The Other Side of Horse Showing

Pamela Britton-Baer chronicles the tale of her first experience judging a horse show.

Recently, someone asked me to judge a 4-H horse show.

I’ll admit, I was flattered. Being asked to judge is almost a rite of passage. Someone thought enough of my abilities that they reasoned I could judge little kids.

It brought tears to my eyes.

I said, “Yes,” of course, after making sure my day as a volunteer wasn’t against amateur status rules.

Now, I’m a big believer in looking the part. When I first started doing showmanship, I had the blingiest darn clothes you’ve ever seen – even if I didn’t know what a pull turn was. So, the morning of the show, I donned what I thought was appropriate judge’s attire.

Long trench coat? Check.

Pressed pants? Check.

Spotless hat (with any long hair beneath gathered into a ponytail)? Check.

I was smug. I looked the part. My disguise as someone who actually knew what they were doing had worked.

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The first class of the day was my favorite: showmanship. It’s no secret that I love this class. There are so many subtle nuances. I gleefully anticipated my first victim. I’d come up with a clever and somewhat complicated pattern. The thing was, these were not AQHA World Show-level exhibitors.

I realized quickly that I hadn’t allowed enough space in between the cones. Little kids need a runway for takeoff. Their tiny legs have a hard time picking up enough speed to get aloft. Conversely, and perhaps most importantly, they need one for landing, too. I can’t tell you how many times I found myself staring into the maw of an approaching horse and willing it, nay, begging it to stop. Invariably, I would dash away at the last minute, narrowly avoiding death by trampling.

I breathed a sigh of relief when rail classes started. Little ones began to trot in, but it was as if someone opened the flood gates. One horse trotted in, then another and another and another …

Like a horsey clown car.

I attempted to pick out my favorites, but I quickly understood the dilemma many judges must find themselves in.

Too many bays. Too many grays. Too many horses that all looked alike. Though I held a clipboard, what I needed was a camera. And a spreadsheet. Maybe even some Post-it notes.

I furiously began to scribble down numbers. They were three deep on the rail, and as I watched horses trot by, I noticed pinned ears and wringing tails. These weren’t seasoned show horses; these were ranch horses disguised as show horses – not that there’s anything wrong with a ranch horse. I could just tell they much preferred the open range.

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And they would all need to canter.

The hair rose on the back of my neck. If I’d had rosary beads I’d have clutched them.

Instead, I said a quick prayer, squinted my eyes and signaled for the canter.

It was like someone yelled FIRE!

Previously sane horses went suddenly wild. Two of my favorite bays decided to race. A horse on the rail pinned his ears. The horse on the inside wheeled away. Right toward me.

I’ve never moved so fast in my life. But if my eyes were wide, so were the eyes of the little girl riding the renegade horse. I think she might have shot a quick, “Sorry,” as she galloped by, but it was hard to hear over the thunder of hooves.

I don’t know how we all escaped death that day, but I do know I gained a whole new appreciation for judges. Trying to track 20-plus horses as they galloped, bucked and tried to mow me down was a challenge I had never appreciated before. It’s one thing to sit at home and judge a class via a web camera, and quite another to be out in the trenches, watching as your favorite horse breaks into a trot and thinking, “Now where do I place them?”

I don’t know that I’ll ever judge a horse show again. Frankly, I wonder if I’ll even be asked. One thing is for certain, though – I’m getting life insurance.