Stuart Hollings: Showing classes shouldn’t be judged like a driving test [H&H VIP]

  • When the marking system was unveiled to the British Show Pony Society [BSPS] membership on 11 December 1994, my understanding then was that it would act as an aide memoire for the judges and consequently make them more accountable.

    Nearly 20 years on, has it gone beyond its initial objective? Has the emphasis shifted more towards the benefit of the competitors — to the point where they treat the mark sheets as some form of sacred document?

    From a personal point of view — and perhaps selfishly — the system should function primarily to help me obtain a favourable result, based on my opinion on the day, and not just to present a set of figures for public viewing.

    When the mark sheets are pinned up, have you ever witnessed such obsessive behaviour, apart from say the January sales? I’m always reminded of Fiona Bruce on the BBC News when she states that “this report contains flash photography”.

    The information is recorded in special books and meticulously photographed, often on mobile phones and iPads, to then be distributed on social media. Last year, one show secretary donned her dark glasses when the “showing paparazzi”, as she nicknamed them, descended on her desk to scrutinise the marks.

    Eavesdropping on the competitors’ comments can be alarming, but sometimes entertaining too. Thank goodness we don’t live in the Middle Ages, otherwise some of the judges would be heading for the stocks or, worse still, the gallows!

    Understandably, performance scores can alter with every appearance. However, exhibitors do become confused when their pony’s conformation marks vary substantially between judges. And even more so when the variation comes from the same judge and within a short timeframe.

    I’m guilty as charged. This is simply because rather than judging constantly from a mental template of the ideal model, I mostly prefer to compare “like with like” in each class. Taken to its conclusion, the same pony could have a different conformation score from me each time.

    A pony’s conformation mark is not cast in stone, otherwise it would be printed in the passport.

    Someone suggested that perhaps having a tick box on the mark sheet indicating “comparison” or “absolute” would help to clarify the situation on the day.

    The marks system does not need a revamp, with extra columns for type and presence, nor fixed penalties for wrong legs or splints.

    Keep it simple so that the process doesn’t become a mathematical puzzle and educate our judges to use the present system more effectively — by using the full range of marks available to them. This was one of the topics at this year’s BSPS judges’ conference.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t be against the return of half marks, to be used sparingly. These would be ideal when there’s a cluster of similar standard of ponies in a big class that just needs nudging apart.

    I fear that some judges treat the show class as a driving test. This could be the reason why we often see a good pony plummet down the line after a simple mistake, to stand below mediocre ponies who have done nothing wrong.

    Two seemingly forgotten words spring to mind in this scenario. “Suitability” means that an identical misdemeanour in an Intermediate class cannot be penalised as heavily as with a first ridden. “Likeability” is the basis of judging and judges should not be afraid to go that extra mile in support of their favourite pony for fear of recriminations from the ringside.

    Stuart’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (17 April, 2014)