What do showing judges REALLY want?

It's the question on everyone's lips at showing classes... just what are the judges looking for? The answers may surprise you! Images by Annie Studholme


If you stand ringside at any showing class, whether it’s a local A&P show or a major title at Horse of the Year, you’ll always hear at least one spectator who is in complete disagreement with the judge. “I don’t understand,” they’ll say. “What was that judge looking for?”

Showing is the most subjective of all the disciplines – it’s essentially a beauty competition, where each judge will have his or her own opinion. For showing newcomers, this can be one of the most difficult aspects of the sport to swallow; trying to understand why their horse can win under one judge this week, but not even be called in to the middle next time out.

So just what do individual judges look for and what might they forgive? How do you know whether your horse is in the correct section for his type, and how important are manners versus beauty? What should you do in a free work-out and exactly what should you wear (and not wear)?

We asked some leading Australasian judges at the Horse of the Year Show for their opinions. Introducing our panel:

michael-bakerMichael Baker, New South Wales

Judging for: 20 years

Background: Breeding riding ponies, riding and producing hacks, judging.

Pet hates:

  • Riders who wear too much ornamentation
  • Grey horses with tails dyed black
  • Horses with short front legs and high behind

sally-watkinsSally Watkins, Victoria

Judging for: 25 years

Background: Producing hacks, galloways and riding ponies. She holds a racing trainer’s licence. 

Pet hates:

  • Plain horses
  • Black Bridles
  • Too much bling

samantha-watsonSamantha Watson, New South Wales

Judging for: 21 years

Background: Show riding, judging and breeding. National Panel Judge with Equestrian Australia.

Pet hates:

  • Poor presentation – dirty horses, dirty clothes
  • Rude competitors and pushy mothers
  • Riders who are harsh on their horses

jennifer-fosterJenny Foster, New South Wales

Judging for: 10 years

Background: Show riding and producing

Pet hates:

  • Riders who are too scared to let their horses go forward
  • Big-headed, jowly horses
  • Loppy ears

hoy_thurs_170311_3176-jenny-hallidayJenny Halliday, Marlborough

Judging for: 35 years

Background: Grade 1 judge, farming and riding

Pet hates:

  • Too much bling
  • Horses dyed
  • Horses overdone with make-up

The importance of type

All of our judges were in agreement – if your horse is not the right type for his class, you don’t stand a chance (this applies equally to horses and ponies). Judges need to be able to see instantly what they’re judging, not wonder if it’s a lightweight hunter or a riding horse.

“Type is hugely important, particularly with the hunters,” explains Sally. “You can’t put those horses up that aren’t the right type, because it doesn’t send the right message.

“I think the riding horse classes are a really good idea, because it gives those horses that are not quite hunters and not quite hacks a place to go. A lot of the warmblood crosses and dressage-type horses suit these classes. They are still a beautiful animal, but they don’t have the prettiness and elegance of a hack, nor the bone to be a hunter.”

For Samantha Watson, she’s looking for completely different attributes in a hack and a hunter, and will forgive much more behaviour-wise in her hacks. “The show hack should still obviously have good manners, but essentially I’m looking for an extremely pretty type of horse,” she explains. “The hunter for me is a heavier type, with correct bone and short cannons. I’m much harder on the hunters than hacks when it comes to manners. A hunter should be the type of horse you can take out hunting without worrying about him falling over himself or worrying that he’s a bit too pretty. I’m not looking for flicky, daisy-cutting movement in a hunter.”

Jenny Halliday agrees: “Some of the hunters are a bit heavier in their movement and they need to cover the ground – I don’t like to see a poncy hunter. Hacks need to float across the ground.”

The X-Factor

There is one indefinable quality that makes or breaks the show horse: presence, the x-factor, charisma…call it what you will, but without it your horse will never be a champion. All five judges were unanimous in placing this at the very top of their list.

“Everybody will talk about correct limbs, or the way a horse moves or is ridden, but what makes a true show winner is actually something that’s not tangible,” says Michael Baker. “They’ve just got ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ might be. They might not be correct, but they have that ability to say: ‘Hey, stop talking and look at me.’ It’s like when certain people walk in the room, you just know they are there, but you can’t actually put your finger on why. They are the ones that get under your skin.”

Sally Watkins agrees: “Some horses arrive at our spelling farm, and although they are skinny and out of condition, as soon as they step off the truck you go: ‘Oh my God.’ Generally, if you have to ask if a horse has the x-factor, it doesn’t!”

Samantha Watson tends to look at a horse’s head first, and likes to see a big eye, with the ears pricked. The most magnificent show horses are often a little ‘touched’ she admits. “They are very pretty with a compelling presence. They are also the ones who tend to hurt themselves! You get the odd horse that is a freak, who is quiet to show and still has presence, but generally you will find the top ones are extremely hot horses that need very careful riding and careful handling.”

Jenny Foster adds: “I am partial to very breedy thoroughbreds who are light across the ground. I’m more forgiving than most judges if show horses are hot and naughty, because I’ve had a lot to do with them and I know how hard it is!

