Friday, August 3, 2018

Inside the judge's notebook

What are model horse performance judges really looking for?

I have started at least a dozen posts on this topic, none of which have ever been finished. I'm always worried that my comments will be perceived as criticism of entrants at the last big show I attended, and trust me, that is not my goal.

But... I see the same kind of easily fixable mistakes at every single show going back years and years. This is frustrating for me as a judge, and also frustrating for entrants who want to place better but can't quite seem to make that happen.

In today's guest post, my friend, Heather Malone, tackles this topic head on. Thank you so much, Heather, for putting all of this together. You inspire me, and maybe, just maybe, I'll actually finish one of those half-written judging posts!

P.S. With the exception of my own non-clean English trail picture, none of the photos specifically correspond with any of the comments. Please do not be offended if your entry is included here. All that means is I liked it enough to use it on my blog.

Inside a Performance Judge’s Notebook

by Heather Malone

Showing performance can be a super frustrating business. I get it. I have been there. 
A lot of effort and expense goes into what can seem like a nebulous outcome. Non-winners are often left wondering: What was the problem with the entry? How can can it be made better? What exactly is the judge looking for? …
Because of time constraints, immediate feedback is often impractical, and in some cases, not permitted. When showers are allowed to ask, many don’t for various reasons (time, disinterest, self-consciousness). Still, a judge should always be able to give concise and constructive feedback on an entry, based largely on their notes.

So what do those notes say? What do they mean? Wouldn’t you love to get a peek into a judge's notebook?

Now you can.

Last month, I gathered notes from several judges at the two big national shows, NAN and BreyerFest Live. I transcribed those notes and put them together to create a snap shot of what performance judges are looking at and common issues that catch their eye. 
I can say, without question, most judges are looking for that one thing: Cleanliness. CLEAN IS KING. In the notes you see the word “clean” a lot, but what does this really mean? 
Cleanliness, in the context of performance showing, means the entry has the basics down. The tack fits the horse, the doll is positioned well and everything looks tidy. The props and accessories are in scale, set up with precision and are in a good relationship to the entry. Additionally, professional looking documentation can help propel an entry to the top. 
Before a judge goes on to the notion of specific class rules and expectations, they are looking at basic horsemanship and professionalism in the presentation. A horse in dated tack with a simple concept might place before a flashier, more complex entry because the bit is in the horse's teeth or the rider doll is crooked on the flashier piece.
The comments below come directly from the judges' notes at this year's big shows. The judges, entrants and even the show names have been redacted, and the class names are homogenized. What this should demonstrate is that before a judge gets to the nuances of each particular class, they are confronted with myriad basic issues that effect an entry’s placement. If you took the class names away would you know what classes the were? In many cases, the answer is no, because the evaluation notes have a commonality in the basic.
With that said, on to the notes!

1. Left Trace not tight
2. Surcingle/girth crooked, browband, fence leaning
3. Clean (dated), no doll, no noseband, no documentation
4. Messy breeching, loose chest band, big browband
5. Horse/harness wrong type for cart, messy breeching, scale issue
6. Cleanish, minor browband and cheekpiece issue

1. Messy reins, hands, bitting good
2. Shanks super long, stirrups uneven, reins overhand, crooked doll
3. Whole bridle fits ill, doll is good, carriage of horse is low/squat
4. Reins messy, flap up, cavesson crooked

Western Showmanship and Equitation
1. Bulky chaps, uneven reins
2. Halter huge, air all around
3. Pet hair on doll
4. Perfect fit, doll sharp, looking at source of action
5. Unrealistic bridle for pleasure, crooked doll
6. Hands way low, velcro on boots coming off
7. No pattern or description
8. Twisted, messy reins

Over Fences (in general)
1. Good reins, bit of cheek gap, good rider
2. Gaping brow, good rider, messy reins
3. Over all presentation good, rider should fit better
4. Heels up and crooked rider
5. LOOSE reins
6. Losing stirrups, head down, messy reins
7. Doll waterskiing, going wide, stride wrong
8. Jumping way long, low
9. Messy reins, nice doll, nose band fir, bit placement
10. Stirrup leathers long, doll leaning back, flash placement

Arab Costume
1. Costume too big and bulky, bit is HUGE
2. No reins, bridle incomplete, saddle too small
3. Drape messy and long, safety issue
4. Reins messy, stirrups not utilitarian, saddle lumpy, no noseband
5. Reins messy, bad bit placement, no curb chain

1. Doll leaning, entry concept cool
2. Launching early, behind letter, no doll, bridle a tad gapped
3. Tad early on transition, bit placement, rails broken
4. Not straight tracking to K, reins messy, flaps out, no doll
5. Looks more like piaffe then passage, saddle small
6. Doll position too forward, collection not great, clean tack
7. Spit bit, no doll, clean
8. Crooked head (shaking? vvading?), bit placement, looks collected, unrealistic saddle
9. Weird test, entry clean, nice
10. Leathers too short for dressage, looooong contact for movement/level
11. Cheekpiece in eye
12. No contact, launching early
13. Bridle fit ill, doll position too forward
14. Doll butt not in the seat, heels up, no bend for circle

Pleasure (1)
1. Long stirrups, pads messy, saddle big
2. Browband big, Stirrups too far back
3. Bit position low, leg position far back
4. Overhand bite, doll good, pad a tad big
5. Fussy looking, horses ears pinned
6. Bit placement terrible
7. Bit placement, unrealistic saddle
8. Bit placement, doll messy, pet hair on it, inappropriate gait
9. Model severely scratched, footing hairy, contact too loose

Pleasure (2)
1. Loose brow, crooked saddle
2. Bridle to big overall, rider of kilter
3. Messy reins, tight throat latch, saddle too far back
4. Loose girth, martingale attached wrong
5. Long stirrups, doll position to far back, pad is huge
6. Tack is dirty, bit is in teeth
7. Dated, clean, no doll
8. Loose Rein and browband issues
9. Too straight, rider should be looking ahead, bit out
10. Wrong gait, messy tack overall

1. Nice entry, good concept, doll out of seat (posting?), dated
2. Breastplate really loose, good concept
3. String halter, complex, A for effort but needs more focus on actual entry
4. Throatlatch, funny, not sure about outfit during zombie apocalypse
5. Gunfire effect is floppy (distracting), doll crooked
6. Breastplate gap, really dynamic physics, nice
7. Foot out of stirrup

I hope everyone get some useful insights out of this blog. It’s important to note that every entry had some issue, however minor, and all these critiques include the class winners. My goal in publishing these notes is not to scold or shame showers, but to provide some concrete, real-world insight into what judges are looking for and to help everyone up their game by making sure their first priority is getting the basic elements right. Just remember; Cleanliness is next to firstliness.


  1. Bravo!!!
    Well done ladies.
    My own judging notes look like shorthand sometimes.

  2. How would one place a bit to keep it from looking as if it's in the model's teeth?

    1. Pretty sure she means the bit should be properly placed in the corner of the horse's mouth, not lower where it would be banging against the horse's teeth.

  3. This was interesting. Only once, in my 20 years of showing, have I seen a judge take notes. There was a judge at Breyerfest for some years who would leave sticky notes on performance entries saying what the entrant did wrong. I can't recall seeing any judge from my region ever take notes, though. They just walk around the show table holding the pack of ribbons for the class and nothing else, and ring stewards write down the placings.

    1. I don't usually have a notepad (although I should). Instead, I scribble little cryptic notes that make sense only to me around the margins of my judging sheet.