By: Lauren Cheevers
Few people are familiar with the competitive event known as horse (or equine) judging. My personal experience with this competition began around 2008 through a 4-H team. Every year since, I wanted to learn a little more about the contest and set higher personal goals. The concept behind horse judging is practical: select the best horse based on specific criteria. For anyone interested in the horse industry these skills prove valuable, as individuals develop the ability to select the highest quality horse for any purpose, which yields sound business decisions. For me the skills are important because I am personally involved in the equine industry through horse ownership and competitions. Professionally, I plan to work as an agricultural communicator in the industry.
Through participation in horse judging activities, I began to see how someone not interested in equine could still benefit tremendously from these skills. Horse judging, or any kind of judging competition for that matter, teaches you how to reason and sort out the pros and cons of decision making. Horse judging competitions can easily apply to everyday scenarios. For example, one part of an equine judging competition, halter judging, is where four horses will be held in a line and you rank the class in order based on criteria such as balance, structural correctness, quality, and muscle. Now I know what you are thinking, what normal person encounters this daily? But think about this, you go to Walmart in search of a coffee cup to take on your morning commute. You manage to find 4 options; 1) a ceramic coffee cup, 2) a pack of solo cups, 3) a travel mug, and 4) a pack of disposable coffee cups. Realizing you have a choice to make, you determine a set of criteria. You want something that will fit into the college kid budget, preferably something you do not have to wash, something that will prevent you from wearing your coffee on your way to work when that light suddenly turns red, and something that will get you through the week. Now, you stand back and look at the options determining how each meets your criteria. The ceramic mug holds coffee, but it does not have a lid making it more likely to spill, is more expensive than the disposable options, and would have to be washed daily. You determine the solo cups, while being the cheapest option, are the least suitable as they would spill, and are far from durable as the hot coffee might even melt through the cup. So now you look at the last two options and see that the travel mug is the most expensive choice, and since you would have to wash it, this is probably not the choice for you. At this point you realize the disposable coffee cups are relatively cheap, have a lid and a design meant for coffee, and as it is a 12 pack you can get through a week without washing the dishes (not recommended).
With your selection in the basket you move on through the store not realizing you just went through the judging process. Not only did you select the most suitable cup for the purpose, but with your logical list of criteria you probably have an idea which you would select next time, if the disposable coffee cups were out of stock. Judging events develop these skills that help you make rational decisions even in an everyday manner.
Now a normal judging contest also consists of performance classes, in which horses are ridden in a pattern or in a manner specified by the rules and judgers determine the best mannered, highest quality mover that obeys all the rules of that class. You can compare this to buying a vehicle. When you shop for a car or truck you know you need it to be legal or obey the rules or laws of the road. Chances are that does not narrow your search down much so you are left to sort through other characteristics. You wouldn’t buy a truck that honked every time you turned up the radio or that activated the windshield wipers when you roll down the window. Similarly, you want a horse that does what you ask of it, when you ask it to. In addition, you’re likely to purchase a vehicle that travels smoother down the road versus one that tosses all the contents of the car around due to every bump in the road. This concept of a sound ride correlates with the quality of movement in a horse. My favorite part of a judging contest is called oral reasons, in which competitors are given under two minutes to justify verbally the reasons why they placed the class the way they did. Anyone with a sibling is a pro at this already. When a parent questions their children on an event such as how the lamp broke, each child has their own story to justify that it was not their fault. While one child may be wrong, they believe in their innocence and rely on the verbal description to convince others to trust them.
All through high school, I loved traveling with my 4-H team to compete in judging contest. My senior year of high school, a first year FFA program emerged and I was asked to coach our school horse judging team since I had experience. However, it wasn’t until my first day of college when judging changed my life. The University of Arkansas horse judging coach asked me to join the team as a freshman. When I said yes, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I knew the basics of judging pretty well, until my first practice. Collegiate level competition requires a lot more work learning the rules and scoring systems for performance classes as well as immensely different structure in their reasons than what I learned in 4-H. Of course, a lot more work to develop those skill meant a lot more time; around 15 hours of practice a week to be exact. For the first few months of school we worked countless hours practicing for an upcoming national event, The All American Quarter Horse Congress. In mid-October, my coach, four teammates, and I loaded up in a van for a long drive bound for Columbus, Ohio. What happened over that next week, I can never explain. You see, I realized quickly that this contest was huge, and that since the U of A had never been there before, we were the underdog compared to the veteran schools such as Texas Tech, Oklahoma State University, Colorado State University, Kansas State, and so many more. We arrived at the world’s largest single breed horse show and saw some breathtaking horses. On competition day we gave it our all and put all of our practice to the test. At the awards we found out that our hard work paid off as we were the high team in the performance division, had the high individual in reasons and the high individual overall, as well as placing third in the contest overall as a team. The unexpected U of A judging team was only 1 point away from winning the entire contest.
Don’t get me wrong, the awards from the contest were great, but that’s not the part I will never forget. Being on the University of Arkansas judging team, I learned things about horses and decision making that you cannot find in a book. Most of all though, I made memories and friends that w ill last a lifetime. Going into college, people always said to get involved in something to meet new people. Well my judging team and coach are an incredible group of people that I have shared lots of laughs, some sweat, and even a few tears with. Traveling to new places, learning so many new things, pushing myself to the limit, and just being a part of this team has truly given me Razorback pride.