Monday, October 29, 2007

My Life as a Horse Show Judge

Yesterday I judged a horse show near Los Angeles. This was a county-rated hunter and equitation show and I was assigned to officiate over the arena where the crossrail and novice rider divisions were being held. Maybe it's because I taught kindergarten and first grade for a while but I enjoy sympathizing with the little kids whose ponies won't quite make it past the outgate without some demonstration of their displeasure. And I have 40-something barn buddies who bear an expression of mortification as they gallop toward their first jump on course. So I'm right at home judging these sorts of classes. Believe me, I'm right up there in the judge's booth wishing and hoping and silently clucking along with every rider.

Yesterday was no exception. The cutest bunch of little kids rode in the "mini stirrup" division. That's for munchkins 8-years-old and under. They jump a course of 2-foot fences. Admirably, each child was properly mounted on a suitable pony or reliable older horse, and their coaches and trainers had prepared them well. Nonetheless, there were some priceless moments. Like my fellow judges, I'm not much for dispensing advice at shows. I'm there to judge, not to conduct a clinic or lesson. But when one little girl, not much bigger than a ladybug, knocked herself out of a ribbon in the equitation flat class, I felt compelled to speak to her.

I picked up my walkie-talkie and asked the announcer to tell the little kid to ride over to me. She did. In a moment I was staring at the face of a sweet little girl with an upturned nose like a pixie and a set of braids adorned with pink bows.

"Honey," I said, "when you're doing the sitting trot and I ask for a canter, you're not supposed to walk first. You need to go directly into the canter."

She looked at me with big, blue, puppy dog eyes and said, "I'm sorry."

"No, no, you don't have to apologize," I said, unable to avoid laughing. "But you're so good," I explained, "this close to being perfect. And I just wanted you to know why you didn't get a ribbon."

That's when her coach approached and we all had a 30-second confab on the importance of keeping our pony on our aids in an equitation class so we're prepared for whatever the judge might ask.

As the day wore on, the riders got older. I had a bunch of adults, two of which had a habit of conversing with their horses throughout their entire hunter class. Goodness knows I've had many a conversation with my show horses while on course, but it wasn't always something I'd want my mother-- much less the judge-- hear! However, these two gals were both more genteel. One lady, aboard a very handsome flea-bitten gray, kept saying things like, "Oh, you're such a good boy, I'm going to give you extra treats."

Naturally, the silver-colored gelding was the type to be a good boy regardless of treat enticements.

The other lady voiced a running commentary on her round. Her horse, a very typey chestnut gelding, cruised over the jumps at what could best be described as a congenial lope. The lanky red horse gave no indication he was going to refuse a jump, yet I could hear the lady saying things like, "Ugh! I can't make him get going!" Was that directed at me or to her trainer?

All in all it was an interesting day. When I went into the horse show office to pick up my check, I got a lot of positive feedback from the manager and several of the competitors' trainers. I'm glad I got to share in their day at the horse show, which provided another experience in my life with horses.

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