May 2017 - Candid With Karen: Not Your Enemy!
Written by Karen Healey
Friday, 28 April 2017 21:43

A judge’s perspective on the most under-appreciated job at the horse show.

by Karen Healey

Before I talk about what I like or don’t like when I judge hunters, I want to talk a little about what the job entails. I personally think that every trainer should have their judge’s cards – it makes you a way better exhibitor!

There are several things that exhibitors should know about the most under-appreciated job at the horse show. First, we sit for sometimes 12 hours, but usually a minimum of eight, and try our best to put horses in the correct order. The judge is not your enemy. I promise you that no one is more upset when a winning round is marred at the end by a cheap rail or a cross-canter. We are rooting and sometimes praying for a great round. There will be classes when your cut-off score is an 87 and other classes when your cut-off score is a 78.

Secondly, the judge can only score what he can see. Particularly when you judge by yourself, at some point you have to look down and mark your card. If a horse spooks a little or steps off his lead at that instant – you got lucky. If a horse picks up the wrong lead in an under-saddle class in a corner of the ring that the judge is not watching – again, it’s your lucky day.

If you are sitting directly behind a jump you may not be able see if a horse hangs a leg. Years ago at a major indoor horse show, the first jump was a Riviera gate dead away from the judges. A very good horse ridden by a very good rider hung both legs straight down. There was a collective gasp from the exhibitors’ side, but the judges saw nothing that indicated a bad jump and the horse ended up being the winner.

Author Karen Healey is one of our sport’s most accomplished teachers and coaches. She worked for George Morris in the early 70s and has carried on his teachings ever since, along the way coaching 100-plus-and-counting medal finals winners. NAJYRC medalists and international stars including Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum are among her protégés. Karen shuttered her California training barn at the end of 2015, after 34 years, and continues to work with riders in lessons, clinic and coaching at shows through Karen Healey Training. For more information, visit or e-mail Karen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Remember, the judge is not sitting at the in-gate and jumps can look different depending on where you’re sitting. In classes that have two or more judges sitting at different positions around the ring be prepared to have very different scores.

Quality Jump

There has been quite a bit of talk recently that judges are partially to blame for the use of calming and relaxing drugs. The thinking seems to be that if the judges would penalize the “slow” horses it would help to deter people from using these medications.

Let’s get one thing straight – I can’t think of a single top judge who doesn’t appreciate a great jumping horse that’s ridden with pace. Think Brunello and Liza Towell. But we have to judge what’s in front of us. In that class there is no way that a horse that is ridden with pace but jumps poorly is going to beat one that is high and slow off the ground. Judging is a matter of comparison – is that horse better or worse than the one before it?

That being said, it’s a good start on what I’m looking for in a hunter round. First and foremost for me is the quality of the horse’s jump. I love pace, but out of pace the horse should get to the jump and rock back on his hocks and jump up in a beautiful bascule with his shoulders up and a descent of the head and neck. I will forgive a lead swap off the ground or even a light rub if the horse jumps with these qualities.

A great expression – the horse’s ears up looking through the bridle to the next jump – is a great plus. They should look happy to be doing their job. Along with that is a round that does not look manufactured every step of the way. I don’t want to see a dressage clinic on the ends of the ring. I don’t like martingales that are so tight they look like you could play a tune on them. On the other hand, some martingales are so long they are distracting to the round. I go back to learning from George Morris: if you notice something, it’s probably wrong.

In a nutshell, my ideal round is a beautiful horse, impeccably turned out, walks into the ring, picks up a gallop and gets to the first jump, explodes off the ground and proceeds to jump every jump the same way. Can I tell you how seldom that happens?

Again, the judge’s job is to score the first round against that ideal and then place each horse above or below. Most of the time, even at top shows, we rarely see that ideal round, particularly when judging some of the 3’ and below classes. But every class has to have a winner and I know that every person I’ve had the privilege of judging with is trying their best to come up with the right one.

Karen Healey has given a lifetime of expertise and volunteer work to the hunter/jumper industry. Complications from a recent back surgery have left her in and out of the hospital and a physical rehab center. In an effort to help Karen cover those considerable costs, the California Professional Horsemen’s Association Foundation has established a fund to accept tax-deductible donations on her behalf, and members of the hunter/jumper world have responded generously with much-appreciated donations. For information on contributing to this fund, contact Ruth Frazier at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or visit