How tough should a judge be?


Comments on yesterday’s post have me curious: how tough do you think a judge should be at the local, unrated schooling level?

On one hand, you don’t want to hire a judge who will inflate everyone’s scores. Competitors will be elated to receive a high score, but will be disappointed when another judge scores them considerably lower. They may also be lulled into a false sense of security; if they’re scoring high, they might not feel inclined to work as hard, or might move up to a new level before they’re ready. And if the judging at the schooling level is too soft, riders will be surprised when the judging is harsher at a rated show.

On the other hand, schooling shows are different from rated shows. They’re a less formal environment, often used to expose green horses and riders to the sport. They’re an opportunity for riders looking to move up to the next level to test the waters, or for new horse and rider pairs to get acquainted. If competitors are scored low, they could feel discouraged and disinclined to continue their participation in the show series, the organization, or the sport.

I imagine it’s a difficult line to walk as a judge. How do you balance the need for fair and accurate scores with the need for a generally positive, encouraging attitude?

Personally, I prefer a slightly softer judge at schooling shows. I don’t want to be judged by someone who will default to giving me an undeserved 8 on every movement, but I don’t know if it’s fair to expect schooling shows to be ridden at the same level as rated ones. You could argue that “perfect practice makes perfect”, but where should riders get that perfect practice? Only at home?

What do you think? I’m interested to hear from my H/J friends on this, too, though I know your judging is different from dressage!



Author: Stephanie

Equestrian, amateur cook, people person.

40 thoughts on “How tough should a judge be?”

  1. I’m no H/J or dressage rider…But I feel like the western world can be really complicated too. Each class is scored differently, and each circuit is judged differently. Everyone knows AQHA shows are going to be judged the harshest, but with good reason since they’re the biggest. The little open schooling shows are the softest, unless you’re in a big horsey county and then the competition racks up… Even county fair shows are judged (and prized) from one extreme to another. I feel like you never know what to expect!

    1. I am TOTALLY unfamiliar with the western world and how it’s judged and scored. I would love to hear more about the judging; do any of the events have something like a dressage test where there’s a pre-determined pattern that’s scored and competitors receive a copy of their score sheet from the judge? Or is it a mystery why the judge placed or scored you a certain way?

      1. Wellllll… This is a huge can of worms that I’m not even going to attempt to open. But to answer your question, we do have pre-determined pattern classes. However, you do not usually see your judge’s score card. Showmanship, horsemanship, reining, western riding, and ranch riding all have patterns. Reining is the exception, in that you usually get to see your judge’s card. I believe at world shows the score cards are posted, but you’d have to ask at small shows. It gets a little confusing because we have a wide variety of events. For instance, cutting doesn’t have a pattern, includes other animals (HELLO), people who help you on the sidelines?!, multiple judges, plus or minus your maneuvers, Etcetc. That’s just a peek in the can of worms…

  2. I generally think schooling shows should be judged similarly to recognized shows, but I think that means a range of scores. In an average class I think it would be normal to find scores between at least 4 and 8 on individual movements, and overall test scores from around the mid 50s to the low 70s. Especially in a small schooling show, there’s a chance that the results might get skewed for some reason, like all the horses find the arena spooky and score lower, or everyone works with the same amazing trainer and they score higher. However, if the judge gives nobody a 7 or 8 on anything all day, or doesn’t hand out any 4s or 5s, that probably indicates a problem with the judging.

    I showed at and scribed at on unrecognized show last year where the judge (who wasn’t recognized and will remain nameless) literally said to me “I’ve never given an 8, I’ve never been given an 8 in my own riding so why should I be giving them out to anyone else.” I was pretty shocked to hear that. Her attitude showed in the marks, many people got in the 40s and I think the high mark of the day only just hit 60%.

    Scribing has really taught me the value of riding under a recognized judge. I know not all schooling shows can find or afford a top judge, but the judging program is designed to produce thoughtful judges who have good reasons behind the scores they give. I am driving a couple extra hours for a show this year so that I can ride for an FEI judge because I want that quality of feedback. I’m not saying that all lower level or occasional judges are bad, but I do think they are more of a mixed bag.

