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We Ask Judges: What is One Trait a Winner Needs?

What is one trait a winner needs in the show pen? We asked several judges this question and their answers might surprise you.

Do you have what it takes to get to the winner’s circle? Feeling like you are always the bridesmaid and never the bride? Wondering what it takes to be first on the judge’s card? Nothing worth having ever comes easy. And, as easy as winners make it look, they put in their time and share many key attributes.

Often, champion riders look like they have nerves of steel or ice water running through their veins. They seem to have an innate confidence in themselves. While they may be born with that self-assurance, riders with the right mental and physical training can also develop these positive traits.

What are some traits you believe a winner must have to be successful in the show arena, as well as in life? We asked some of the judges who ultimately either award you for your effort or humbly set you in your place when you don’t have that winning ride.

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Leslie Lange – A winner needs situational awareness…by that, I mean the ability to be aware of where they are in the pen, either in relation to others in a rail class or how close to their plan they may be in a pattern class. Their situational awareness allows them to know what is happening with their horse, as well as what is happening with others in the class. It also allows them to know when they can “sell” a pattern or a run and when they either need to school or know that they are using it as a practice run.


Daren Wright – The most important trait of a winner is responsibility. They must take responsibility for their decision-making by making a plan of action to think big, set big goals, and realize hard work is the answer to achieving those goals. They have the responsibility to battle through a challenge. Any goal in this industry will require work and commitment and many of these goals will be met with extreme tests that will require persistence and a positive attitude. The winner is responsible for their actions by being risk takers and getting out of their comfort zone, being an example for others in the industry, and accepting feedback from others. Additionally, that responsibility will require them to be flexible and adaptable, focused on their real objectives, and own up to their mistakes along the way.

Brad Jewett – Without perspective, it really doesn’t matter how hard you work or what talent you have. You must be able to understand each situation you are faced with each and every day/ride/show, etc. With the wrong perspective, you will want to give up, with the right perspective you will try harder next time.

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Leonard Berryhill
– Preparation! The winners want to be at the barn 24-7. They love what they are doing and they live and breathe it.




Kelly McDowall – Confidence! We all like to judge someone who shows with confidence. Own the pattern! To me, confidence comes from preparation and attitude. Spending time with your horse and trainer and working on specific maneuvers until they can be done with total control is where confidence comes from. If you have effectively practiced until you are 98% sure (nobody is ever 100%) you can attack the pattern and not make a mistake. I think the last 2% comes from your own mental state. Are you a positive thinker and okay if you mess up going for 100% or are you going to go 75% hoping not to make a mistake?

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Holly Hover – Work ethic…nonstop hard work and follow through.






Deborah Kail – Ice in their veins. The ability to block everything out and show their horse or horses confidently, time and time again.





Jimmy Daurio – I think one trait a winner needs is to have faith in the horse they are competing on. Trust that they can call on them and they will be there.



Jamie Dowdy
– Connection & confidence. When a horse and rider have that connection each step of the way. The confidence that a horse and rider have in one another in whichever discipline normally is a pretty tough partnership to beat.



Charlie Cole
– Winners focus on themselves and giving their best performance and not worrying about how their competitors are doing.



Michael Ochetto – Preparation – the hours of intense training and desire to persevere through thick and thin until the end result is a winner.




Laurel Walker Denton – The one thing a winner must have is the ability to leave behind the bad runs, unproductive lessons or training sessions, and negative thoughts. I always tell my clients, “Fix the problem, then believe your horse will do it correctly. If he doesn’t, fix it again, next time it will be right.” Always believe and stay positive.




Lori Gordon – A great attitude!





Kristy Starnes – I think more perseverance. Winners keep going when the going gets tough. They come back and try again. That attitude vs. giving up is something winners need.



Jodi Finkenbinder – A winner has to have “The look of the eagle!” A winner is alert, deliberate, focused, intelligent, and confident. So, if you have to sum it up, that would be my answer.



Melissa Sexton – I believe winners need an understanding that this sport is a personal journey unique to each competitor and horse. With this understanding, a positive mental attitude can be developed. When a competitor has a great attitude, then they have great energy, which allows confidence to build. This confidence is what I love to score and reward with positive marks when I am judging.



Steve Heckaman – There are several tangible traits and some intangible ones. The obvious is confidence, being professional and well-practiced, but I would say the most important is having a “Pattern of Success”. Once a set of actions culminate with a major win, repeating those actions each time raises the likelihood of a similar outcome. Winning shows like the AQHA World or Congress is very elusive, as it should be, but once you win it, winning becomes more familiar with a road map to successful outcomes.

Nancy Renfro – Confidence. When you enter the arena, look like you own it.





Nancy Sue Ryan – Confidence. If you are confident, you can do it…you most likely will present it.




Heather Young – Believing in yourself (self-confidence) and don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.




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