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!
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  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.
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.
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.
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.