    1. Your point about the quality of the judge is an extremely salient one! At our schooling shows, we hire people who are USDF L program graduates; they aren’t totally unqualified, but they are not licensed judges. For us, it’s because we can’t afford to hire licensed judges. There aren’t many locally, and it’s too expensive to fly a judge in for a schooling show.

      When I scribed at a show last year, the judge told me, “I like to start everyone at a 6 and go up or down from there.” I thought that was an appropriate scoring process for a schooling show.

  3. This is a good topic. I personally would rather the judge treat schooling shows and rated shows the same, because I would rather get a true idea of where I stand. I don’t want pity points or ego inflation, I want honesty. The comments section of the test is the place to be encouraging. That said, I can see how others would feel differently.

    1. I’m with Amanda. I think a large portion of riders are schooling shows are trying to get a feel for how they will do at a rated show, so the judging should reflect that!

  4. I prefer a judge to score movements the same at a schooling show as a rated show, but for a schooling show I prefer the whole atmosphere to be a little less dramatic. For example, if I go off course, let me start wherever. If I make an error, don’t count that off. Those mistakes are why I go to a schooling show, but the scoring feedback is important to me, and I prefer it to be a fair representation.

    1. Our show series is SUPER casual and low key, although our judges typically do count off for errors or use of voice. But they’re good about letting people school a movement or trot around the outside of the ring more than once, and some of them take the time to briefly talk to a competitor when they’ve finished riding.

  5. The biggest difference I saw at our show was how she judged the western dressage a little easier than traditional. I performed about the same in both and received much different scores (7.5’s in western, but more 5-7’s in traditional) when Blue was high on sweet feed crack. That being said, I would like it to be fairly comparable to a recognized show, but kinder feedback (I suppose?)

    1. I noticed the WD scores were higher; I figured the WD crowd was just riding better! 😛 I wonder if this judge was unfamiliar with WD or simply has different expectations for it.

      I like kinder feedback, too. As long as the judge is tactful I don’t mind criticism, but there’s no need to be straight up mean.

  6. It’s such a catch 22. I agree with you in that I want a softer judge at schooling shows but I also understand that a rated show will be tougher so I at least want the schooling judge to write a handful of notes on what to work on. I will say that overall, I love judges that have at least one lighthearted remark at on the scorecard such as “keep up the good work!” or “good looking pair!” whether they are rated or schooling judges. It’s a nice way to end the score sheet and keep the rider at least a bit positive if they didn’t have a great test.

    1. Yes! I guess that’s what I’m getting at- I understand that a rated show will be tougher, so I don’t mind if the schooling show is a little soft.

      Positive comments are a really nice way to keep competitors feeling like they haven’t completely failed. (Although when I see “well matched pair” or something, I usually assume the judge wrote that because I didn’t do anything else well!)

  7. I know L judges are encouraged to judge schooling shows the same way they’d be judged rated shows- meaning that inside the court, you get the same treatment unless something becomes unsafe. So same scores, same bell when you go off course, same comments, same placing. I also think there should be the same rules for equipment (no martingales, no illegal bits, etc) but maybe be a bit lenient of a kid forgets to take off their horse’s boots.

    I’m with Austen though, I think the atmosphere should be more relaxed at a schooling show. IMO that would mean that you don’t have to braid, and can wear a more casual show outfit (polo shirt + breeches + half chaps at the very least). I appreciate a judge being kind (not with scores but with how they handle things) when a horse needs something. At a schooling show with my baby last year, a judge had cookies at the booth for him (he never spooked at a booth again) and let us trot around the outside of the ring more than once. That was definitely preferable to another schooling show where on a clearly green horse, I didn’t get to go all the way around the ring and got rung in when passing A. That turned me off to schooling shows even more than the comment that my Intro level barely-4-year-old needed to be “more uphill” in a downward transition.

    1. Our series abides by the equipment rules except for the no boots; we’re pretty much fine with boots/bell boots/polos (as long as the polos aren’t obviously loose or something). Dress is pretty casual- most people wear breeches, a polo, and half chaps and nearly everyone coordinates their saddle pad to their shirt. (We also have a LOT of junior riders, which explains the presence of so many pink saddle pads.)

