speaking contests, a skillathon and horse judging teams. I can’t remember exactly how I first got involved with the Horse Judging Team, but the program in my county was in its infancy when I joined; and I loved it. Not familiar with the concept? Here’s a quick rundown of what it’s all about:

What is Competitive Horse Judging and How Does it Work?

4-H programs, as well as numerous agricultural colleges, all have horse judging teams who travel to various competitions held at State Fairs, as well as major breed shows including Arabian Nationals and Quarter Horse Congress. In a single competition, there are two phases: judging and oral reasons. In the first phase [judging] participants actually judge various classes made up of four horses and place them. There are a mix of conformation halter classes [such as Stock Type Mares or Two Year Old Arabian Geldings], as well as under saddle classes [such as Western Pleasure or English Equitation].

Scoring for this section is a bit complicated, but it goes like this: participants placings are compared to a panel of licensed judge’s official placings for each class. Participants then receive so many points for each class, depending on how closely they placed the class compared to the official placings. The panel of licensed judges, in addition to an official placing, also determine “cuts” for each pair to give a weighted penalty for misalignment of horses. Each class is worth 50 points [always], so you deduct penalties from 50.

In the second phase [oral reasons] you give a short memorized speech about why you placed a chosen class the way you did to one of the official judges and you get scored on how well you explain it all. There’s a typical format you follow, and you get some extra points for how polished your public speaking skills are. That’s competitive horse judging teams in a nutshell!

Horse Judging Team Contest

My Horse Judging Team Experience

So now that you know more than you ever needed to about competitive horse judging, I’ll tell you about my personal experience on the local horse judging team. The first year I joined the horse judging team [2001] I learned a lot; we practiced at our coach’s farm [who was a local trainer and licensed 4-H judge herself] and we talked about conformation, muscling and quality of movement. Our first competition was the Ohio State Fair, and I’d never even been to the fairgrounds before. I was excited, because I’d just tried to qualify to show my horse and while I didn’t make it I was very eager to see what the show was all about. That first hour on the fairgrounds is really all I remember about my first horse judging team competition because I was devastated. Every horse there looked like Hershey, the horse that won every class in my county and I was convinced I’d never be able to compete on that level. So I cried. A lot.

Horse Judging Team 2001
My first time at the Ohio State Fair in 2001 [I’m the one on the far left]
But I soldiered on [both riding and on the horse judging team] and I began to really enjoy the somewhat more level-playing field of judging competitions, and since I was a quick learner I experienced success and satin early on. In 2003 I was paired with two older girls and our team placed 4th overall at State Fair, and I was even in the top 10 for the oral reasons section. In 2006 our team was Reserve Champion Overall and we earned a chance to compete at Arabian Nationals the last year the show was held in Kentucky before moving to Arizona. Arabians were not our forte, but we placed 7th Overall out of some 20-odd teams!

My final year of 4-H eligibility was a clusterfuck, and soured me on the entire program, unfortunately. It was my freshman year of college and I took a Horse Judging class in the fall as an elective ran by one of the 4-H Program Directors; my BFF was majoring in equestrian studies at a different university and also took a horse judging class [which was required]. That summer, we went to State Fair feeling really confident. We went through the entire competition [which lasted several hours] and I even gave my oral reasons presentation to my horse judging class professor. Hours later, I was disqualified because buried in the general livestock 4-H judging rules [not the horse judging rules] was a clause that stated you couldn’t take a collegiate level horse judging class and maintain eligibility. My BFF was not disqualified because she went to a different school and the organizers [aka the 4-H Program Directors and my Professor] didn’t bother to look it up.

Horse Judging Team 2003
Winning satin for correcting judging horses circa 2003 [I’m on the right]
I was really upset, and overall the entire thing was handled very poorly. The professor had seen me at competitions years prior — why didn’t she say anything during the class? She watched me compete — why didn’t she say anything then? And at the end of the day, when I asked to see my scores, she pointed to the trash can and said “You’re welcome to go dumpster diving for them.” Yeah, that was very not awesome. But I did get my revenge the following year when she ran a Judging Competition at Equine Affaire. Because my college didn’t have a horse judging team, I was free to compile one as long as members didn’t come from schools that did have a team. So I scrounged up my BFF and an old member of my 4-H team and even though we hadn’t practiced in a year, we went balls to the wall against some of the biggest Agricultural College teams in the country like Texas A&M.

