15 Hunter Jumper Show Day Secrets from a Judge

Updated March 26, 2024
horse and rider at show with champion blue ribbon

First, remember judges are human. They are pretty opinionated humans, but still human. They make mistakes, and sometimes after a long day of judging, they reflect and wish they had pinned a class a little differently or didn’t look down at the exact moment a mini-disaster happened.  They miss things.  Life experiences will impact placing certain riders or horses in a class.

With this in mind, here are the top show day secrets from a hunter jumper judge’s perspective.

1. Be On Time

Most hunter jumper shows have over thirty classes per day. At 10 minutes for a flat class, 2 minutes for a course, and many un-judged warm-ups in between, the last thing any judge ever wants to do is to wait for entrants to get into the ring. Judges have great respect for those individuals ready to walk into the ring ON TIME.

2. Be Willing to Go First

This one is similar to being late. Be prepared, and please don’t leave the judge waiting to start a class. Be the first rider. If you go first and put in a winning round equal to another, the judge will  certainly give the better ribbon to the person who does not hesitate  to go into the ring.

3. Trainers – Don’t Yell During Classes

For example, yelling “no,” or “change it,” or “diagonal,” “wrong lead,” or “more heel.” The list goes on and on. Of course, the level of the horse show will decide how much the judge ignores these comments. However, these comments can actually draw attention to a rider on the wrong diagonal or lead. Obviously, if it becomes a life/death situation, then, by all means, yell instructions!

4. Don’t Run Over the Judge

The judges won’t miss you riding too close. It’s hard to miss with the dust flying and won’t get you any extra points. Unfortunately, they will assume the rider cannot steer or needs more practice with “floor craft.”

5. Perfect “Floor Craft”

In ballroom dancing, there are certain dances that “travel” around a room, and in those dances, the “leader” needs to constantly be watching other partners and trying to predict dancers’ moves to avoid any collisions. It takes practice and experience to really get good at this. Riders need to practice this more. If a horse has to break because another rider cuts them off, the judge will penalize the pair who did the cutting and ignore the pair's break.

6. Stay Positive

hunter jumper stallion and show ready rider

Judges can only judge what is in front of them. They miss things, especially in large classes. Some horses will also show better than others. Don’t be discouraged—keep showing! Every judge has their own opinions, but it’s just that— their opinion.

7. Check Legal Equipment

Check with your organization's rule book if you have questions about tack, equipment, or show clothing. Keep in mind, some judges have certain pet peeves when it comes to equipment. Some judges don’t like spurs, while others don’t like bats/whips/sticks in certain classes. These are opinions and have nothing to do with the rules.

8. Wear Gloves

A rider without gloves doesn’t bother some judges but will bother others.  Wearing gloves is so easy to do that it’s recommended when appropriate.

9. Wear Clothes that Fit

You don’t need to purchase a pair of expensive breeches, but make sure your show clothes fit well. Otherwise, your outfit will only detract from the look you are trying to present to the judge, making it more difficult to judge equitation classes. Look for form-fitting, neat clothing, boots reaching to the knee, hair properly captured under your helmet, etc.

10. Check for Lameness

Equine vet watching horse in exam after flexion tests.

Please put your horse’s interests first. If your horse’s soundness is questionable, keep him at home. Some horses will come up lame at the showgrounds. If this happens, contact a farrier or veterinarian and scratch them from the class.

11. Review Your Overall Look

Come with clean, neat, presentable tack. Your horse should be well groomed, of good weight, have a healthy coat, trimmed whiskers (depending on your discipline and show organization), mane appropriate length for discipline, etc. If you need help with pre-show grooming, speak with your trainer or riding instructor.

12. Keep Your Horse Sweat-Free (summer heat aside)

The summer heat has a big impact on this particular tip, but it is hard for a judge to ignore a lathered horse entering the class. They will wonder why the horse had to be ridden to that point before entering the ring. However, if you are riding in the middle of summer, the judge will understand why your horse is sweaty.

horse with number on neck waiting at show

13. Make Numbers Visible

Please make sure the judge can see the entry number. Pin the number on your back or to your saddle pad for easy visibility. Not seeing numbers is a major pet peeve for judges. They either have to ask for the number or not include that rider in the pinning. 

14. Do Not Chew Gum

Gum is very distracting and can be a choking hazard while riding. If you are chewing gum, make sure to remove it before mounting or entering the class. As it is a choking hazard, most riding instructors have a rule against chewing gum in the saddle, too. 

15. Mistreating Horses

This goes without saying. Quickly disciplining a misbehaving horse is one thing, but there is a line between that and excessively correcting. Be careful not to cross it, as it will not be tolerated. The horse always comes first.

This list was originally compiled by SmartPaker Jessica, who took into account her own experience judging multiple disciplines and conversations with other judges. She states, "This list is by no means exhaustive, but they are the most common things I've seen and heard."

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.