The Judge's View of Horse Showing

What one judge was looking for in equitation over fences at the 2010 Adequan Select World.

Editor's Note: Bob Tweedlie has been a rider and trainer for more than 35 years. In addition to riding, training and coaching students, he is an "R" United States Equestrian Federation judge and holds a specialized AQHA judges card for over-fences classes.

The equitation over fences course at the 2010 Adequan Select World Championship Show was a basic, straightforward course that asked specific questions for the riders and horses. It was a good example of what riders can expect to see at many AQHA and USEF shows.

When judging equitation classes at these shows, I am looking for four things: first impression, basic position, harmony of horse and rider, and riding the course and answering the questions that it asks.

First Impressions

When the horse and rider walk into the arena, I get my first impression of the pair. At the World Show level, the horse should be immaculately groomed and braided, with tack that fits well. The rider is being judged, but this is a show, and the horse is part of the pair. Riders should be properly attired with clothes that fit well and highly polished boots. Gloves should always be worn in equitation classes.

The opening circle sets the standard. I want a person to ride into the ring and say “Look at me.” A trot is fine as the horse enters the ring, then setting off at a working canter shows that the rider means business. The canter should be business-like, not too slow, and not a full-blown gallop. At the Adequan Select World, one rider started to step into the ring, and her horse started to pick up the wrong lead. Before one step went by, the rider corrected the error and picked up a good working canter - that rider immediately impressed me with her feel and knowledge of what was going on underneath her. I had a great impression right from the beginning. The opening circle almost always gives a judge an idea of how the rest of the round will go.

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Basic Position

All riders must have a good basic position. Not all of us have the perfect body for equitation with nice long legs and a thin torso. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be effective with what we have.

The most important body part for riding, in my mind, is the leg: It is what keeps us on our horses and influences what they do. A strong, quiet leg, in contact with our horse’s side - with heels down - is what I am looking for. A weak leg tends to slip back, the heels come up, and all security is lost.

Next, I want to see good basic posture, with a straight back and eyes always looking ahead. Common faults in over-fences classes are that a rider tends to make too much of the jump, throwing her body, bending too low, throwing her hands forward, looking down at the jump and trying to jump the fences for her horse. Riders need to remember that the jump is just a canter stride (with a little air time) and should be ridden with rhythm and allow the horse to do his job.

Harmony of Horse and Rider

Once again, in equitation over fence classes, it is not just the rider who is being judged. Our partner has a great influence on our performance. It is important that both horse and rider work together. The best-jumping horse in the equitation classes is not necessarily the class winner. The horse-and-rider combination and the way they work together to solve the questions asked by the

course is the key to winning equitation classes.

Unfortunately, at the Adequan Select World Show, I saw a few very good equitation riders who did not get the cooperation that they needed from their horses, and, although they were good riders, they did not score as high as they should have under other circumstances.

In a perfect world, or World Show class, everyone would be able to find the perfect distance to a jump. This is not always the case. When judging an equitation class over fences, I want to see riders who are riding a specific distance to the jump - it could be long, it could be short - but I want to see a rider who knows that the distance is there and rides the jump as required. Common faults seen are rushing forward to the jump or shortening the horse’s stride so that all rhythm is lost.

Riding the Course

All courses ask specific questions of the riders. The course at the Adequan Select World was a fair test of the riders.

It started with a single on the diagonal going away from the in-gate. The question here was did the rider have a good working canter and have her horse focused on the fence?

Next was the rollback to an oxer. Riders had the option of making a relatively tight right turn or making a wider turn to the oxer. A rollback this early in the course would show whether a rider truly had her horse in front of her legs and that she was looking ahead to find an appropriate distance to jump this fence. A number of riders had a very slow canter to this jump and, as a result, jumped loose over the oxer.

Next was a slight break for the riders. They were able to regroup, put their horses in front of their legs and approach the bending line. This line was not difficult, but the second fence in the line required riders to go around another fence. Once again, riders had to be looking ahead so that their horses would know where they were going. A number of riders over-steered their horses in this line, causing their horses to ask their riders a question: Where are we going?

The key to riding this line properly was to not get in a hurry but to let the fence come to you.

After the bending line, a rather tight left turn asked, “Are the riders sitting up and down into their heels?” It brought them to a two-stride in and out. Keeping a controlled but forward canter made these two jumps fairly easy for most of the riders, and the jumping effort of their horses would show me how well they could maintain their position. After the two-stride, riders cantered around the end of the ring to a diagonal line.

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This line was rather straightforward, but coming away from the in-gate, it tended to ride a little long. Some of the riders did not realize this until halfway down the line and then had to make a big move to lengthen their horses’ strides so they could ride the line in the proper number of strides.

After this line, one fence remained, a single oxer off the turn, set straight, not on the diagonal. This fence caused a number of problems, mainly because riders did not keep themselves and their horses focused on where they were going and got a little too relaxed.

And finally was the closing circle. Riders need to remember that this is the final time that a judge will be able to look at them. A good transition to the trot and showing off the best position possible will sometimes move them up a place or two if a few rounds are similar or the judge hasn’t seen a big difference among riders as they jumped the course.

I think the most important thing to remember is that everything should be as smooth and well-planned as you can make it. As I said earlier, not everyone has the perfect equitation body, but consistency and a well-planned rider will always be rewarded.