H&H’s showjumping columnist reflects on the value of those behind the scenes at shows
Although my wife assures me that I still retain my boyish good looks, I have in fact reached my mid-thirties. I really thought by this age I would no longer be the youngest person in the judge’s box, both at national and international events, but that seems to be the case and is a serious problem. If something is not done now to attract the next generation of officials, we are going to experience a major shortage within the next few years.
I think there is a misconception that judges are only there to notice when poles fall down during a round, but this is such a tiny part of the role. There is a responsibility for timing, announcing, ensuring the course is not only safe to jump but also meets the competition specifications, noticing any errors within the show schedule, dealing with any disciplinary matters and ensuring horse welfare is paramount.
Lead officials then have to prepare a report, which is submitted to British Showjumping. It’s not as straightforward as some think.
When it comes to judging, the truth is that regardless of qualifications, experience counts. I am lucky that my various roles mean I spend a lot of time working in judges’ boxes around the world, but this is not normal. It can be difficult for someone coming through the ranks to gain the exposure to the right mentors.
In the UK, we have some very knowledgeable officials but it does tend to be the same faces that are seen at the larger shows and, in my experience, it is unusual for anyone under 50 to feature. It is also no secret that, as with any role, there is a variety of competency.
While I think sport and industry should be detached, I still recognise that a bad judging decision or a time that has been made up to cover an operator error on the timing equipment can affect a horse’s value or tarnish an athlete’s reputation.
The same seriousness and attention to detail should apply no matter what the competition, and because of this we need to attract the right people.
A professional task
To ensure the best judging and course-designing talent is kept at our national shows, we need to recognise the individuals in those roles as professionals.
This includes paying them a fee that acknowledges the time and investment they have made in gaining their qualifications and experience. At the moment, there are major show organisers who pay their judges £50. This can be for a day that exceeds 10 hours, and includes any travelling expenses.
In the USA, it is not unusual to find professional (full-time) judges. The fees there vary from the equivalent of £250 to £350 a day and they are also offered a per-diem for meals, as well as hotel and travel expenses.
With this fee comes accountability, and if serious errors are made, judges can be fined or suspended. I don’t see equestrian sports in the UK becoming as commercial as it is in the USA any time soon; however, surely adding a small nominal fee on to each entry to cover officials wouldn’t deter people from entering.
The lack of remuneration didn’t stop me from wanting to officiate, but I think the world has changed and I really hope there are still younger people who will give up their time and look at becoming a judge or course-designer, as there are many positive aspects.
Sense of community
The judges’ box tends to give you the best seats in the house and there is a real sense of community between officials. If you progress up the ladder to become an FEI (international) official, you can end up travelling to far-flung destinations. Given the numerous duties you perform, it can also look favourable on a CV when applying for a new job or promotion.
For me, becoming an official was a route to commentating, but as someone who studied criminal law I will also admit to enjoying discussions around the intricacies of unusual situations with fellow officials.
The pathway to becoming an official is more formulaic than ever before. As someone who has progressed through the system and now assesses judges who are looking for their final national upgrade, I am really passionate about helping younger people progress. We just have to hope that the next generation is out there.
Ref Horse & Hound; 17 September 2020