Judgment Day: Four Top Judges Share Their Show Ring Advice
Riding into the show ring can be daunting at any level of competition. As you canter past the judges’ box it is practically impossible to get an idea of how you’re performing from the judge’s expression. In an effort to take some of the mystery out of showing, we recently spoke to four top hunter/jumper judges to find out what makes a winning rider and the importance of making a good first impression.
It’s an old cliché that minds are made up on first appearances, but the fact of the matter is that it remains largely true in the ring. When judging an equitation class, Fran Dotoli says, “For overall position I give riders a letter score usually before they jump the first fence; I tend to be happy with my first impression, but I may put a plus or minus next to it.” Randy Mullins starts each competitor off with a score of 100 and deducts points from there. However, he is quick to point out that for him, the first impression is just the start. “A lot of times people will come in and not look perfect, but as they go on and [their ride is] smooth and in harmony, the first impression is gone and that person has captivated you,” Randy explains.
The way a horse and rider are turned out is essential in making a good first impression on the judges. The recent trend of flashy jacket linings, fashionable tack, and “bling” can sometimes have a negative impact on a judge’s opinion.
Randy believes that riders’ appearances have changed, and not neccesarily in a good way. “The Equestrian Committee passed a rule about glitter on helmets. The new law doesn’t allow the sparkles that were permitted in California.” Patrick Rodes agrees with Randy, “I’m not too big a fan of glitter; we have had some fads with a lot of ‘bling’ and a lot of different stirrups come and go. I’m not too fond of them, but I don’t totally kill someone for wearing them.”
So what do top judges look for in turnout? “It’s a conservative sport,” says Fran; “outfits should be clean and well-fitting.” Appearance is also very important to Patrick who says, “someone who dresses well will be noticed right off the bat. I like a rider who is traditionally turned out in a navy jacket, perhaps with a little pattern but no color linings.”
“I don’t think loud color has a place in our sport,” adds Randy, who believes a rider should blend sophistication and elegance in their turnout. For Louise Serio, a little bit of bling isn’t such a bad thing, however. “I don’t like too much glitter, but I see no reason why a one-inch strip on your hat to add a bit of individuality should be a problem,” she says.
Fran’s advice to any riders confused by the array of colorful jodhpurs, shirts and jackets: “I have a lot more to look at and concentrate on than what people are wearing. Buy the plain [jacket] and take another lesson.”
The Perfect Hunter Equitation Seat Fran points out that what the judges have to look for in each class is spelled out quite clearly in the rulebook. “A lot of people think it’s someone’s opinion,” says Fran, but judges must follow careful guidelines.
That said, Fran looks for a workmanlike appearance, a stirrup length that accommodates the size and shape of the horse and rider, a straight line between elbow and bit, and heels down!
“For me,” Randy says, “it’s a light seat at the center of gravity, a rider who is in balance with the horse and for a winning equitation seat a rider must flow through the jumps and make it look easy. The people who make it look effortless are doing it right.”
Like Fran, Patrick looks for riders with good basics. “We pretty much have a standard for equitation,” he says, “We’re looking for the same thing, but the number one thing is good basics.”
The judges have all noticed changes in riders’ positions over time, and most say that the changes have been positive. “Releases over the tops of fences have changed, and probably for the best,” says Patrick. “We’ve adapted to our horses and the way they jump and have gone from a crest release to a more forgiving one.”
Fran too has noticed a greater sophistication of riders’ releases over the past few years. “The sophisticated hunt seat rider will use different kinds of releases for different types of jumps. It takes a great deal of practice, body control, independent seat and hand. At the higher levels it’s what people are striving for.” One thing Fran would like to see change, however, is a rider’s opportunities to get out of the ring and ride for fun sometimes, not just for competition. “It seems as if many riders are in a structured situation. The opportunities to gallop wildly or take horses swimming doesn’t come up [today],” she says.
Judges are human too, and there are some things that they see riders repeatedly do in competition that irritates them. “To have someone continually make the same mistake over and over again is frustrating,” says Louise, “They do the same thing and don’t improve.”
For Patrick, a rider who is rough with their horse is his number one no-no, “another thing is not being organized, timely or having a game plan ready.”
Fran and Randy echo Patrick’s sentiment: “I dislike a rider who goes about 40th then stands at the in-gate and does ‘finger-painting.’ Disorganized riders keep you waiting and then do another review, which is inappropriate,” says Fran.
“I want to see a prompt entrance and getting down to work, not someone who comes onto the course and walks for sixty seconds, then gets into it,” adds Randy.
Another thing that bothers Patrick is the increase in the use of pelham bits in the show ring. “I think on some show horses they’re useful, but there are a lot of horses going in pelhams who don’t need them.” Fran has
also noticed a trend of riders overdressing their horses for equitation classes. “They come [into the ring] with enough boots to cover God knows what! It’s done out of showmanship but sometimes it makes me laugh.”
When it comes to winning a class, the judges are in agreement that the best riders are the ones who look fluid and graceful. In an equitation over fences class, Fran says that riders must have a detailed plan that they must execute to show they have an understanding of the course, rather than robotically cruising around the jumps. “Riders should have an understanding of how a jump affects their horse, rather than always being slightly surprised by the next jump,” says Fran.
“The rider should have good basics—a straight, but not stiff, upper body and a good feel. They should also be able to find the jumps and have a fluid motion,” adds Patrick. For Louise, style and accuracy are of the utmost importance. “You have to make it look like you’re not doing anything,” she says.
Randy agrees that a rider in hunter, jumper and equitation classes should look very natural and be in harmony with the horse at the same time.
A winning performance in the show ring takes preparation, a thorough knowledge of the course, sophisticated turnout, and a seamless, natural riding style. With the helpful advice from these top judges, you’ll have the confidence you need to succeed in the show ring.