Many times horse show exhibitors who leave the class without winning a ribbon ask the judge, “What did I do wrong?” It is a fairly common misconception that “doing something wrong” is the reason for their failure to place.
While in some cases there is an easy answer to this question (an uncorrected wrong lead at the canter, bucking, or a complete failure to perform one or more of the class requirements), the exhibitor is generally aware of the error. But what about those times when you thought you had a pretty good ride and you “got the gate”? Did you wonder if your horse was the wrong color (“that judge only likes palominos“) or if, perhaps, you and your horse were invisible? Did you complain about “politics”? Or did you look to see what WAS getting the ribbons, and try to see your performance in that context?
While judges in most horse shows in America are placing entries against one another, they are also placing against an ideal, or mental picture of the perfect horse or perfect rider for that class description. While there may be no “perfect” horse in the ring that day, the winner will be the one that most closely matches that judge’s mental picture, with the next closest being second place, and so on. Of course, if the judge observes his or her first place horse pick up a wrong lead, that horse must be penalized in the placings according to the class description, the applicable rulebook, the severity of the error and the merits of the other competitors. It may still be the best entry in that class despite the error, it may be penalized by several places, or it may be entirely out of the ribbons.
But what if your horse didn’t make an error? He got his leads, made his transitions properly, your tack and attire were correct, clean, and appropriate, you had a good ride, and you still didn’t get a ribbon. Chances are you didn’t do enough right. Judges are looking for “the best of the best”, we are not judging by default. We are looking for everyone to get a good ride. Then we can evaluate quality of movement, the balance of horse and rider during transitions, manners, suitability, eye appeal (it is a horse show, after all) and any other criteria required by the rules in force at that competition. When errors are made, we must penalize appropriately, but it is much more pleasant to reward quality than to penalize errors. Perhaps your horse is only an ordinary mover, drags his hind toes, fails to perform correct two-beat trots, or canters in an artificial manner. Or your horse may harden his jaw against the influence of the bridle, producing a picture of resistance or unwillingness. Many horses drop their backs away from the rider’s seat (going “hollow”), rather than supporting the rider with a muscularly raised back, producing jarring, disorganized gaits.
In large classes it is possible to ride a good class, but never get seen by the judge(s). If you ride in a herd you can get missed. If your turnout is drab or monotone you and your horse may not show up against the rail or the arena footing. If you ride too conservatively your horse may not get a chance to show itself well. If your number is unreadable, missing or incorrect the judge can’t place you without making extra effort or in some cases violating the rules. Find more info on horseback riding helmets at Equine Ridge.
If you are riding a style or breed that is unusual, accept that you may have to be much better than the more standard entries to get used at all. The only Arabian in a Western Pleasure class full of stock horses can win the class, but it better be darned good, or at least good enough to overcome any breed preferences the judge may have in his or her mental picture.
So ask yourself; Did I show to advantage? Is my horse good-gaited? How is my horse’s frame in comparison with the class winner’s? Could the judge see me? Did I give the judge any reasons to not place me? Did I give the judge any reasons TO place me? Is my tack and turnout appropriate and correct for this class? Then if you are still wondering, make an appointment with the ring steward for a moment with the judge. Instead of asking “What did I do wrong?”, ask for suggestions for improvement. Accept any response gratefully and gracefully. Most importantly, if you enjoy your rides, enjoy your horse and being at the competition, you will be a winner…maybe not THE winner, but a winner, nonetheless!