      I absolutely agree with you that judges ought to be somewhat lenient with the rules at a schooling show. If someone wants to trot around the outside of the ring a couple of times, no big deal. Schooling shows are meant for schooling!

  8. I think for hunters this is a bit easier because you don’t often see your scores, you’re mostly just judged against the other horses/riders in the ring at that time. I agree that I like judging to get more particular as you go up the levels (both in terms of type of show and level of class). Even at a schooling show, I’d expect a judge to be tougher on 3′ classes than 2′ classes.

    1. That’s a good point, Tracy- in theory, the 3′ riders (or First Level) ought to be more advanced or capable than the 2′ (or Intro Level) riders. In dressage, the expectations for each level are very clearly laid out, so in theory, it ought to be pretty objective!

  9. Yet another reason I love the jumpers: there is no judge, it’s just you against the clock. Are you the fastest? Yes. Are you the cleanest? Yes. Then you win, end of story.

    The politics of judging is what really turns me off about the hunters, because I’ve seen some pretty obvious favoritism with my own eyes, and it’s kinda sad. But at the schooling level, I think judges should be fair and consistent, and give honest feedback about a rider’s scores, whether the rider is a beginner beginner or a more experienced rider looking to show rated. I know very little about the dressage world, but I’d much rather have a lower score than I was expecting than an over-inflated one, giving me a false sense of security.

    1. In my experience, the dressage ring seems more fair than the hunter ring. (You may want to take that with a huge grain of salt, since the only real hunter competitions I’ve done were as a kid/teen at local 4H shows and on a collegiate team. Maybe hunterland is fairer than I’m giving it credit for!) So many of the expectations for dressage are laid out very clearly on the test itself, so I think it’s a little easier for the judges to be more objective.

      That said, I’ve always enjoyed that eventing includes 2 non-subjective phases! 😛

  10. I prefer a sliiiightly soft judging but really more about erring on the side of benefit of the doubt. The best example of that I have is not a dressage judge, but rather an eventing jump judge. At a schooling show once, Tristan threw a small fit about going into the water. We finished the course and did not have any posted penalties, but the jump judge sought me out and said that at a rated show, she probably would have called it a stop. She did not at the schooling show because it was clear that we had the right momentum. It was very kindly and thoughtfully done, and it genuinely did help support and encourage me. I’ve kept it in mind ever since when jump judging.

    1. I feel like we are on the same page- “erring on the side of benefit of the doubt” is a perfect sentiment!

      Jump judging can really be a tough job. It’s basically objective- the horse either went over the jump or it didn’t- but there can be nuances like what you described!

  11. I think schooling shows should be on par with rated shows, since they are there to prepare you for something more. Maybe in Dressage, where comments are the norm, the judges should have a bit more humor and lay out more suggestions or constructive criticism to make the experience better. In H/J we just don’t have that, though those with good trainer’s or a lot of self awareness, will be able to dissect the rides at a schooling show to improve upon.

  12. For h/j, it’s not that the judging is softer but the quality isn’t usually there. Your typical schooling show will have horses without changes, horses with *perhaps* a little hitch in their giddy up (think old school horse type) or maybe horses that are super green and peeky at jumps. In my experience, it’s all judged exactly the same but you don’t have the level of polish and competition that you typically see at rated or even tougher local shows.

    1. You bring up an excellent point about the quality of the competition! I can see how at an H/J show having lots of greenies or old schoolies would make the judging seem softer (or the show seem like an ‘easy’ competition). For whatever reason, I hadn’t really thought of that before.

  13. I’m of the opinion that dressage judges should be judging schooling shows to the same level as rated shows – a 7 on a 20m trot circle at a rated show should mean the same thing as a 7 on a 20m trot circle at a schooling show. However, I do really appreciate when schooling show judges take a minute to speak with me about my test afterwards, and I think that schooling shows ought to have a more casual/conversational atmosphere.

  14. I didn’t see any evidence of a scoring difference until I moved up here and did the one schooling dressage show where the scores were definitely inflated. Down in PA, you were judged just as hard at schooling shows as you were at rated/recognized whether it was in dressage or eventing. I prefer it that way.