Horse Judging Team at 2006 Arabian Nationals
Horse Judging Team at 2006 Arabian Nationals [I’m third from the left]
And you know what? I beat them all. I was Grand Champion Individual and placed first or second in every division. Watching my old professor’s face as she read the placings was priceless!

But in the end, despite the drama, I’m really glad I joined the Horse Judging Team. I learned a lot about horsemanship, sportsmanship and gained a lot of respect for judges in general. Everything I learned helped me both in the saddle and out of it; and it was an awesome way to make some lifelong friends.

Chuck circa 2001

FOO Chronicles: Experiencing Loss

As a weedy pre-teen, I outgrew my first show pony pretty quickly. So after the show season was over, I started riding a new horse: Chuck. Chuck was an older [probably mid-twenties?] Quarter Horse Gelding who had been there, done that; And by “done that,” I mean he’d done it all. He took me from a nervous walk/trot rider to a confident equestrian in just one summer. It’s amazing what an old schoolmaster can do for one’s confidence! He’s the first horse I really, truly bonded with and as you know, it’s not an experience you ever forget. My partnership with this wonderfully tolerant and special gelding is what set me on the path I’m on today and showed me that the thing I absolutely love most about horses is the bond you create and cherish with them.

Together, Chuck and I showed in local 4-H, and we tried our hands at everything: hunt seat equitation, western pleasure, showmanship, jumping and even barrel racing [Chuck’s favorite]. Even though we only shared a very short time together, we made a lot of memories I’ll never forget — like how he would never walk into the ring for a barrels class unless he was escorted directly up to the in-gate by his girlfriend, Joker [a mare my best friend rode]. Any other class? Sure, he’d walk right in, cool as a cucumber; but not for barrels! He was the first horse I tried to qualify for State Fair on, and even though we didn’t make the cut, I still remember looking over the comments the judge made to try to get better so we could qualify the following year. [For those unfamiliar with 4-H, in order to show at State Fair you have to qualify by receiving enough points in at least two classes. In a qualifying class instead of being placed against the other riders, you are judged against a “standard” and then receive “points against standard.” Each class has a minimum score you must receive to qualify.]

Second place ribbon with Chuck in 2001

I also remember County Fair with Chuck: holding him outside the barn for hours on end because his owner wouldn’t let us stable there overnight. My most memorable ribbon with Chuck was at County Fair: 8th Place in Working Hunter Over Fences. My mom even managed to snap an awesome photo of us on course [which, now is uber-embarrassing because my equitation is literally non-existent] but I framed it and it’s hung on the wall of my room ever since. And aside from the show memories, I have so many of his sweet, grayed face. He might have been a bit of a goober sometimes, but he really was a great kid’s horse.

Jumping Chuck circa 2001
What a saint of a horse!

Unfortunately, what Chuck gave me most of all was my first experience of true, devastating loss. The following winter, I went through a phase where I wasn’t as motivated to go out to the barn. So I skipped a few lessons, and didn’t think anything of it. But after a few weeks, I finally got my act together and headed out to the barn with my BFF for a riding lesson… but Chuck wasn’t there. The barn owner told us he had gotten sick earlier in the week, and they took him to the vet hospital. I was pretty upset, but she didn’t make it sound that serious so I rode a different horse in my lesson, and then went to the hospital to visit. But the staff wouldn’t let us in, because we weren’t the owners. Sure, I was upset. But I figured I would just see him next week.

When next week came around, and we showed up at the barn the BO told us Chuck had passed away.

I was devastated. I never got to say goodbye, or say thank you. And it was all because I didn’t bother to go out to the barn for a few weeks in the dead of winter. I felt guilty, selfish and miserable for weeks on end. For a 12-year-old, it was a pretty dramatic experience and I kept a “shrine” in the corner of room to Chuck until the day I moved to college. So even though I’ve said it before, and it was so very long ago, I want to say thank you to the horse that showed me what love was really like, and what it means to be a horse owner: some of the best highs and the worst lows you can experience in life. But no matter how bad or how tough it gets, the good times are always worth the struggle.

