Here we are again on the brink of another busy showing season, and it’s occurred to me that all our aspirations, careers and reputations as owners, riders, breeders and trainers are at the mercy of the judges’ opinion.

For this reason alone, it is essential that judges attend the relevant conferences from time to time, to maintain their understanding of the current trends and regulations, and be reminded of their responsibilities.

I’m only on a handful of judging panels and keeping up with the merry-go-round of judges’ conferences during the winter semester can be costly and time-consuming. And you can bet that when you have to attend one or run the risk of being struck off the panel, the venue is not on your doorstep.

However, in other sports and hobbies the practice is far more diligent as their judges or referees are reassessed periodically. Should showing’s governing bodies follow suit?

The theme of this year’s British Show Pony Society (BSPS) seminar in January was “judging performance” and I’m informed that DVDs showed a cross section of ponies on the go-round and performing individual shows, as well as working hunter ponies jumping.

It was not always obvious what subject would create debate, although the issues related to complaints received during last season. With some displays, riders did not demonstrate enough walk or produce all the paces for the classification — for instance, a gallop with show hunter ponies.

Each table of judges was given skating marks to assess every performance — out of 50 for a show or 20 for style/manners while jumping. After each DVD, each table correlated their views before displaying their mark. Where they differed significantly, the judges had to give their reasons.

In one DVD, the young jockey riding a delightful pony “got lost” during their individual show and yet some judges marked them generously, deeming the pony to be “sweet and safe”. It was emphasised that, coupled with a top conformation mark, they could win the class. This demonstrated how judges differ in their interpretation of a good performance. On some occasions there was up to a 22-mark difference.

It was a similar story at the National Pony Society seminar earlier this month. Is it good for showing when judges’ opinions differ so significantly, or should they be singing more from the same hymn sheet?

A second chance

One concern close to my heart — when a full complement of horses does not come forward for a championship — came up at the British Show Horse Association (BSHA) AGM.

It’s unsporting for second-placed competitors to bow out because they were beaten earlier. A championship is judged as a separate class and provides another chance. Show stock can be unpredictable, particularly when the championship takes place in a new environment like a main ring or evening performance, so no one can predict the result.

Once at the BSPS championships, I fielded three different second-placed ponies in three separate championships and amazingly all impressed to secure overall honours.

I’ve even witnessed placings changed when a champion or reserve has misbehaved during rosette presentation, which is why I grimace when stewards dismiss the back line during the award process.

One BSHA professional pointed out that it can be impossible to recruit capable spare riders at the last minute for championships on successful days, also highlighting the dilemma whereby a substitute jockey would not be able to go under said professional and vice versa, if both were judging in the future.

More worryingly in the pony sector, if a home-produced child rides for a trainer in just one championship, they automatically forfeit their Pretty Polly status that season.

Should we add “excepting championships” to these rules to address this shortfall?

Ref: Horse & Hound; 31 March 2016