Becoming a horse judge: Part 1

Judging horse shows requires much more than just experience showing horses.

One of the best ways people with an interest in judging can practice is to coach or assist a competetive youth horse judging team. Photo by Amanda Radtke | Michigan State University Extension
One of the best ways people with an interest in judging can practice is to coach or assist a competetive youth horse judging team. Photo by Amanda Radtke | Michigan State University Extension

One question often asked in the horse industry is how people become professional horse judges and whether or not it might be an option for them. It seems like a simple enough concept, but it can become complicated in a hurry, and sometimes information is difficult to find.

This article, the first in a two part series, will attempt to explain how to become a professional horse judge and what kind of preparation is required. Judging horse shows is very different than showing and while all judges should have extensive showing background, judging is a totally different skill that requires its own kind of preparation beyond that of showing a horse. Horse judges need to be able to take notes, evaluate all horses in a class – not just the top three – and place them according to the specifications of the class. Further, they should be able to explain why they placed classes the way they did, to anyone that asks.

Nearly every major equine breed or discipline association has its own process of certifying or carding horse judges and these range from completion of a simple application to an extensive process including a face-to-face interview, testing and apprenticeship. Searching the websites of breed or discipline associations is often the best way to find their judges application and process. The same is true for many – although not all – Michigan State University Extension 4-H Horse and Pony programs and often, state 4-H horse judges lists are used for the hiring of judges outside of the 4-H arena, including open horse shows and high school equestrian team competitions.

How can those with an interest in judging prepare themselves? One of the best ways is to participate on or volunteer to coach or assist a competitive youth horse judging team through a breed association, 4-H or FFA. Such activities start to develop the ability to compare and sort classes, and typically participants learn the specifications of each class. Further, they learn to explain and professionally defend their placings, which is key to the good communication skills required in horse judging. Prospective judges also benefit greatly from apprenticing with carded judges whenever possible, and this can often be arranged by calling judges and asking if you may join them in the ring at a show. While not every show is conducive to an apprentice, most judges will try to find a suitable option to help new judges develop their skills. Volunteering as a ring steward is also one way to start seeing horse judging from the center of the pen as opposed to as an exhibitor. Finally, letting those in your area know you’d like to start judging, and offering your services at a reduced or free rate for small open shows, trail classes etc. is a great way to develop your skills.

Breed or discipline associations place great value on having their carded judges thoroughly understand and promote that particular breed or discipline and often they suggest that judges start by judging 4-H shows. In truth, judging 4-H shows may be more challenging than any other kind of event, in that judges are expected to evaluate multiple breeds, disciplines and skill levels while keeping people who often are just starting out safe. If people do not have a good experience in the 4-H or open show arena, they will not stay in the horse industry very long. The 4-H horse show is in many ways the front door of the horse show world.

Other articles in this series

Did you find this article useful?