Competitive Horse Judging Changes Lives

Competitive Horse Judging Changes Lives

From elementary age on up to college, horse judging competition shapes kids into capable adults.

AQHYA Horse Judging Contest at 2014 AQHYA World Show (Credit: Journal)

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By Alexis Shanes for America’s Horse

Competitive horse judging is an amazing activity for kids who love horses – and the best part is they needn’t own a horse to participate. Horse judging teams are offered through senior and junior colleges, as well as through 4-H, FFA and AQHA state affiliate youth associations. 

In horse judging contests, participants evaluate a variety of four-horse halter and performance classes and give four to six sets of memorized oral reasons describing their reasons for their placings. Professional judges then determine an official placing for each class. Participants’ scores are calculated based on how close their placings are to the officials’ placings. Each class and set of reasons is worth 50 points. The competitor who drops the fewest points wins the contest. (The Competitive Horse Judging Manual provides a more in-depth look, as well as tips for how to excel in horse judging contests.)

The awards and titles are thrilling, but more important are the practical skills gained from judging, says Marissa Chapa, assistant coach of the Oklahoma State University equine judging team and 2015 team member. 

“You learn about horses, you learn about the show industry, you get more hands-on industry experience,” Marissa says. “Overall, that experience alone is worth a lot. 

“But on top of that, you gain a lot of personal skills – how to work with a team, how to work with your coaches, confidence – you have a lot of mental control.” 

Steven Cooper, an associate professor at OSU who began coaching the university’s team in 1999, agrees that judging teaches lessons applicable long after the last contest is finished. 

“You have to ask yourself the question, ‘What did these kids get out of it?’ ” he says. “What did I do for them besides teach them how to judge four head of horses? I want to be sure we’re giving these kids something positive, regardless of how the results end up.”

Steven’s office walls are nearly invisible under a mass of team photos. A display table stretching the length of the room is home to a number of trophies, medallions and other mementos representing nearly two decades of coaching. But he is not concerned about winning titles – he wants students to gain the confidence that accompanies achievement. 

“Every now and then, you just have to have a little success in something,” he says. “Use that to give you that little boost to go do something bigger, go do something better, go do something different.” 

But whether it’s setting goals, how they treat peers and fellow competitors and how they think about things, Steven says those are the moments that determine the quality and character of a young adult.

“We’re not going to let what happens at the awards banquet define who we are,” he adds. 

Marissa agrees. 

“A championship is not something anyone can give to you,” she says. “It’s definitely something that’s self-created and an experience that you define for yourself.”