I was in awe of the baby green hunters, all of them ridden by professionals. They flowed around the courses, their long, low, even strides enveloping each jump effortlessly. Sometimes I had to remind myself, "Oh yeah, that's right. I'm supposed to be critiquing these performances and giving them a score."
As you can see, I live vicariously through some of these riders. In one big equitation class on the flat, I decided to ask for additional testing of the top riders. They had to drop their irons and perform at the sitting trot and canter. Right away that revealed who could actually "ride" and keep their horses on the bit without their stirrups and who was merely a passenger on a well schooled horse. Yet just as I asked for them all to come down to the walk and line-up, my winning rider-- the one who had impressed me the most throughout the class-- must've bumped her horse's side with her heel accidentally, because the horse swapped onto the wrong lead. Immediately she caught the mistake and the horse swapped back to the correct lead, but it was too late. I couldn't ignore it, because it occurred right in front of the judge's booth.
She knew what had happened. Perhaps the fact that I actually uttered, "Oh no!" made her realize that I had seen it, too.
Instead of getting the blue ribbon, I dropped her down to fourth. But because she's an experienced competitor, I'm confident she understood my decision. And she probably respected me for it, too.
The two days sped past quickly. It was as warm as I expected, but fortunately I was in the shade most of the time. Still, I ended up with a persistent glaze of sweat on my body from noon on. And while there was a grand production made of the watering and dragging of the arenas, I had enough dust on me each day to rival the coating of any piece of chicken about to be plopped into a frying pan.
But would I do it again? Yes! Sign me up!
The part I enjoy most about judging is empathizing, or in some cases sympathizing, with the riders. I have a sense of riding down to the jumps right along with them. I hope every kid picks up all the right leads, and I silently cheer for white-knuckled adult amateurs who cling to their horses' necks and somehow gather up the gumption to gallop down the first line of jumps.
My biggest reward for judging isn't the paycheck, but seeing the way so many of the riders, both young and old, appreciate their ponies and horses. After the final class, I teasingly told one little girl-- she couldn't have been older than 8 or 9-- that I was going to sneak away with her pretty black pony, stuff him in the back of my car and take him home with me.
"Oh no you aren't!" she said, laughing. And then she reached down and hugged him around his fat, glossy neck. I think the highest ribbon she'd won that weekend was a third place, but that was fine with her. She loved her pretty pony even more than me. That sent me away with a good feeling in my heart.
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