“Normally I’ve got my winner picked by the time they’ve gone around the ring once. The show horse has to stand out as soon as it steps into the ring. The head always draws me first, and I don’t like ears that are set on too far forward, because they lop when the horse moves. I also look for a silhouette when a horse comes in the ring: it’s got to have the same amount in front of the saddle as it does behind – I don’t like long-backed horses.”hoy_thurs_170311_3263-l2r-samantha-watson-judith-otto-jen

First impressions count

Nearly all of the judges say they have more or less picked their champion after just a few circuits of the ring, so it’s vital to make a dazzling first impression. This comes down to confidence and also presentation – if you and your horse are turned out immaculately and hit the ring feeling like winners, you’ve a good chance of catching the judge’s eye.

“First impressions are so important and a lot of people don’t take enough time to look at their bridle. Bridles make such an enormous different to the way a horse looks. If your horse has a plain head you can do a lot with a bridle that is the right colour and fit,” explains Sally. “So many people use black bridles but it’s a horrible hard colour against the horse’s head. Of course for turn-out classes your bridle must match your saddle, but for show classes it doesn’t matter – it’s much more important that your bridle suits the horse’s head, and it’s okay to have a black saddle and a brown bridle. I also don’t like Hanoverian nosebands. Warm up with the strap if you need to, but pull it off as you go into the ring.

“Some horses just trot into the ring as if they own it, and a lot of that confidence comes down to training. There are so many people who complain about being beaten by professionals, but the professionals are the ones who condition their horses, work them every day and when they come into the ring they know what they are doing. The amateurs get overwhelmed by it all and don’t give their horses enough work, whereas the professionals are the ones out there every day, rain, hail or shine, and they reap the rewards in the ring.”

Michael explains that knowing how to ride and present a horse well is what produces consistent results. “Beautiful horses who aren’t presented well tend to be hit and miss. Horses with star ability who are ridden by people who know how to present and work them tend to become the known or celebrated horses, because they are always ready to do the job.”

Jenny Foster is another who believes training is key: her own legendary small hack Cards was known as a very difficult horse before Jenny bought him, and it took months and months of proper feeding, re-training, groundwork and elbow grease to turn him into the Royal Show winner he became.

“I do a lot of teaching and I always tell my pupils to put the work in at home rather than worrying so much about the colour of their browband or jacket. If you get your horse going 110% so he is working and moving better than every other horse, the results will follow.”

Jenny also says that when she is competing she always aims to be either the first into the ring, or the last. “I go out of my way to stand out. I won’t follow everybody like a sheep – I go straight in, change direction if I want to, and start doing little circles or canter, anything I’ve got to do to get that horse listening to me.”

When it comes to presentation, Sam­antha Watson is a perfectionist, and one of her pet hates is dirty horses and dirty clothes. “You see a lot of it – dirty gloves, make-up on collars. It doesn’t cost anything to ensure you are clean and tidy.” Other things Samantha loathes are excessive make-up, and the use of Raven Oil, commonly used to blacken legs. “Raven Oil is a toxic product and it burns. Why people market it as make-up I have no idea – it’s horrendous.”

Acceptable faults

Pretty much all our judges agreed they would forgive a scar on a show horse, because if a beautiful horse has an accident, it’s just bad luck. Splints tend to be a question of where and how big, and are definitely more of a no-no if caused by a conformation fault.

“If a horse is absolutely gorgeous, I’ll forgive almost anything,” confesses Sally Watkins. “I would definitely forgive scars and splints, because most of that is man-made. Unless of course a splint is the result of an off-set knee or it interferes with the horse’s mechanics.

“I wouldn’t totally overlook a horse that didn’t move completely straight if I loved everything else about it. But be clever: if your horse does slightly throw a leg, don’t come directly at the judge. Hide it!”

Funnily enough, Jenny Foster isn’t partial to chestnuts or blacks. “Chestnut is not a nice produced colour in the ring. I find bay or brown the best colour to produce and it looks the nicest on beautiful green grass. I don’t like blacks for the simple fact that their sweat dries white, so you have to run back and hose them off. So I’m not fond of blacks and chestnuts, but in saying that, if an absolute superstar came along I wouldn’t overlook one.”

Conformation deal breakers

Because of her racing background, Sally Watkins says she tends to be fairly harsh on legs. “And I’m less forgiving of conformation faults in mares, because it might breed on. With a gelding it stops with him, so I’m not so fussed.” Sally is also a sucker for a horse with a good front end. “I like something that comes out of the shoulder correctly and sits up with a swanny sort of neck. Some horses are low-set out of the shoulder and they’re never going to be able to carry themselves properly. If they’re built properly, they’ll be in the correct frame naturally and you don’t have to do very much work to get them there.”

Michael Baker likes front legs to match and says most of all he hates horses that ‘are in three parts’, while Jenny Foster doesn’t like horses that are too long in the back. “A show horse should be compact – there should be just enough room to put your saddle on, and that’s all. Ears are also a big thing for me: I like little tippy ears that are set properly and prick forwards.”

