Over the past 30-plus years that I’ve attended the Upperville Colt & Horse Show in Virginia, held the first week of June, my usual viewpoint has been from the back of a horse competing or through the lens of my camera.
This year, however, I received a most remarkable opportunity to apprentice judge with my friend and mentor Julie Winkel of Maplewood Stables, an R-rated judge from Nevada who was one of four judges presiding over the seven-day horse show.
I spent the week with a view from the judges’ boxes on the Hunter side of the show grounds, and it was an experience I’d actually never even imagined possible. Since I was a child attending the show as a wide-eyed spectator watching my heroes, such as Rodney Jenkins and Charlie Weaver, Upperville has been my favorite horse show. In addition, my birthday always falls sometime during the week, so I have wonderful memories of parties with my horse show friends and even earning a championship or two on the day, which made for the best presents of all.
Because Upperville’s two Hunter show rings are each judged by two United States Equestrian Federation R-rated judges, I was fortunate to also have the opportunity to soak up knowledge from judges Sue Ashe, Scott Hofstetter and Mike Rosser who partnered with Julie through the week.
I currently have my “small r” rating with the USEF and am working to fine-tune my skills to eventually apply for my “large R.” Learning from other more experienced judges with different bookkeeping techniques, horsemanship backgrounds and preferences provides new ideas and different viewpoints, allowing me to expand my knowledge.
Other apprentices also attended, so there was ample opportunity to meet new people and spend time with others on the same path, such as Cyndi Grossman Merritt, a professional from California who is in the mentor program with Julie. The three of us spent every day together and most evenings, since the judges aren’t permitted to socialize with the exhibitors. We enjoyed some wonderful dinners at local restaurants (including a very special birthday dinner at the Goodstone Inn!) and had a fun and entertaining cook-out at my house, which is about 10 minutes from the show grounds.
We judged some super talented horses and riders over the week, from small ponies to open hunters, and it was a privilege to be able to simply watch and focus without the pressure of other responsibilities drawing me away from the ring. Despite the long days, by the end of the week I was sad to see it end. I’m so grateful to show secretary Ginny McCarty and show manager Tommy Lee Jones for granting me permission to apprentice at Upperville and to all of the judges for offering their wisdom.
I’ve judged unrecognized horse shows for more than 25 years, and there’s never been a day judging where I’ve wished I were someplace else. I’ve suffered through frigid temperatures wearing countless layers, been soaked to the skin from sideways downpours and wind-whipped in my judge’s box, but as long as there are riders willing and eager to compete, I’ll be there for them.
In fact, last weekend I judged Sandstone, a local show that I later discovered from a member of the show staff had 422 hunter and equitation trips pass through the gate of my ring. I judged for more than 12 hours, but the day seemed to go by in a flash.
It was particularly satisfying to see one horse-and-rider combination perform their best trip of the day in the final over fences class, earning a well-earned ribbon after earlier mistakes kept them from placing. This is one of the main reasons I love to judge–to see first-hand riders working hard to achieve their goals and dreams and the horses learning and improving through the day…even if it does sometimes take from dawn to dusk!