How to spot a show-stopper

As show season gets fully into swing, sport horse enthusiasts can learn a lot from the methods used by judges in the ring

Norman Storey

The show season is in full swing up and down the country. It is a great opportunity for you and me to view the many horses on display. For those of us 'judges on the ditch', it is a great opportunity to test our judging skills against those of the judges inside the ring.

We may not always agree but then do we get the same view of the animals as the judges? We get a view from a different angle and usually we are not as close to the horses. In these circumstances perhaps we should not be as critical as we often are.

When the class is complete, do go and have a closer look at the winners to see if you can spot why the judges placed one ahead of the other.

The judge

The judges have a very important role in the horse industry. They have a huge responsibility. They set the standard for conformation and in breed classes also the type and breed standard. If they consistently place one conformation characteristic ahead of another then this becomes the norm and breeders will produce horses with that trait in order to win the class.

The majority of judges consider it an honour to be asked to officiate at a show, especially at the more prestigious events.

Judges will travel the length and breadth of the country and are generally out of pocket at the end of the day. They can spend five, six or more hours in the ring, in scorching sunshine or lashing rain.

A judge must remain im- partial, only judging what they see in front of them on the day. They should not take into account previous performance or future potential.

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A judge should not ask the breeding of any horse till after the class is judged. Knowing the breeding can influence one's thinking. Nor should a judge evaluate horses he or she has been associated with. They should not consult the show catalogue. These things simply give the wrong impression -- they are deemed to be judging from the catalogue and not what is in front of them.

Remember that at the end of the day the results are the opinion of the judge at that particular time. On a different day in a different situation the order may be different.

In good, strong classes or championship finals there is often very little between the top three or four in any class. But as it is a competition there has to be a winner.

Judges must make up their mind quickly. There is nothing worse than a class dragging on and on.

A judge must also take ownership of the ring. He or she dictates when and where things happen. When and where they want to see a trot or walk. Where they will stand or when to line up for closer inspection.

The in-hand classes should be as spectator friendly as is possible. When one compares ours to other sports the competitors are interviewed often both before and after they compete. It poses questions about how we can improve audience involvement.

Conformation and movement

Judges must have a good knowledge of good and bad conformation. They have to be able to recognise the obvious points of both conditions. They must rank them in order of importance remembering all the time that they must come up with a result.

They do not have long to judge and they have to remember one horse from the other. In a ring full of similar grey or bay horses it can be difficult to identify individuals. After a long day's judging good classes, the mind must get clouded.

Judges must know the points of the horse and have an idea of the skeletal structure as it is related to conformation. The skeleton includes the bones and ligaments that bind the bones together to form joints.

The skeletal structure provides the framework that gives the body shape. It will determine the length and slope of the shoulder, and height and length of back. The legs and feet are very much part of the skeletal structure.

The manner in which a horse moves is determined by the conformation and structure. The usefulness of all horses depends on their ability to move and perform in an appropriate manner.

One very important point for all of us to remember is that the majority of judges are not vets so they should not be required to officiate on veterinary matters.

We are all judges

As conformation and movement are so important, we also must be able to recognise the good from the not so good.

What do you see when you look at a horse? What are you trying to determine when a horse is stood in front of you? We are trying to evaluate its conformation. We are probably looking for a horse that will perform a particular task for us.

So we have to relate conformation to performance or 'form to function'.

Remember every horse has good and bad points and many horses, including high-performance ones, excel even with conformation faults. On the other hand, some with excellent conformation cannot perform at all.

A conformation analysis is the systematic comparison of one horse to another. You must compare them from front, left and right sides, and from the rear. You should avoid handling them. Just use your eyes.


The ideal sport horse is balanced. When looking at them from the side, draw two imaginary vertical lines separating the shoulder area, body and hind quarters. A horse can be divided equally only if it has a long sloping shoulder, short back with a corresponding long underline and a long hip.

The head and neck should not look excessively large or small compared with the rest of the body. The legs should be about the same length as the girth.

When you are judging the detailed conformation, start at the same place for each horse. You will not miss things if you have a system.


Quality is another term that is frequently used. Quality is the degree of finesse in hair, skin, bones and joints. The mane and tail should be full and the hair should not be coarse or rough.

Excess hair on the body, especially on the head and limbs, indicates a lack of quality.

Quality skin is thin and pliable, under which tendons and blood vessels can be seen. A thick, puffy appearance indicates a lack of quality.


Each breed of horse or pony has its own set of characteristics that distinguishes one breed from another. The Irish Draught is different looking from a thoroughbred for example. These differences are referred to as 'Type'.

Athletic use can also have a different set of characteristics, such as show jumping versus dressage. We have a jumping type or a dressage type of horse.


The study of conformation and movement is fascinating. There are lots of websites available now to help you. The advent of linear scoring for equine conformation in this country should be a great benefit to all of us.

Irish Independent

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