For Jenny Halliday, correct conformation is crucial and she expects the horse to move straight. “I also like good feet and a good walk. Being a rider myself over all the disciplines, I feel if the horse can’t walk, the rest of the movement won’t follow.”hoy_fri_180311_4788-juding-conformation

What NOT to wear

For a showing newbie, choosing clothing and tack can be the most off-putting aspect of the sport, as unlike other disciplines there a huge variation of attire, all of it seemingly with a huge price tag attached. And yes, what you wear is important, but it doesn’t necessarily have to cost a fortune, says Sally Watkins. “You can hunt around and buy stuff second-hand and find bargains on the internet.”

Overall, all our judges stated a preference for a simple, classic look and scorned the overdone: massive browbands, blue or red on the jacket collar and cuffs, and matching stocks to scrunchies on buns was a common pet hate. A dark navy coat, with an understated browband, and every­thing clean and neat makes a far more classy impression than mega-bling!

“Too much bling is a pet hate of mine,” says Sally. “Work your horses, condition them, get them going well and if you have a quality animal you don’t need all that bling to stand out.”

Jenny Foster is another traditionalist at heart. “Don’t put things on that are bright and busy, because the horse is the main attraction. You want to look as subtle as possible. I don’t like big mega-bling browbands and the kids with red on the cuffs – it’s silly.

“I wish people would worry less about the colours and bling and just got their jackets to fit them properly! A lot of the jackets fall straight from the shoulder blade and there’s no shape or definition of the back. Jackets should be very fitted, because you want to look as slim as possible. And I would only wear a top hat and tails for a very big occasion, but not at every show, in every class, as people do now – I think it’s a bit ridiculous.”

Samantha Watson explains that in ultra-formal turnout classes, such as the Gee Whizz Memorial Equestrian class at HOY, there are lots of very specific criteria – for example, vests must be made of Tattersall check, breeches should be wool with buttons on the knee, and the showing cane must match the saddlery and reach from the elbow to the point of the middle finger, length-wise, to be correct.

But in regular showing classes, rather than in formal turnout, you can afford to go for broke, although you still don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons, she says. “I like a horse and rider to complement each other,” says Samantha. “The colour of the jacket and breeches needs to suit the horse – you’re not going to put bright yellow on a dark dapple grey, because that can look a bit odd. It’s the same as when we get dressed to go out – it’s a question of what suits you. You get people with big bottoms wearing little cut-off bumfreezer jackets, which is not a good look. You don’t want so much going on that the eye is darting everywhere – you want the horse to shine.”

Beauty or manners?

One of the most perplexing scenarios for spectators can be the horse who barely manages to keep one hoof on the ground when going round the ring and fidgets constantly in the line-up, yet goes on to win champion. However, for show hacks especially, it seems beauty is more important than being foot-perfect (the judging equation is 60% conformation and 40% way of going).

“Although work is an enormous part of it, you can forgive some mistakes if a horse is gorgeous,” says Sally. “They are show animals, not brain surgeons. They’re a catwalk model and all they have to do really is not fall off the catwalk. I would forgive a mistake, especially in a young horse, although perhaps not so much wilful naughtiness.”

Samantha Watson agrees. “I will forgive a lot more for a show hack than I will in a hunter, because hunters must have perfect manners. If I have the most magnificently stunning hack out there, I will do anything to ensure I don’t see what’s going on!”

Work-out may decide

So, you’ve been given a free work-out – just what do you do? A good basic work-out, with walk, trot and canter on each rein should suffice. Above all, keep it short and sweet, bearing in mind the judge has pretty much already decided upon their champion so they don’t want you out there all day. And if your horse is the likely champion, the longer your work-out is, the more chance you have of making a mistake!

“If you give somebody a free work-out, you want to see them go out and show that horse off to the best advantage,” explains Sally. “If your horse has a beautiful walk, put a good bit of walk in the middle of the work-out. Or if it’s got a stunning canter, do a lot of canter. Use the arena carefully: if your horse is terrified of tents, don’t go near the tent.”

Don’t assume your horse has to have a fancy extended trot or do flying changes to impress in the work-out either. Judges shouldn’t ask for either – generally it’s just a lengthened trot and a change of leg. You may be given the option of doing a flying change, but a well-executed simple change can be marked just as highly.

“I’m not automatically going to mark somebody up for doing a flying change, and if they do one but disunite behind they will be heavily penalised. I’m happy with whatever the horse is comfortable doing,” says Samantha. “A lot of people think if they do a big flicky extended trot they are going to win the class, but we use the same principles as dressage: it must be correct, with the horse pushing from behind, straight, sound and true.”

Michael Baker says the biggest mistake most people make in the work-out is not letting the horse bowl along. Jamming horses in front and not riding forward enough is also Jenny Foster’s pet hate: “Learn to get those hind feet tracking two to three hoofprints in front of the front foot,” she says. “If you’ve got to control your horse only by its mouth, you’re going to shorten the frame. And if it’s hot and you’re holding on to it in front so it can’t go forward, the only place it can go is either up or sideways.”

“People who ride with their hands jammed together and are too scared to let their horse go forward. The curb rein shouldn’t be horizontal…it should hardly be touched.”

  • This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of NZ Horse & Pony