Equestrian Life

What I Learned From Watching A Judges Clinic

Recently I attended a Judge’s Clinic held at Copper Hill Stables in nearby Colts Neck, New Jersey. The judge, Suzanne Hehn, is a local USEF “r” rated judge, and has been a fixture at New Jersey horse shows for many years. The premise was to give equestrians feedback on what the judge is really looking for in both Equitation and Hunters. Instead of ribbons, Sue Hehn provided each rider with detailed feedback on their rides.

Copper Hill Stables hosted a Judge
Copper Hill Stables hosted a Judge’s Clinic in February.


The clinic had classes from x-rails up to 3 feet and each class was run like a typical horse show. A great warm up to the season. The weather was perfect- sunny and 50 degrees- not bad for mid-February in New Jersey. A lot of barns came to participate and learn.

Suzanne Hehn, a USEF
Suzanne Hehn, a USEF “r” judge, provides detailed feedback to the riders in lieu of ribbons.

As those of you who know me, or have followed my blog, I do not usually compete in horse shows. The very thought gives me anxiety and it’s a personal choice. So why was I interested in going? Good question. I LOVE to learn. Always. Now mind you, I have shown before and attended many running registration, announcing, grooming, massaging, you name it. So this time I went to listen and learn, and practice my photography.

My Main Takeaways From the Day

Warm Up

Schooling on the flat and over the jumps is ideal to warm up yourself and your horse. There is a lot of waiting around at a show and muscles can tighten and go cold. At the same time this gives you an opportunity to get used to the ring, the jumps, and working in the same space with other horses/ riders. Seems like a no brainer, but it is important.

Clinics and schooling shows are great ways to introduce green horses to new experiences.
Clinics and schooling shows are great ways to introduce green horses to new experiences.

Use Your Corners

There are many ways you may have heard this over the years whether it is “use your corners”, “use the whole ring” or as Sue Hehn will say to break the monotony, “use all your real estate”. This show was for hunters and equitation- use your corners. You are not being timed like in the jumpers. Give your horse a chance to see the jump, be straight, and get your rhythm. Set yourselves up for success.

Check Your Diagonal

When you are posting the trot, not having the correct diagonal is a killer. So when your trainer shouts for the umpteenth time during training to “check your diagonal”. Listen. I can tell you that it has become second nature to me over the years. After a decade away from horses, the first time I trotted I automatically checked my diagonal. It should be as easy as breathing.

Get the Correct Lead

Work with your horse on leads at home. And do NOT let them cross canter from behind. A wrong lead will get noticed. BUT, if you catch it and fix it quickly- you have a shot. We can’t all have horses with auto changes. So work with your horse. Learn what the correct lead feels like and how to do a flying lead change.

Have Contact

Keep consistent contact with your reins. You should be able to feel your horses mouth like a handshake, with no slack or pull when you are properly positioned. You are having a conversation with your animal.

Gauge Your Distance

Try not to chip- according to Sue Hehn she would rather see your horse take the jump a little long then chip it. Better yet- use the whole ring and get your rhythm so you have the correct strides.

Shhh, it’s Quiet Time

Don’t talk to your horse so the judge can hear. This is my favorite. I talk- A LOT. During tacking and training I talk to my horse, after all we are partners. In training a lot of my feedback is vocal even when it shouldn’t be- usually I don’t even realize I’m doing it. But under no circumstances should the judge be able to hear me in the ring.


In Hunter classes, crops are technically allowed- but use is NOT recommended. The judge wants to see an efficient rider. How you handle your horse is more important than having a pretty smile. Does your horse respond to your leg? Does your horse half-halt and come back when asked? But if the judge can hear you whack your horse with a crop or you use it inappropriately (more than 3 times in succession), you are getting penalized.

In the End

There are so many things to think about during a horse show that it can make your head spin. Thus, my anxiety as I am too much in my head often as a rider, and talk about this some in Riding Through My Winter Funk. Some are given- you are marked down or excused for breaking stride, refusal of a jump, or forgetting your course. But there so many details, most of which I need to keep working on.

It was great to watch the riders and horses, and then hear the judge’s feedback on their trips. Unsurprisingly, the judge’s comments mimic those of the trainers on the sidelines. So the takeaway from this should be to listen to your trainer and practice, practice, practice. You never stop learning. Me? Knowing what I have to do, and actually pulling it off are two different things. Thank you Suzanne Hehn and Copper Hill Stables for hosting “In the Judge’s Eyes”.

To hear more about my return as an adult to the equestrian life, subscribe to my blog and follow my series, Confessions of a Timid Rider.


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