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Inside the Judges’ Room: What Judges Really Talk about with Stephanie Lynn

Do you ever wonder what judges talk about when they are not judging? Of course sports banter can be heard and politics or late night television offer fodder for laughs. But eventually conversation circles back to horses and the good, the bad and the ugly trends that make judges say, “hmmm.”

While spectators, Internet viewers and bystanders may have their own criteria for judging, the officials use the rules and guidelines found in the each association’s rule book to evaluate horses and riders. Interpreting these rules and finding horses that best meet the standards as laid out in the rule book is what brings various opinions to the process.

Of course, all judges bring their unique experiences and opinions to the show pen. That is why it is so impressive when a horse wins across the board; to do so is truly remarkable. In every class certain aspects seem to stand out – some draw negative attention while others set the rider and their horse apart as the winner.

The following are some common areas that judges often comment on:

Exhibitors are not connected to their horses. Judges want to see a better connection between the horse and the rider in Equitation, Horsemanship and Showmanship. The best exhibitors are able to make adjustments on the fly because they know their horse. They read adversity before it shows up in the performance. Often judges see the mistake coming and are hopeful the exhibitor will prevent it – saving the score and possibly even earning merit because of their feel.

To be more specific:

  • Showmanship – Many handlers are not aware of their horse’s body position, leave a step ahead of the horse, don’t feel when the horse is about to move or do not recognize when the horse is acting on his or her own. Many judges comment that trainers are doing great work teaching the horses but the exhibitors are out of sync, disconnected from their horses.
  • Horsemanship –  Similarly, riders in horsemanship often get left behind the motion, end up out of position in a maneuver or lose their center. These negative characteristics are usually the result of not being connected through their seat, legs and hands. Simply having the correct rein length or stirrup length can make a significant difference.
  • Equitation –  Judges want to see equitation riders that look as though they could manage their horse on a hunter course. The horse’s pace should be created from the rider’s seat and leg with the horse moving in front of the rider’s leg. In an attempt to be very still, riders often become stiff and lose their forward motion. In turn, the horse loses their sense of direction and mistakes happen. Also, going too slow can be dangerous on a hunter course and can be a fault in an equitation class.

Correctness trumps all – Regardless of the event, correctness comes before quality or degree of difficulty. No matter how fancy a maneuver appears, if it is not first correct, it will not be credit earning.

Jogging too slow –  Judges comment that the jog is becoming the money gear because the riders place more importance on speed than correctness of gait. In the judges’ hierarchy of evaluation, correctness comes first on the list. If a horse does not perform a true two-beat jog, it is not correct. Many judges are using the moderate extension of the jog to try to see a true jog.

Hunter under saddle horses difficult to view –  Judges often comment on how difficult it is to evaluate the hunter under saddle horses when they are three or four deep. Horses who pass judges too close appear as a mass of legs making it difficult to evaluate anyone in the group. This class often gets criticism from bystanders whose view is yards further away than the judges. Exhibitors who can avoid the pack usually end up on top.

Score sheets –  Score sheets have helped and hurt the judging of some classes. Judges have very little time to evaluate exhibitors in pattern classes. During each exhibitor’s pattern judges are tasked with evaluating and scoring each maneuver. In addition, judges must come up with an overall score sorted in the exact order the judge wants the class placed – all in about 45 seconds.

Expression counts – The quality is as good as it has ever been. Because the horses and riders have become so good, judges often use the minutia to distinguish between the top three and the middle three, a plus half or a plus one. The horse’s expression becomes a major factor in separating horses. Likewise, an exhibitor’s expression has the ability to alter the judge’s opinion favorably or unfavorably.


  • Many judges comment negatively on exhibitors clicking their heels together as they cross over during the inspection phase of the class.
  • Loud verbal cues on course are a distracting, show a lower degree of difficulty and are not credit earning.
  • Stopping and setting up for inspection too close or too far from the judge or steward earn negative marks from most judges.
  • But number one for all judges is the exhibitor’s ability to get their horse set up squarely straight in front of the judge. This is the purpose of the Showmanship class and failure to perform this basic step will result in a poor overall score.

Posers are not rewarded for their posing – If they end up on top of the judges’ cards, it is not because they were posers, rather because the others were not correct. Judges do not like posers, cheaters or fakers, for instance, those who keep an outside stirrup when asked to drop their stirrups during rail work.

Exhibitors going too slow – Regardless of whether it is the time it takes for an exhibitor to respond to a gait call, the pace at which a rider presents their horse, the time exhibitors take to get horses into the show pen or to the cone, riders are often unaware of how difficult they make the judge’s job when they go too slow. Going too slow is not only unattractive but can be seen as disrespectful. The most confident riders are at the cone, ready to show, perform the gaits when called for – promptly and precisely.

Excessiveness – Too much of anything is too much. Reins that are too long, verbal cues that are too loud, fringe so long it bounces, pumping at the extended trot or heads that bob in rhythm with the horse’s motion – too much is too much. If someone wins with excessive anything, they are winning in spite of the fact they stopped too hard, held their hand too high or said “whoa” too loud – not because they did this.

Judges agree that they walk away from judging any major event a better judge. The education, whether given in a formal setting or through small group discussions, is tremendous. It is easy to be very discriminating during major events where the best competitors bring their A game to the show pen and judges have numerous high quality exhibitors to choose from.

Everyone who shows horses wants to win. Understand the rules and criteria judges used to evaluate each class. It may seem as though the same people win over and over again. If this is true, it is because they show with a degree of perfection only accomplished through years of performances that were almost good enough.

Good luck and have fun – enjoy the ride. There is something to learn from every ride.


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