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View From the Judge's Box: Was That Abuse or Just the Way Things Are?

View From the Judge's Box: Was That Abuse or Just the Way Things Are?

Melissa Kalember is a USEF R Judge, SAHJA Judge, USHJA Certified Trainer, and Certified Equine Massage Therapist and Reiki I Master. Melissa also serves on the committee for the USHJA Zone 10 and the board for NorCal Hunter Jumper Association. Today she shares her perspective from the judge's booth on the abuse that goes unnoticed at horse shows>


We all know the obvious abuse; excessive whipping, excessive spurring, or extreme seesawing on a horse’s mouth. Those forms of abuse are easily recognizable, but what about other levels of abuse?

In writing column, I invite you to sharpen your awareness and maybe to see things differently. Many levels abuse I feel are not taken as abuse anymore. Instead, people see them as ‘the way things are’ and are setting an unhealthy precedent for our sports and our horses.

When I’m sitting in the judge’s booth, I can’t begin to tell you how much wrong I see, at any level show, from local to high-rated. For example, I so often see horses going in too many classes. I wish you could feel how heartbreaking this is to watch.

In just judging a few shows, I counted several horses doing at least ten flat classes and ten jumping classes, either with the same rider or with multiple riders. Think about it. Flat classes are usually eight minutes each. Eight by ten is 80 minutes of walk, trot, canter. Then, if a jumping class has eight jumps per round and the horse does ten rounds, that is 80 jumps.

Class after class I see these poor horses trying to catch their breath as they walk into the arena waiting to judged again. People get so caught up in themselves, their ribbons and how they look that they literally forget to take care of the four-legged being under them. What is even more heartbreaking in this example is when the horse starts to pick up wrong lead, break to the trot or refuse a jump because he is exhausted, the rider gets mad at the horse and usually hits him with a crop. Sadly, there are no rules (yet), that give the judge any authority to say, ‘stop, too many classes.” I know certain organizations are working on it and some USEF recognized classes do set limits, but there are many steps they must go through before it will be a rule in some disciplines

Humans save the term ‘abuse’ for the extreme, obvious faults, but what about siting on your horse all day at a show? Or riding in a ‘strong’ bit to help you, instead of taking the time to learn how to ride or to train the horse properly?

Again, siting in the judge’s booth, I see many things often enough to write about it, I see riders showing in classes they are not ready for. They either have an expensive horse who humbly packs them around or a heart of gold equine who tries the hardest to help them. Don't get me wrong, We all have to move up a level at some point, but only when we are ready, not just because we want to. There is a difference.

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The hard part about writing this, is there are trainers out there who think they are doing it right, and they are not. As a result, their riders will follow their instruction and not gain the necessary knowledge and feel of rightness. Recently at a show, I watched the trainer take a client’s young, very nice, beautifully- built horse around a course of jumps. I am normally PC with my communication around issues in the equine industry, but this trainer was so obviously not a good ride. Without going into details, I watched this trainer yank, yank, hold, hold, and then huge release over the jumps. I’ve seen this horse before. He’s naturally not a strong horse, but as a youngster he gets excited in the arena. Over, and over, class after class I watched this trainer ride the same way, never looking for a feel or softening from the horses. I felt bad for the horse, especially knowing the trainer was now ‘training’ the horse to go that way in-between and over the jumps.

To prove my point that riders follow their trainers, later that day on Facebook I saw the owner post pictures and write a thank you to the trainer, and boasted about how well the horse did. It’s just hard when people don't see or care, and the beautiful horse pays the price for our ignorance. If you don’t know, ask around. What would be the biggest teacher is if people sat at their show and just watched several classes. Rightness has a feel and a look to it. You will probably recognize it if you take the time.


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Learn more about Melissa Kalember's business and clinic opportunities on Equivont, and check out her other blog posts on her personal blog.