The "political" advantage to be gained from being with a big name trainer is usually that the big name is big for a reason: they're good at what they do. Photo © AZQHA

Five Things to Ask Yourself Before You Claim “It’s Politics”

She trains with the famous Big Name Trainer. He owns the famous Big Name Horse. You see them walking around the fairgrounds chatting with show management and their Facebook friend list is almost exclusively a who’s who in the horse industry. It’s no surprise when they win your class. Politics as usual, right?

We’ve all been there. If you’ve ever been frustrated at a horse show, you’ve probably complained about politics at one point or another, but it might be time to shut down those nagging thoughts. Check out our list of five things to ask yourself before you say “it’s politics” when you’re thinking about your placings at a horse show.


1. What does _______ have that I don’t?
Hint: the answer most likely isn’t “connections.” While it may be true that exhibitor A or B may train with a top name or seem to know everybody, it’s likely not helping this person win in the ways that you’re thinking. Because the fact of the matter is, no self-respecting judge out there signs their name to a card handing out “favors” to friends or famous faces.

So why is it then, that the people on top seem to stay on top? The “political” advantage to be gained from being with a big name trainer is usually that the big name is big for a reason: they’re good at what they do. Their program turns out quality. We can’t all afford to be in those top programs, but by attending clinics put on by the best and being a careful study of winners, you’ll find that you will pick up on some fine details to tweak your performance.

2. I wonder what my scoresheet says?
Do you know how scoring works in your event? Are you familiar with the most current version of the rulebook or guidelines? Have you checked your score? You need to develop the skill of being able to score maneuvers from a standard just as the judges do. APHA has a great tool that can help you do just that. Check out or download your organization’s guides, rulebook, and scoresheets and start studying.

You can also learn how to scribe and volunteer to scribe when you’re not showing, or you can make religious use of the scoresheets that are available to peruse. A great horse or rider is never exempt from a low score; a mistake or error still counts. However, some teams will never score in a particular range because of style while some teams’ scores naturally start from a higher range. Judges are there to reward quality, not punish mistakes. It doesn’t help you improve your game if all you can do is see red when you fail to understand the scores.

3. Did I watch the whole class?
Before you complain about the judging in a class, take a moment to honestly decide whether or not you really saw each horse or go. If the answer is no, then you might want to back the truck up. You can’t complain about the judging of a class you didn’t completely watch. If your answer is yes, you did truly see each horse, then, remind yourself that the goal of the judge is to place the correct top and bottom horses in the class.

Judges can only judge what is in front of them and that means they are focused on evaluating and sorting the horses they’re presented with. This means they can miss things that may seem glaring to us. But more significantly, it sometimes means that we are so focused on watching one to two others that we forget that the placings and winners of any given class are always relative to the particular class. If you haven’t watched them all, you cannot understand the relativity of how and why certain horses end up at the top or bottom of the card.

4. Who am I riding for?
Judging is subjective. Period. At the end of the day, you will always be paying for an opinion, and it seems a little silly to get upset when you disagree with that opinion. You have to ride for yourself and your horse – not against this person or that person. By asking yourself who you are riding for, it will force you to think about your performance in terms of why you’re doing this.

Most of us love horses and love competing, which is why showing appeals to us. When we focus on the other competitors, the politics, and all the things we can’t control, we lose sight of what matters: doing something we love for the sake of it.

5. Am I just venting because I didn’t perform the way I wanted to?
It stinks when your showmanship run doesn’t go as flawlessly as you imagined it to. It can really sting when you feel like your pleasure horse was overlooked. While it can be an easy, quick boost to lash out with some venting that has nothing to do with your own performance, blaming politics is only going to leave you feeling worse in the long run.

At best, you’ll fail to realize where you have room to learn and at worst you’ll end up feeling that the entire system is rigged against you when, in fact, nearly everybody invested in the horse show industry wants to see individuals improve and succeed. Nobody, least of all those at the top, likes a rigged game.

Now, of course, there are times when complaints are valid. If you’ve thought critically about a situation and feel that a rule, policy, or code of conduct has been violated, then you owe it to yourself and the industry to report it. We shouldn’t merely complain, but instead work together using the tools in place to improve the system.

About the Author: A native Michigander, Rachel Kooiker is a lover of horses who loves to write. She graduated from Grand Valley State University with a BA in English and Psychology and an MA in Curriculum & Instruction. She competes in all-around Amateur events with her APHA gelding, Hoos Real. Together with husband Drew, she helps to operate Kooiker Show Horses, where they stand APHA World Champion Im the Secret.