    1. That’s interesting! I wonder if there’s subtle pressure from local groups on judges to score people high. Or if there’s a perception that groups will only hire judges that score higher.

      A few years ago, my club hired a judge for a schooling show who was completely miserable to deal with; this person was rude to show management and volunteers, complained about everything from the ink pens to the weather, and was not sympathetic to riders with green horses. This judge also scored everyone in the 40s or 50s and didn’t have any constructive things to say in the comments. We haven’t hired that judge again. I could see people (including other judges in the area) thinking we didn’t rehire because of the low scores- that’s a very small part of the equation; the bad attitude and general meanness was a MUCH larger issue!

  15. I would actually like judges to be a bit harsher at schooling shows since it would help with knowing how well I would do at a rated show. However, I do appreciate schooling judges not penalizing too harshly for spooking or errant behaviors brought upon by showing. However, the actual movements should be judged at the same level as rated. Bending is bending, straight is straight, etc. On the other hand, I do see a lot of judges commenting on things that aren’t even required at lower levels. Like the horse isn’t collected. Well, it’s training, the horse isn’t supposed to be collected. Just because a bunch of rich people are here showing expensive schoolmasters who go collected even at training doesn’t mean my actually training level horse is wrong for not being collected.

    1. I’ve seen some of what you’re talking about- judges who comment on or ding things that aren’t actually required for the level. I don’t know if this is more or less common with judges who aren’t licensed (like the judges we use, who are L program graduates) versus those who are.

      It seems like some judges start comparing riders to one another; I’d like to think this is unintentional. Like, a judge watches a fancy schoolmaster with big floaty gaits go around collected at Training and scores him one way. The next horse is a plain moving lesson horse with correct gaits and appropriate basics. Does the judge subconsciously score the plain horse lower than she would have had he gone first?

  16. honestly i want a judge that i can consider ‘fair’ and who will give me scores that provide actual insights into what’s good and what isn’t. yes, the whole purpose of a schooling show it to get experience at that level, and imo opinion that should also include level-appropriate scoring and judging. barring that, tho, i’ll try and decipher what a judge’s ‘curve’ might be, and where i ended up on the distribution

    1. Fairness is absolutely essential! A judge shouldn’t be scoring someone low because they aren’t on the fanciest moving horse or their Intro level horse wasn’t totally consistent in the contact. Sure, the fancy mover ought to gain a couple of points in the collective remarks, but as Olivia pointed out above, straight is straight, etc.

  17. I’d prefer the scores are fair and not inflated. I’d like an honest assessment of where we’re at. So long as there is consistency in the scoring, the placings will all work out the same. I rode at a show last month and got a 62 followed by a 63 on a different test. I went to a show the following day with a different judge and again got a 62 in the dressage. (Unrelated, but add in our jumping time penalties and convert it to eventing dressage scores, and once again we ended on a 62 lol). I wish for better scores, but I REALLY appreciated that the comments and scoring on all three tests was very comparable!

    1. Consistency is one of those things that I think dressage is usually pretty good at providing, because the tests do such a good job pointing out what the expectations are for each level. Even if judges being a little more generous at schooling shows, I wouldn’t expect to see more than a 2-3 point difference in my scores between judges.

  18. For us hunter/jumper riders, you’re more being scored against your competition on that day. We don’t see a scorecard to know why we placed where we did. We do get numerical scores at the bigger shows in certain classes, but they’re fairly arbitrary. I could score an 85 at a show (which is pretty high) with a round that might only score 75 with better competition. So I think basically the judging is about the same whether you’re at an unrated show or a rated one. The difference is that your competition will probably be tougher at a rated one. I’m not sure if I gave you feed back that’s useful…. Hopefully it is!

  19. I’ve sort of always gone by the rule that I’ll score 10% better at a schooling show than at a rated show and just taken the comments with that in mind. And that helps me decide if I’m ready for a rated show with that horse… of course, I think I’d honestly rather more scathing comments and gentle scoring for my students, which is silly but it’s a hope I can have anyways.

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