In My Boots: The view from the judge’s stand

When Kristen Kovatch goes to a horse show, she’s usually coaching students or riding herself. Recently, however, she experienced it from a whole different perspective.

From Kristen:

Horse show mornings: combine the excitement and anticipation of Christmas morning with the kind of stressful chaos you might see backstage at a high school musical (with emphasis on the scent of hairspray and all of the glitter.) These mornings pass for me in a series of images: mist burning off the fields on the drive to the show grounds, mothers and grooms frantically spit-shining a manure spot off an otherwise-tidy pony, the puff and crackle as the PA system comes to life. This weekend, however, the roles were reversed: rather than being caught up in the whirlwind of showsheen and silver polish, I served as the judge. I can only compare this to being in the eye of a hurricane—all sorts of things are happening all around you and yet you’re somehow removed from the situation.

I find judging to be a blast—from a training and teaching perspective, it sharpens my eye to what I would like to see in my own horses and students. It tests my powers of observation and own horsemanship in each class as each placing reflects on my own merit as a professional—what did I choose to reward? What was faulted? From a personal standpoint, it’s simply fun to watch what I know to be a culmination of a lot of hard work and preparation coming to fruition.

This particular show was a local 4H qualifier, open only to enrolled members. Class sizes were fairly small and the competitors were still a little rusty, this being the first show of the season. My class list ranged from showmanship to working hunters to western riding (the same was true for one hardworking rider and her versatile, saintly steed.) No matter the size of the show, the experience of the competitors or the caliber of the horsepower, I found these three guidelines of showing to come to mind again and again throughout the day.

1.      Attire

It’s been said again and again—you don’t need to spend the world and a half on your show clothes. You don’t even need to buy your own if you’ve got some willing show buddies. But whatever you do, make sure it fits, make sure it’s neat and clean, and try to follow the most recent basic trends (hair tucked into helmets and wearing gloves in hunt seat; hair in a low neat bun and no gloves in western.) Most of the basic trends do not require a large investment in time or money, just a little research—all of which can be done by scanning the covers of magazines or Googling the winners of any recent major shows. Nothing detracts more from the overall look of a winning team than ill-fitting clothing or a big stain.

2.      Preparation

Truthfully there’s no way to prepare for some things, like the bucking pony in the warm-up ring that sets everyone else to spooking or the earsplitting sound of the PA system’s feedback. Things will happen on show day that no one can predict. However, everyone who goes to a show owes it to themselves, their horses, their trainers/parents/siblings/friends/whoever to know what to expect in the classes they enter. The first time you ask your horse to pivot should not be in the pattern in the show ring, and it helps to know that you WILL have to jump in a hunter hack. Prize lists are posted way ahead of time—take a look at what you’re entering and get familiar with the rules.

3.      Sportsmanship

Having heard horror stories about parents chasing down judges in the parking lot to demand the reason that their kid didn’t win, I was pleasantly surprised with the sportsmanship—perhaps I shouldn’t have felt surprised at all. The entirely-volunteer-run show included a lot of parents who stepped in to run the gates, help set and tear down courses, and of course shepherd their own and everyone else’s children and horses to the show ring and back to the  trailer. The competitors, entirely children 18 and younger, were liberal in their support of each other, congratulating the winners and patting their horses no matter where they placed. They were receptive to both my compliments and suggestions for next time. As I headed to the parking lot of the end of the day, a lot of the families thanked me for my time. While I’m sure some judges treat the day as just part of the job, I was impressed by the showing community at this fairgrounds.

Looking back at what I described as the images and sounds that make up a show day from the competitor’s perspective, I can describe more from the judge’s point of view: my dance in the middle of the ring to mime “extended jog” to the announcer’s stand; eight pairs of eyes on mine in showmanship and the constant shuffle of feet as I move around their horses; the miraculous transformation of a snack-stand BBQ sandwich and a folding chair into what feels like a throne at a five-star restaurant after a morning of standing. If I can’t actually be showing horses, judging them is definitely an acceptable substitute.

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.


Kristen & her horse Playgirl

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