Back In the Saddle

Six previously retired AQHA all-around judges share their favorite memories of judging Quarter Horse shows.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Ken Copenhaver of Myakka City, Florida, is one of six formerly "retired" AQHA judges who've gotten their judges cards back.

In January of this year, the number 75 had two meanings at AQHA: it’s the Association’s 75th anniversary and, unfortunately, it was the age at which AQHA judges were required to retire from the ring and turn in their judge’s cards – even if they weren’t ready to be put out to pasture. Then, in May, the AQHA Judges and Executive committees voted to remove the rule requiring judge retirement at the age of 75, which meant that “retired” AQHA judges could get their judges cards back after scoring above 75 percent on video judging and above 80 percent on the rulebook exam.

As a result, six of them made the decision to get back in the saddle: Ken Copenhaver, Billy Steele, Bill Englund, Mike Perkins, Maryann Willoughby and Gene Carr.

The Journal talked to all six judges, who were almost giddy about being able to judge their favorite breed of horses again. You see, some of them continued to judge other breeds and other alliance events because AQHA was the only association with a required retirement age for its judges.

At age 76, Ken Copenhaver of Myakka City, Florida, has been a judge for 38 years.

“Being an AQHA judge has always been a privilege and an honor to me,” he tells the Journal. “I was not ready to quit judging so when the rule was lifted, I knew that I would try to get my card back.”

Ken shared a few of his many stories from his early days of being a judge.

“My first show was in Minnesota and I had to take an Appaloosa show on Saturday in order to get the Quarter Horse show on Sunday,” Ken says. “Apps in Ohio were not that strong, so I took the show. Much to my surprise, Apps were really big up there and they had just had their national championship show and I had 374 entries. The next day was my big day, judging a Quarter Horse show, and to my best recollection, we had well over 400 entries. What a welcome to the big time! And I did it all for $500, including expenses."

There are also lessons to be learned when being a judge. Like Gene Carr's story: "I was judging a youth western pleasure walk-trot class and had the class lined up for the back. When I came to red haired freckled face boy, I asked him, 'Can you back your horse?'  He said, 'Yes!' When he did not back, again I asked, 'If you can back the horse, show me.'  'You did not ask me to back; you asked me if I could back the horse.' So from that time on, I would say, 'Would you back your horse?' ”

Ken adds that in his years of judging, he has met and judged with some of the best horse people in the world.

“I loved meeting the people and the challenge of trying to get it as right as you can,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what kind of horse you bring to the ring, everyone pays the same fee and deserves the same look and consideration. I like speaking to the exhibitors, especially the novices, to help put them at ease and it helps make the day more enjoyable for me.”

AQHA Past President Mike Perkins of Bentonville, Arkansas, echoes Ken’s comments.

“The big plus of judging for AQHA is the people,” Mike says. “It didn’t matter where I was – Brazil, South Africa or the United States – the people were always the best because we all had the Quarter Horse in common.”

Mike adds that he got to see the world, thanks to AQHA and the Quarter Horse.

“I got to South Africa to judge a show and the show manager said, ‘Now, Mike, we’ve lined up a deal that you don’t have to do if you don’t want to …’ I said, ‘Well, what is it?’ and the show manager said, ‘We’ve lined up a few days for you to go into the bush.’ And all I said was, ‘When do we leave?!’ So I got to spend a few days in a tent camp in the South African bush.

“I’m a Christian and I’ve been to Israel several times and seen most all of the historical religious sites,” he adds. “That’s really something.”

Maryann Willoughby of Hugoton, Kansas, has been judging AQHA shows since 1981 and has also spent time judging Quarter Horse shows in other countries.

“I have gone to Australia a couple of times and they were wonderful trips and wonderful experiences,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed judging the German championships and several big shows. There’s an old show, Quarterama, that used to be a great show – there are just too many to think about. I don’t know how to explain (what it means) to get my judges card back. I love to judge and have always loved AQHA, and I’m excited to start doing it again.”

Even though he had been officially retired from judging AQHA shows, AQHA Past President Bill Englund of Cashion, Arizona, hadn’t hung up his boots.

“I have been judging shows for other breeds so I’ve been busy,” he says. “I just found out the other day (that he’d passed the judges tests). I got my card in 1971. It means the world to me because I have missed having it. But I always loved to judge an AQHA show.”

Bill says he has a lot of great memories from judging.

“I guess my favorite is going to come from the shows out of the country – I’ve been to Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Europe, Canada, Mexico,” he says. “Those are the memories that I would not have been able to have if I hadn’t had my AQHA card and been hired to go there.”

Billy Steele of Stephenville, Texas, got his first AQHA judges card in 1964.

“I’ve had so many nice judging trips that it’s hard to pick out one,” he says. “I was so lucky because I had the opportunity to judge the best shows several times: the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the World Show, Youth World, the youth world in Australia. I judged the first Quarter Horse show in Rome, Italy. I had so many nice memories.”

International travel aside, judging the Congress and the AQHA World Championship Show seem to be career highlights for all of the judges we talked to.

“Getting the call to judge the World Show was a major accomplish for me,” says Ken. “I can remember how excited and honored I was. I thought that I would be judging the speed events and that was fine with me, but I thought it would be great if I was able to judge at least one go-round of the western pleasure. I ended up judging about all the major events. My first class was hunter hack. We’d watched them over the fences and then went down into the arena for the rail work. After the line up, I was working on finishing up my scoresheets in the middle of the arena, wanting desperately to get to get it right. I looked up and saw the other judges had all finished and were headed out of the arena, and I started to panic. My ring steward, Ron McMillian, must have read my mind. He came over and said to me, ‘You are fine, take a breath and tie-up your class.’ That really helped me, and I remember getting most of my placings back to the finals.”

It didn’t take Ken long to share the good news that he had is AQHA card back.

“I just texted four or five show managers and was hired for two shows next year within two days,” he says.

Gene adds that he wants to help AQHA in his home state, as he is the only AQHA judge in South Dakota.

"To impart my knowledge that can only be acquired through life experiences," Gene says. "I do like small shows, as well as large shows, and especially enjoy working AQHA special events. I have the time and energy to help others."

Billy, too, has judged other breeds and alliance events, but he is happy to be back home at AQHA.

“I had 30 years (of judging) in when I went to work for AQHA and worked 15 years,” he says. “When I left AQHA, I was too old by the rules. AQHA has been my whole life. Even if I don’t ever judge another show, I’m happy to have my card back, but I’m looking forward to getting back out there in the ring.”