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Inside the Judge’s Room at Youth World with Stephanie Lynn

Have you ever wished you could be a fly on the wall of the judges’ room at an AQHA World Championship Show? Or maybe you wish you knew what the judges did before they step out into the World Championship arena to judge your favorite event.

The AQHA Youth World Championship Show gets underway this week. Here, AQHA Senior Director of Judges and Stewards, Alex Ross, and a few veteran judges share what it is like for judges at this prestigious event and what is on their minds when they step out to judge.

Chele McGauly dispels one of the most frequented myths surrounding the Youth World Show; “the most misinterpreted part of any world show is that the lesser known horses and exhibitors don’t have the same shot at winning as the more famous competitors do. The world show judges are selected because they are impartial. The judges want the best horse and or exhibitor that day to win – period.”

Fellow World Show judges reiterate Chele’s views touting the usefulness of the tools and procedures provided to help them be ready to judge. Each morning judges review the rules and penalty violations of the particular class or classes. They go over class procedures such as who will start exhibitors, gaits to be called, where markers will be and the review process for the given class. The process allows judges to warm up their judges’ eye and prepares them for the first horse.

Chele expressed appreciation for the job the world show staff does preparing a notebook for each judge with patterns, scheduled pick-up times and scheduled educational sessions. “We are given our assignments during a meeting the afternoon before we begin judging, which allows us time to know the patterns before we begin judging each class. There is also a monitor that we will meet with each morning and we will go over patterns and watch videos. This works well to have the judges prepared mentally for the first horse that walks into the arena,” Chele noted.

If you draw up first, remember you set the pace for the entire class. I remember a judge telling me that the only real score a judge gives is the first score – the rest of the class is always compared to the first score. Judges will be ready for you.

Larry Little understands exhibitors feel the whole world is watching when they compete at the World Show. He has experienced the Youth World Show from all aspects – as a trainer, a parent and as a judge. Larry suggests riders “utilize their experience, background and schooling. Every judge wants to reward the rider that shows a great attitude and ability.”

He advises kids to “focus less on the outcome of a particular class and enjoy the opportunities the show provides. Recognize that competing at the world show is an accomplishment in itself; you are in the top percent of competitors in the nation when you are at the world show. It is an extraordinary opportunity – relax and do the best you can to show with confidence and composure.”

Jim Dudley acknowledges the common goal of every exhibitor – to hear his or her name called out at the World Show. He agrees with Larry and reminds exhibitors that what really counts “is the path you took to get there. The camaraderie, the friends you meet along the way, the experience of being there and the lessons you learn from competition – those are the things that kids take away from the show and use forever.”

How quickly a rider recovers from a loss or a mistake – the time it takes a rider to learn from the experience – that is how Jim defines a Champion. Over the years, he has heard countless excuses from trainers and parents. In the end, it is a rider’s responsibility to be a good partner for their horse.

Holly Hover repeats advise she was given from an early mentor, “Think of you and your horse as a team. You are trying to help your teammate, your horse and partner, earn a title. It is your responsibility to know your partner and help your partner succeed. If your horse is nervous at the start cone, it is your responsibility to help him as you would a friend – to be there for him or her. It is also your responsibility to showcase where your horse is spectacular.”

By relating it to helping a friend, to being a good partner, Holly finds riders shift the focus from feeling as though they are in the spotlight to being a good teammate, a good friend and therefor help the horse be the best he or she can be that day. A good friend lends a helping hand when needed and at the same time allows the other person to highlight their strengths.

“Concentrating on helping your horse earn a title takes the pressure off you and puts the focus on your job – being a good partner for your horse” Holly indicated.

She reminds exhibitors that it is the title that makes this show different from any other show, adds pressure and builds tension. But for Holly, “that is part of what makes it fun.” And thrilling.

From the side of AQHA, Alex Ross works with a team of staff members to provide exhibitors a superior show experience while in Oklahoma City. From designing the patterns to preparing the judges, Alex stops at nothing to provide the most positive experience for everyone.