Chuck 2001

FOO Chronicles: My First Show Pony

I got serious about showing in 2000 when I began riding Jazz, a super cute Welsh Cross pony. The barn owner, Holly, encouraged my friend and I to join the local 4-H club, and that’s exactly what we did. It was really the beginning of the end, because once I got a taste of the show ring, I was hooked.

This year and the next are the years I look back on and wonder how the hell I made it out without a major injury or emotionally scaring experience. I knew next to nothing and the barn owner would just drop us off in the morning for the show and pick us back up in the evening… which meant I had basically no supervision, least of all from a qualified professional.
Anyways, the very first show I went to was my most memorable experience with Jazz. He was older, probably in his mid to late teens, so the barn owner didn’t turn him out the night before our first show to “conserve his energy.” So Jazz hopped off the trailer in a brand new place and was… well.. really fucking jazzed to be there. (Hardy har har, I’m so clever). So I decided to take him back by the trailers and lunge him, since no lunging was permitted in the warm-up rings. This was not a good idea… taking a scared, highly energized pony away from all his friends and ask him to run around. Well he ran, straight away from me and I hit a truck with my whole body.
Oops. Luckily Jazz just ran to the next trailer over and said hi to the pony tied there. Crisis averted.
So of course I realized then that Jazz didn’t want to be alone, and thus I tacked up, mounted and was in the process of walking back to the rings when Jazz totally lost it, bolted and I fell onto the concrete pathway we had been walking on.
All I remember was looking up, not seeing my pony anywhere and thinking “OMG, Holly is going to kill me because I lost her pony.”
Of course my mom freaked out, but somehow I was unhurt… which is really fucking amazing. Some kind soul caught Jazz and brought him back to us. About 20 minutes later I went into the ring for my first class of my first 4-H show: Showmanship. We managed a third place ribbon, which I still have to this day as it’s one of my favorites.
I showed Jazz for one year in the walk/trot division in all of the English classes, including jumping. But the year after that I grew a little bit and was deemed too tall for Jazz. About five or so years later after I had changed barns I saw Jazz again with a different little girl, packing her around the Novice division. Still taking care of his young rider, like always.
Hunting crossrails like a boss
Such a good pony.

FOO Chronicles: Blaze

I know you’re all dying to hear about Miles and whether or not he was the good twin or the evil twin last night, but you’ll have to wait until Friday. Sad panda. In the meantime, enjoy pictures of small, cute me (with horrible hunter hair) and adorable horses.


We did some schooling shows at home together, but never made it off the farm. Unfortunately my most vivid memory of Blaze is a bad one. A very bad fall I took off him, to be exact.
Blaze was lazy, so I always carried a crop when I rode him. But nobody told me exactly how to use it… just that I should carry it. So I was practicing picking up the canter in a lesson one day, but Blaze didn’t really feel like going faster than a trot. So the barn owner told me to use my crop.
So I did.
But I never took my hand off the rein. So you can imagine the scene that occurred: I’m hauling back on Blaze’s mouth (because I have short arms) whacking him with a stick and kicking with all my might. It was this moment that I learned if a horse can’t go forward or backward, he goes up.
Straight up in the air.

The offending orange crop

I remember being so surprised I couldn’t even react. That is, until I felt momentum going backwards. That’s right folks, Blaze flipped over backwards. Luckily I was able to jump off to the side and didn’t get crushed as 1000 pounds of horse crashed to the ground. I was fine, shaken up for sure, but no serious injuries. Blaze was also fine – got right back up and never took a lame step.

Who the fuck let me out of the barn with my hair looking like that and wearing a maroon sweater UNDER my show coat?! My inner hunter princess just fainted. 

That fall was the one and only time I didn’t get right back on the horse; the barn owner wouldn’t let me because she was worried I had a concussion. I didn’t – never had any symptoms or anything.

That day I learned a lot of valuable lessons, not all of which I realized at the time, unfortunately.
  1. Always wear a helmet
  2. Never use equipment you aren’t sure how to operate properly
  3. A good instructor is worth their weight in gold

Unfortunately, that’s not the most traumatic fall I’ve ever taken. You get to read that one in the next edition of FOO Chronicles!

What a beautiful rain coat…but at least there are pretty ribbons!

 

Anyone else sending a theme of chestnut quarter horse geldings with chrome?
Om nom nom nom… third place ribbons taste the best!