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A Well-Rounded Cowgirl, Part I: The Judge’s Perspective

It’s easier to list what F.J. Thomas HASN’T done in the horse industry: Candace Wade catches up with the well-rounded blogger, author, filmwriter, judge and horsewoman.

Competing in an Extreme Cowboy competition. Photo courtesy of F.J. Thomas

Ms. F.J. Thomas is the author of the blogs Cowgirls With Curves and Talking in the Barn, several books, a horse-based film script and has barrels of knowledge about horses. F.J. and I became acquainted through the Equus Film Festival NYC. I was intrigued by this multi-talented horsewoman with roots in Tennessee and the soul of the West.

Parents of horse crazy girls pay attention. F.J. was given her first pony when she was four years old. F.J tells: “We brought the Shetland home in the back of our van. My second horse was a green broke pinto mare that I tried to train for barrels and jumping. At 12, my grades started to fall and my parents sold my horse thinking I would do better in school – I didn’t. The first thing I bought when I turned 16 was a mare and foal. I’ve not been horse-less since!”

Equine Background

F.J. went after a horsewoman’s life with determination. She was in her late 30’s when she began judging OHSA (Open Horse Show Association) shows. I asked about her qualifying background. “I’ve been really blessed to spend time with some great horsemen who taught me a lot about putting a solid foundation on a horse and about the finer points of riding. My first job was cleaning stalls and grooming for a gaited horse trainer.” F.J. moved on to work as a trainer breaking colts and working show prospects at an Arabian farm that raised Saddle Seat and Western Pleasure show horses. Giving riding lessons came next. Then F.J. worked as a horse trainer while employed in a non-horse related corporate job to make sure her rent bill got paid.

Judging

Western, ranch, hunter and saddle seat are F.J’s preferred judging disciplines. I wondered what kind of knowledge was required to judge diverse disciplines. “You have to be a genuine horseman who can recognize a horse with a solid foundation, lightness, consistency, good fluid movement, willingness and good manners. These qualities are universal regardless of discipline. You also have to know the particulars of what’s required for each discipline.”

F.J also judged gaited horses. “I look for quality, fluid movement consistent in tempo and footfalls. Natural movement over high knee action and/or speed. I like to see a horse using himself well — a horse that moves straight, under control and gives to the bit. I also look at suitability for the class.”

A Judge’s Point of View

A lesson for those who show horses: fancy doesn’t always take the blue ribbon. “It was a 4H sponsored open show. There were only two people in the class — one was a National Speed Racking champion; the other was a teenage girl riding her backyard Walking Horse. The guy on the racking horse kept his horse’s nose to the outside the entire time, was barely in control of his horse and showed no difference in speed at all. His arena etiquette was horrendous. He ran all over the top of the girl. The Walking Horse was sound, but had become a little sore after a day on the chat surface (tiny gravel that can compact and become a hard). In spite of this, the Walking Horse was straight, light, quiet, showed a change in speed, and was consistent even though he was a little sore.

“I gave the Walking Horse first place because the rider was in control of her horse, showed change in speed and was courteous. The Racking Horse rider and his wife cussed me from the fence – and this was a little open show! I was raised to have respect for a judge no matter what. When I show, I’m there to ride my horse and improve.”

J.F. has shown in several disciplines. Do skills translate across disciplines? “With a good foundation, a horse can do any event. They may not win at it, but they’ll be able to be fairly competitive. Horses can adapt. As far as riders being able to switch disciplines, having a good feel is important, as well as having good equitation. Having good hands is universal. Have an open mind.

“I love the discipline and finesse of hunter and pattern classes. I love the premise behind ranch – horses that are willing, broke and everyday practical. I love the adrenaline rush and challenge of barrels and chasing a cow. If I had to choose one, I guess my favorite is barrels because that’s the discipline I struggle the most with and it’s just fun!”

What skills do we need as recreational riders as opposed to riding in competition? “Know a good foundation and how to get it. A recreational rider might not think she needs to have a light horse with all the whistles and bells, but having a light horse can literally be the difference between life and death. It’s the difference between pulling a horse around or just picking up the rein. If you have to pull on a horse that’s in a bucking fit, you are not balanced and you can get thrown. If you can simply pick up a rein, you have quicker control. Riding a lot of barely broke colts will quickly teach you the importance of lightness!”

F.J. will share the experiences and motivations for her writing and what being a cowgirl means to her in Part II.

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