Raising Horse-Showing Standards

What you probably didn't know about the AQHA World Championship Show judges and judging.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Last fall, when the National Football League referees went on strike, it became obvious to fans, players and coaches how important it is to have well-trained, consistent officials managing the games. Remember the controversial Hail Mary pass into the end zone during the game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks? The ball lands among a pile of players from both teams, with two substitute referees standing right there. One referee

calls a touchdown, while the other official signals an incomplete pass.

That inconsistency – by untrained and unknowledgeable judges – is what AQHA wants to avoid.

“We want the best possible officials in the game,” says AQHA Executive Director of Competition and Breed Integrity Tom Persechino. “Our exhibitors, trainers and their connections see the ‘end product’ – the judges in the arena judging a class. They don’t see the year or two of prep work that is put into selecting and training those judges for that job at AQHA’s world championship shows.”

AQHA has a good system for providing world-class judging at its premier event, but any good system takes maintenance and a constant eye toward improvement. The budget for the judges at AQHA’s world shows is the largest single unsponsored and unreimbursed expense when it some to the shows. At the World Show, as much as a quarter of a million dollars is allocated to judges’ pay and travel, so it simply stands to reason that the Association wants the process to be correct with so much invested and on the line.

“We appreciate and welcome constructive criticism from our exhibitors and trainers,” Tom says. “But there’s no place for criticism that escalates into a confrontation like you see on the football fields between a red-faced coach and a referee.”


Selecting judges begins with building a list of prospects, and that originates with exhibitor suggestions.

At the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show, youth advisors can submit names to be considered for the next year’s Ford Youth World. For the Adequan Select and the Bank of America Amateur and  Open world shows, every class entry form has a blank where exhibitors can suggest judges’ names for the next year’s world show.

“If a name is suggested on a western pleasure entry, that name goes on the list suggested for that class,” says AQHA Senior Director of Judges Alex Ross. “And if that judge is finally nominated, he or she will probably be used in that class.

“A large number of owners do not take the opportunity to submit names,” he adds.

The list of suggested judges and the classes they are suggested for goes to the AQHA Executive Committee, which accepts, adds or deletes names from it. Then the list goes back to Alex and he hires from there.

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One of the biggest challenges Alex faces is simply getting judges in place. By the start of the 2011 World Show, Alex had the 2012 judges lined up.

“I make an organizational chart with several columns – halter, western, English, pattern, reining, roping, working cow horse, cutting and penning/sorting – and I build the list of judges I need for each class group from there,” Alex says. “And I have to follow a budget for each show.”

As he hires and schedules judges, Alex follows guidelines, such as using a judge from a specific class he or she was nominated through; using AQHA alliance-approved judges, carded National Cutting Horse Association, National Reining Horse Association, National Snaffle Bit Association, National Reined Cow Horse, etc.; and using AQHA specialized judges – all aiming to get five experienced judges for each class.

“It’s very advantageous for me if we can hire judges who are approved to judge multiple disciplines,” Alex says.

Circumstances can affect whom he is able to hire. Take, for example, the lack of World Conformation Horse Association-approved judges in the 2012 halter classes.

“When hiring judges for the 2012 World Show, I called every WCHA judge on our specialized judges list but one,” Alex says, “and I called many of our AQHA all-around judges perceived to be respected in the halter industry.

“All of the WCHA judges and a majority of the all-around judges declined because they had conflicts with themselves or clients showing at the World Show. When that happens, it’s beyond our control but we still try to put the best, most qualified judges in the pen – regardless of the class. Our expectation is the same as the exhibitors’ – we want to get it right and have every exhibitor leave the World Show arena knowing they were judged fairly, accurately and according to the rules, regardless of the discipline.”

Committing to the World Show is a big decision for a judge who also trains, points out AQHA Professional Horseman and 2012 AQHA World Show judge Steve Heckaman, because AQHA rules say a judge can’t judge when there’s a conflict of interest.

“You need to change your business plan for the next year,” Steve says. “Ideally, you have clients who want to qualify for the World Show (and you can’t judge them). You have to let them know what you’re thinking and structure your business a little differently.”

Regardless, every judge used for halter was an AQHA judge, fully experienced in judging halter.

“I think exhibitors will be very pleased with the halter judges who have committed for 2013,” Alex adds.


There are three types of judges who can judge an AQHA world show:

  1. AQHA all-around judges who are approved to judge any AQHA class.
  2. Specialized judges approved by AQHA alliance partners with whom we have judging agreements, such as NRHA, NCHA, NSBA, NRCHA, etc.
  3. AQHA specialized judges in events, like roping and over-fences classes, where we have no alliance partner.

“We started hearing from exhibitors several years back that they wanted judges who were especially familiar with their events, such as over-fences or cow horse,” Alex says. “That’s when AQHA started the restricted judges program now called the specialized judges program.

“Many of our AQHA all-around judges are excellent judges in these events. This just allows people who are considered specialists in specific fields to share their knowledge in that class, without being approved to judge multiple events.”

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Using AQHA specialized judges helps set a higher standard for classes, which is especially important for the World Show, the ultimate standard-setter for the AQHA show pen.