Regarding patterns, Alex tries to design “preliminary patterns that are difficult enough to test the riders yet not so intimidating that a first time competitor feels they cannot perform the test.”

“In each pattern I try to use maneuvers required in more advanced western or hunter classes. Large fast circles simulate circles required in reining, lead changes simulate requirements for working hunter or western riding classes,” Alex relayed.

“Tests incorporate the technical aspects of the more advanced hunter or western events in a pattern that allows exhibitors to show their unique riding ability,” said Alex. He uses few cones so “patterns are doable without restrictions.” He wants riders to be able to determine and use the space they feel best shows their horse’s capabilities.

Orders of go are computer driven. The only time a human gets in the middle of a draw order is if a rider is riding back-to-back horses otherwise the computer is left to do its job. Running two arenas this year may add conflict that has not been experienced in years’ past. Priority order will go to rail classes and their splits with adjustments most likely made in scored, individually worked classes. Be sure to check with the gate and office people if you are involved in a potential arena conflict.

Just as riders are responsible for their ride, judges are held accountable for knowing, understanding and calling the penalties.

Reviews are made when judges have not unanimously called two, three, five or zero score penalties. Reviews are never made for one-half, one or two point marker (reining only) penalties nor are judges ever allowed to adjust their maneuver scores.

Judges are not permitted to discuss the penalty only to view it on replay. The final call is up to each judge – they must decide whether to call a penalty or withdraw a penalty. Penalty scores only can only be adjusted during a review. At no time can a maneuver score be revised.

The five-judge system is a great system. No single error, no single score can cost or make a World Champion. That is what makes it so cool when a horse and rider earns top marks across the board.

Judges are often asked what it is like to be in the judges’ room. Chele responds by telling people, “For me, the judges room is a place of learning. Some of the best horsemen in our industry hang their hats in this room! I have never left a major event that I did not learn from these experienced men and women. Each judge brings a different point of view because of their past experiences.”

There is much respect for the knowledge, history and diverse backgrounds each judge brings to the table – it is what makes the system work so well. The judges’ room is a room full of strong opinions, yet never have I experienced pressure to make a call one way or the other. There are times when a judge differs from the majority and stands alone on the other side of the fence. And while it may cause talk on the street, a comparison of score sheets usually tells the story.

There is never a shortage of stories when you gather a group of judges and isolate them for days on end. This group will eat together, share rides to and from the hotel, speak to no one outside the group of judges, the front desk personnel or perhaps the lunchroom folks and be left at a hotel without wheels.

And there will be talk – between classes and during down time, but not about horses competing at this show. Judges are strictly prohibited from talking – even amongst themselves – about horses or riders competing in the show. Sequestering the judges makes it both easier to contain and more difficult – just like a horse show, right?

But it all comes back to respect, and this group of judges has the utmost respect for the horse, the system and the rules of AQHA. Their job is to maintain the integrity of the show by finding the best horse in each class. And that is exactly what they intend to do.

Don’t get me wrong there will be banter back and forth, some friendly teasing and a practical joke or two. But the judges are there to judge this years’ top youth and they take their job seriously.

Chele McGauly said it well, “The best part of judging a major event is to be able to judge the very best horses in the world. When you see a great run come together, there is no better feeling than to be a small part of that success. My absolute favorite show to judge has always been the AQHA Youth World Show because the talent of the kids and their Quarter Horse partners is unsurpassed.”

Our future lies in the reins of the 709 exhibitors who comprise the 2,165 entries at this years’ AQHYA Ford Youth World Show. Go get ‘em kids! You are the talent that will carry the industry forward. Have fun.

About Stephanie Lynn: Professional Horseman Stephanie
 Lynn coached her first AQHA World Champion in 1988. She has since 
coached, trained and shown World, Congress and Honor Roll horses across
 disciplines. She is a judge for AQHA, NSBA and APHA and has judged World
 Championship shows for each association. Most recently, Stephanie is
 the author of The Good Rider Series and A Lifetime Affair:
 Lessons Learned Living My Passion. The Good Rider Series is a library of
resource material that is both practical and applicable in the barn and 
show ring for riders. Stephanie can always be reached through her