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Getting a Jumpstart in Horse Judging

Filed under: Blog Post,Featured |     

By: EC Intern- Shelby Glessner

Odds are, you have either shown your horse, volunteered at a show, or cheered on a friend from the stands as they competed for the first-place prize. Have you ever thought about how the judge earned their place in the center of the ring, or why they made the personal journey there to begin with? Maria Rising, Michigan 4H carded judge and PhD candidate in the Michigan State University College of Education, gives us her insight on why horse judging is important to the wider horse industry and to passionate individuals themselves.

Why is judging important?

Judges are, of course, imperative to have in the show ring. They are the unbiased individual officiating our activities and making decisions on who will walk away with the blue ribbon. But judges have other important roles too: Rising emphasizes that judging is ALL about education! On the individual level, we are all looking to hear an outside perspective and get feedback on how to be better exhibitors. On the industry level, judges have a huge impact on what breeders and trainers are striving toward. Their decisions impact training methods, style differences, and many other factors that go into developing the “next big thing” in showing.

Rising outlines another critical role of judges within the horse industry: standing by the rules and ethics put forward by breed associations and other governing bodies. Especially if you’re presiding over high-profile shows, you must be a person that those organizations are willing to stand behind, and you must always live by their rules and ideals. “If I mess up, I have to be held accountable,” Rising underscores, adding that continuing education is often required to maintain your status as a judge.

Why become a judge?

Every person has a different motivation, of course, for moving toward becoming a horse show judge. For Rising, judging allowed her the opportunity to get back in the show ring and be involved in the horse industry during a period where, as a student, she could not have owned a horse of her own. She proudly adds that one of her favorite parts of being a judge is having the opportunity to “talk to people while they’re living their dream. Horses are a passion project, [and] being right there in the center of the ring to witness their successes is the coolest part to me.”

Rising highlights several other benefits of and motivations for participating as a judge. Some may be interested in judging to enhance their own knowledge of the sport and become better exhibitors themselves. Judging is also an excellent opportunity to network with other professionals within the horse industry! Remember that judges have massive influence within the showing community, and through their participation, judges can give back to that community and serve as a leader in making changes for the better. “I want there to be judges that are passionate about it,” Rising urges.

How do I become a judge?

Every state or region may have different rules and processes to becoming an officially carded judge. Rising summarizes the process of becoming a 4H judge in the state of Michigan: a written application is submitted, an interview is conducted, and the applications are then scored by a panel of 9 to 15 industry professionals. These scores are numerical and therefore unbiased, returning an accurate representation of the applicant’s abilities and fortes. Feedback is provided for everyone regardless of whether or not requirements were met: again, judging is all about the education! Once a judge officially begins working shows, an evaluation of their performance is completed upon the conclusion of each event.

There are plenty of ways to begin your journey in horse judging. Many colleges or universities have horse and/or livestock judging teams. Judging competitions may have open categories for anyone to enter. Organizations such as AQHA or USEF may hold workshops on judging which may also be found online in webinars or other formats. Of course, youth are encouraged to participate through their 4H program. Apprenticing with or shadowing a judge could prove to be a valuable first step as well. Connections are of utmost importance.

Rising takes care to encourage the idea that anyone with an interest in judging can get their start somewhere. Many of us in the horse industry already have much of the basic knowledge required for the job and would simply need some fine-tuning to get started. She warmly affirms, “A lot of us don’t realize how much we know and how much we can give back to others. We usually underestimate ourselves a bit.”


Whether you’re a beginner interested in the inner works of horse show judging or an industry professional looking to get more involved in the showing community, judging may be the right move for you. The experience provides valuable education both to the judges themselves and to the industry as a whole. Search for networking opportunities and don’t be afraid to make the leap! You just might boost yourself into a very fulfilling career.

Rising, Maria. Personal interview. 11 November 2020.

Shelby Glessner is a senior student at Michigan State University studying Animal Science and the equine industry. She spent an academic year working with renowned researcher Dr. Stephanie Valberg in the Equine Neuromuscular Diagnostic Lab at MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and has undertaken extensive science and equine related coursework. Passionate about education, she hopes to pursue a career advocating for research-based practices in animal agriculture. 

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