“It’s important for AQHA: If we want to improve the breed, we have to have judges who set a high standard for what they expect,” Alex says. “They only reward the most positive characteristics relative to the class, and they are not going to reward mediocrity.

“Riders have to ride to that higher standard, and they learn to do it. We’ve seen that happen in many of our events.

“Several years ago, when the Ford Youth World was in Fort Worth, the horsemanship pattern called for a circle with speed, and it was the first time I’d ever seen that. There was only one rider who did it correctly. But the next year, it was there again, and a lot of riders could execute that maneuver.

“The point is not that we don’t have good riders; it’s that we need to keep raising the standard.”

Using specialized judges also taps into expertise that other organizations have to offer: “USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) judges go through a long process of ‘learner’ judging, lower-level judging, to work their way up,” explains Steve Wall, AQHA specialized judge for over-fences classes. “The pool of USEF judges at the top level is a unique blend of horsemen and women with a vast experience at rating what is best.”

A common misconception about specialized judges is that they generally come from outside the Quarter Horse industry, which is not necessarily true.

“I hear that a lot regarding over-fences specialized judges,” Alex says. “Truth is, we have a significant number of people on the over-fences specialized judges list who are Quarter Horse people – Sandy Vaughn, Clay Ferrell and David Warner are just a few who come to mind.

“To say an AQHA specialized judge with a USEF background is not qualified to judge AQHA hunt seat equitation is like saying someone like Michael Colvin, Jackie Krshka, Pete Kyle or Charlie Cole would not be capable of judging a horsemanship class at a USEF show – and that’s so far from being true. Equitation should be judged the same whether it is USEF or AQHA. The horse is merely a prop for the rider.”


With judges in place, the next challenges involve helping judges in the judging process.

“You are very prepared when you walk into that arena to judge those classes,” says AQHA all-around judge Karen Watters of Powell, Ohio, a veteran of judging many World Shows including the 2012 show.

“We’re given our assignments when we arrive in Oklahoma City so we know what classes we are going to judge for the entire show,” she says. “The night before I judge, I always review the rules for the class, myself.

“Then prior to us judging a class, we – all five judges and Alex (Ross) – sit down as a group, and depending on the class, we’ll watch video and score different runs (of horses not currently showing), we discuss likes and dislikes, rules, scoring, etc. We stop and think and talk about what the ideal is for AQHA. That’s our responsibility as judges: to reward the ideal.”

Steve Wall adds, “Yet, it’s left wide open for us to pick what we think are the best horses.”

Steve is a high-rated USEF judge from Santa Barbara, California, who judges 25 to 30 hunter shows annually. He’s also an AQHA member and an AQHA specialized judge for over-fences classes who has been through AQHA’s judge education process. He judged the World Show for the first time in 2012.

Steve Heckaman also judged his first World Show in 2012, although he has been an AQHA judge for more than 20 years, alongside a successful career as a Quarter Horse trainer and breeder.

“(Alex) does a good job of getting all the judges on the same page, in thinking similarly about penalties and qualities that should be rewarded and those that shouldn’t,” Steve says. “He encourages us to look for the positive characteristics.”

AQHA wants to make sure the judges are fully “warmed up, so when that first horse comes on course, they are ready.

“This gives judges an opportunity to score some runs, so they are ready for that early horse,” Alex explains. “If that early horse is the best horse they see that day, it should be the winner, and we’ve seen that happen.”

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Significant funding has gone into improving AQHA’s judging, especially at the World Show.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on technology,” Alex points out. “We built the show management system, and the Sure Score system, where judges use PDAs to send in scores without any radio use.

“We’ve invested in overhead cameras and equipment needed to record and review every go, in every class. We know instantly when judges call in a penalty, or for a review on a certain run.”

When a judge calls for a review – and any judge can call for a review if he or she isn’t sure or wants to see the run again – he/she can replay a run multiple times and, in some cases, slow motion, and can change a penalty, plus or minus, although maneuver scores can’t be changed. Changes are recorded and marked on the score sheets.

After every World Show, Alex casts a cold eye on the judging itself.

“I use an evaluation and grading system based on the top five horses in a class and how each judge places those horses scored against the final overall placings,” he explains. “They score points for each placing that matches.

“I generally consider 70 percent passing, because there is going to be a difference of opinion, especially in a placed class. And there might be a situation in a class, say, western pleasure, where a horse had a major fault that only one judge saw. That judge might not have had that horse in his top five, but it might have won the class. I make note of that because that judge was correct in what he did.”

Alex says that’s a benefit of the five-judge system, throwing out the high and low scores: “When the horses leave the arena, they go out in a pretty correct order.”

“You can sit there and say someone is not doing a good job, but the grading verifies it,” Alex says. “On the other hand, you can also use it to back up a judge unfairly criticized, which I did at this year’s World Show.

“The more we build on it, the better we’ll know each judge’s strong suits and where they may not be as comfortable.”


“The whole objective of the entire process is to get the classes judged correctly,” Alex says. “It takes a lot of time and effort to do all this, but it makes judging more accurate.”

“I think this is my 21st year as a judge,” Steve Heckaman says. “But I definitely learned something at (the 2012 World Show).

“Whether you train, show, judge or anything, it’s important to keep improving the process and learning and getting better at whatever field you are in. You’ve got to constantly seek to improve.”