Nov 2, 2009

Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse -- A Lesson We Could All Stand to Learn

So, as I mentioned last week (and if you’ve been following my Twitter), I attended the Wednesday seminar entitled, “Judging the Hunt-Seat Horse” being offered at the Syracuse Invitational. I have to admit I walked into the class expecting to be bored out of my mind. I mainly registered for it just because it seemed like the most interesting of all the seminars being offered all week and I wanted to feel involved with the show in a greater capacity than simply as a spectator. What I discovered about halfway through, though, was that it was actually a very fun, interesting course run by a couple of thoughtful, opinionated hunt-seat judges – Greg Franklin and Diane Carney. They both train out of stables in Illinois and I hope to have occasion to perhaps interview them for the blog at some point.

The audience wasn’t just a bunch of hunter snobs, but rather a unique mix of 4-H’ers studying for their judging certificates (and their moms), Cazenovia College students of all disciplines, a young girl whose family raises Arabians, a young man who had a Western riding background and an adorable little girl who came with her mom to learn how to better train her pony. Can I mention again how adorable she was?

And so began the lecture. After introductions were out of the way, we got down to business and for the most part Diane led the bulk of the discussions. It seemed pretty apparent from the start that her intention in teaching this class was to give the average horseperson (okay, yes, the average hunt-seat rider) better insight into the rationalizations for scores and placings and to gently remind everyone that being a judge is a very difficult and demanding position. It was obvious that above all they really wanted to dispel some lingering misconceptions about the hunt-seat scoring system, namely that a judge played favorites and/or that scoring was not founded on a sound, rational system. If anything, I think Diane spent a little too much time trying to defend the system from a non-existent firing squad. It immediately made me suspect that she was going to tell us judging was not subjective. She did not (of course), but even so she spent such a long time trying to build the case that hunt-seat judging was so very structured and rigorous that it kind of was lost in the fray a little later when she stated matter-of-factly that, yes, judging is, in fact, subjective. If they had gotten that aspect out of the way firstly and then discussed how judges had to act reasonably and responsibly in spite of the inherent subjectivity to their sport, I think it might have made a bit more sense. More on that later, but I do want to just note that despite my critiques they were extremely candid about their jobs and responsibilities and tried to provide a thoughtful discussion about the inherent personal choices involved in judging.

For instance, Diane made the point that her judging standards (and presumably all judging standards) stem from her personal values as a horsewoman. She is a stickler for the rules, first and foremost and that informs nearly every scoring decision she will make. If the rulebook says only one courtesy circle, then she expects only one. She expects the correct lead upon entering the ring and beginning the course. And so forth and so on. She readily acknowledged that another judge may be more or less lenient than she on certain aspects of the rulebook.

She then took us through the minor and major faults listed in the rulebook and what she thought should be the judging rationale on each aspect. Again, while I appreciated what she had to say on the matter, I still feel like it was a bit of equivocation on the issue. Sure, they could tell me all day long what their opinions were on each fault, but it didn’t make it ‘correct.’ There was no 100% correct or incorrect. Well, not entirely. A rail down is pretty clear, but I think you get what I mean. As Diane and Greg finally came around to saying late in the afternoon – this is totally subjective. One judge’s ideal is not the same as another’s. What is important is that each judge be fair and consistent in their own set of values. And moreover, in some ways, the scores are not the important part of the judging. At the end of the day, you want to ensure that the horse who deserves first is placed first, that the horse who deserves second places second, etc… That resonated with me deeply and made an enormous amount of sense. Yeah, as long as I (as a theoretical judge) have a value system, judge all the horses consistently against that system, ensure that the horses place in the correct order according to that value system, and, most importantly, I can give my explanation for every decision that I make, then I have succeeded in being the best judge that I can be. I liked the candor with which they described this process. More importantly, I like that they each made the declaration that a good judge has an opinion. It may not be a popular opinion, but it is a clear, decided opinion. What say you readers? I think I could excel at this judging stuff.  :)  Okay, all joking aside, it is 100% true and I was glad that they spelled it out so clearly to the audience of mainly younger exhibitors. You may not always agree with the judge’s decision, but it is an educated decision and it must be respected.

As I mentioned earlier, I almost wish that the structure of their course had been changed around a bit. I really think that I would have been hooked FAR SOONER if Diane and Greg had simply stated from the beginning: “Look, hunt-seat judging (like a lot of other equestrian disciplines) is almost entirely subjective. We want to explain how we, as judges, work within the confines of such subjectivity. Just because we base our scores and placings on our opinions and on our personal values as horsemen, that does not mean that there is not a clear rationale behind every single one of our choices. And that is what we want to talk about today – the rigorous structure that backs up each and every one of our decisions.”

Ultimately though, I suppose it didn’t really matter because by the very end, I completely understood all of the above and more. I had a far less biased opinion against the hunt-seat system. Hell, I think I even came away thinking that hunt-seat judging is fairer than dressage scorings. I questioned Greg about how he approaches the start of every new class. You have an ideal in your head, but in the end, few people will approach that ideal. What happens if you judge, for instance, the first rider a little harshly and then realize later in the class that, in fact, the horse and rider combination actually better approached the ideal than the rest of the competition? He was perfectly candid about this and noted that it does happen and that you are perfectly able to change the placings around after the fact (though before any ribbons or announcements or whatnot), especially if you decide that a particular horse deserves to place higher than another. In some ways, I wish that we could do that for dressage. I know we all like to pretend that competing in dressage is a competition against yourself. But that’s a real crock of shit. We pretend that because the scores are calculated mathematically at the end of the test that each ride is judged in a perfect vacuum of objectivity and pure, absolute visceral reaction. The problem is that that simply is not true. The dressage judge must use the same basis as what Greg and Diane outlined to me. It is just as subjective – each judge has a different set of standards, a different ideal of perfection. So, not only are our judges grappling with the same issues, they also lack any control over the final placings. What if that one horse and rider combination really didn’t perform spectacularly, but did display the overall sense of togetherness, lightness and submission that should be representative of the sport?  Just like in hunt seat there should be an overall rhythm and pleasantness to the ride that demands to be compared against the other competitors. Why not? Would that really and truly ruin the sport? Or would it perchance just encourage riders to work more on how the individual movements in a test work together as a whole and flow more smoothly and elegantly together instead of just executing a series of movements as if in a vacuum?  Surely we all learned a lesson from last year's silver medal-winning Olympic ride in which the horse managed to rear up and run backwards?  I am certain that such a ride would have been excused from the ring in hunt-seat.  And rightly so.  So, maybe we can all stand to learn something from our fellow disciplines and be open enough to do so.  

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