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From the Center of the Ring

Learn from Judge Kelli Marie Wainscott

Kelli judging a class

On the quest for the blue ribbon, equestrians spend countless hours in the barn and in the saddle preparing for the next big horse show. Attending clinics, taking lessons, and practicing until everything is perfect, we want to be as prepared as possible. In order to make your competitions run as smoothly as possible, it’s also important to know what the judge is looking for and how you can stand out from the rest of the class. We spoke with Kelli Marie Wainscott, of Chesterfield, MA, to help us understand her experience and gain valuable insight on a judge’s perspective. 

Kelli has been judging for nearly 20 years, and she holds a handful of judge’s cards including a Massachusetts 4-H Fitting and Showmanship card, a New England 4-H A Card, and Pony of the Americas (POA) card, in addition an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and American Paint Horse Association (APHA) Professional Horsemen’s Certificate. In addition to her extensive judging resume, she coaches the Western Riding team at Mount Holyoke College and is a leader of the Hampshire County 4-H Cavalry Horse Club.  She also is an approved Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) and Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) Judge, judging competitions throughout the school year for these associations. 

Kelli is also actively involved with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) as a coach

The Cheshire Horse: Why did you choose to get your judge’s card?

Kelli Marie Wainscott: I grew up riding and showing horses my entire life, and there was never a question whether or not I wanted to be a judge. I think the biggest reason that I wanted to become a judge had a lot to do with the interactions that I have had with other judges. I had some positive interactions, but they were not super frequent. As a horse show exhibitor, I often left horse shows with a lot of questions; sometimes I was frustrated that I didn’t place.

My idea was that I would learn as much as I could about judging, and make my career as a horse show judge as educational as possible. I wanted the riders that rode under me to understand why they placed the way that they did.

So, all in all, the main reason that I became a judge was because I wanted to better the industry. 

Kelli with a competitor

TCH: What was the process of getting your judge’s card like?

KMW: Starting out the process, I was nervous, but I knew that I wanted to be a judge which helped encourage me through the seminars, clinics, interviews and tests. Throughout the process of getting your judge’s card, you are surrounded by people who have the same ideals as you; you all want to make the industry better.

In general, judging clinics and seminars are very welcoming environments. There is a huge range, with everyone from teenagers auditing to older, experienced judges who are there to renew their cards.

You can learn a lot from the people who are running the program; it’s a great networking time. I feel like right now, the industry is struggling, so these seminars are a great time to talk about what works and how to drive up numbers. As judges, we want to help the people that are putting on shows so that horse showing can continue to be sustainable.

Kelli embraces being surrounded by like-minded horse people

TCH: What has been your most memorable judging experience?

KMW: There have been many. So many of my experiences are good; I enjoy the job and the experience. I would have to say, one event that continues to inspire me is when I went up to a girl, probably about 10 years old, at the end of the class and struck up a small conversation with her. I explained to her why she placed the way that she did and what she could do to improve her ride. She was remarkably polite with me and seemed to value my feedback.

At the end of the day, her mom approached me, practically in tears. Come to find out, this young lady was autistic and people were often hesitant to talk with her because she was difficult to hold a conversation with. In fact, she rarely even spoke to people that she didn’t know. But, for whatever reason, she was comfortable enough to interact with me. That moment made me realize that we truly never know what someone else is going through and the challenges that they face.

It’s funny that my favorite horse show experience had nothing to do with ribbons. By reaching out to this child I was able to encourage her to improve her riding. You truly never know the impact that you have on people as a judge, but I make it a point to connect with the riders if I am able to do so.

TCH: What do you wish more people knew about being a judge?

KMW: I think the biggest thing that I wish people understood is that we are human and truly cannot see everything that happens in the show pen. We might miss a wrong lead or the wrong diagonal, we might miss a big mistake; but know that we are placing the class as fairly as possible. As a judge, I want to do the best job that I can do for the horse show exhibitors and management. I try to see everything that is happening in the ring, but sometimes that just isn’t feasible.

As a competitor, you can have a terrible ride and win, or the best ride of your life and not get a great ribbon. If you have questions about your placing or want to know ways that you can improve your ride, you can always talk to the judge. I promise that we don’t bite! We take notes all day, and truly want to see you improve.

TCH: What really stands out to you as a judge?

KMW: From the moment that the riders enter the ring, I can tell how much effort they have put into themselves and their horse. First impressions are really important and long-lasting. Is your horse well groomed and well turned out? Did you take the time to clean your tack and your boots? If you’re riding hunt seat, is your horse braided? All of these things play a role in your appearance and how prepared you look to the judge.

Another thing that I really notice is how the riders conduct themselves in the ring. I don’t think riders realize how much facial expressions play into your ride. If you mess up, like miss a lead, don’t let your face portray the mistake. I love it when I see riders move past their mistakes and continue to ride through the class with a pleasant look on their face and positive body language. No one needs to look miserable, no matter how bad their ride is; we are all lucky enough to be at a horse show!

Another thing that sticks out to me is how you talk to me and your competitors. How you communicate really stands out to a judge. Courtesy and sportsmanship are essential.

I think that those are the biggest things that stand out to me: turnout, how you treat your horse, and how you treat those around you.

TCH: What tips do you have for competitors? 

KMW: Educate yourself. If you are going to show, do your homework. There are so many great resources about class specifications and competing as a whole that are available to equestrians now. Be as prepared as possible and know as much as you can about what the judge is looking for.

There are many ways to find information about how to better your ride: books, educational videos, blogs, and social media all offer great ways to educate yourself and learn more. Judges are another great resource, especially during the off season. We are accessible, involved in the industry, and want to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us and ask questions.

The riders that are successful, do their homework and work hard to succeed.

TCH: You mentioned social media; do you feel as though social media has changed the judging landscape? 

KMW: There are certainly pros and cons to social media, just as there is with anything. As judges we need to conduct ourselves in a professional manner and make sure that we are careful about what we post and what we comment on. I actually know of a judge who lost his judge’s card due to comments he made on social media.

But social media can be a really positive thing. Social media has brought the horse world together and allows us all to be a bit more connected. The camaraderie and excitement that it can build is incredible.

On the negative side of social media, anyone can say anything, a lot of times without the supporting details to back it up. I have seen first-hand shows that have been featured in a negative light without posting all of the facts; this can really hurt the show and the industry as a whole.

I don’t think social media has made my job of judging harder, I’ve been lucky. People who I come in contact with and have any sort of disagreement with my judging have been gracious enough to bring it up privately.

As judges, and as equestrians, we just need to be very careful about how we portray the equine industry on social media.

TCH: What parting tips would you leave for aspiring judges?

KMW: You won’t know until you try! If you want to see what it feels like to be in the middle of the ring, just ask. Many judges will let you scribe or learner judge with them. Pick a few local and non-local horse shows and learn as much as you can from the judge while you become familiar with this new horse showing perspective. Every judge has their own method; learn from them.

This new perspective may also cause you to have a more pleasant competitive experience. I actually started enjoying horse showing more, after I started judging. I know what the judge is looking for and I am now able to focus more on my ride because I have experienced the view from the center of the ring.

Judging has given Kelli a new perspective on horse showing as a competitor

Learn more about Kelli Marie Wainscott and her admirable endeavors on the Triple R Ranch website.

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