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A Conversation with a Region 8 National Champion Youth Horse Judging Team

Competitive horse judging can seem quite intimidating to those who are unaware what it entails (and sometimes to those who do!). It is also fun and rewarding. To give you a better sense of this strong youth development, team-oriented activity, we want to share an entertaining conversation with the 2020 Arabian National Champion Team representing the Colorado Arabian Horse Club (CAHC) and Region VIII.
There is more to a youth horse judging team than an arena full of silent contestants with notebooks staring intently at a group of horses or young professionals pacing lines or circles whispering to themselves or team photos with an assortment of ribbons and awards that outsiders often see. Horse judging is considered to incorporate all levels of critical thinking and teach youth to analyze and evaluate various breeds and disciplines of equines. They are required to learn the appropriate judging criteria for classes that may be presented at a show or contest and also to verbally defend their placings with a memorized set of oral reasons. Horse judging teaches youth how to evaluate and place horses based on the horse’s conformation in relation to function, it sharpens their decision-making skills, improves their written and oral communication skills, and strengthens their interpersonal relations.
Below are the enlightening and humorous responses from your national champions Maddy Gabel, Jessi Jacobucci, Moriah McQueen, and Lily Thomas.

Kendra: How did you find out about the judging team?
Moriah: I have a story behind mine. I was too scared to join the judging team for a couple of years because they were soooo good. My mom was trying to get me to do it, but I was too scared. Then I wanted to buy this horse and she said if I bought the horse, I would have to do horse judging.
Maddy: I went to school with Lydia who is a retired judging team member.
Jessi: Ha-ha old woman Lydia, that old lady.
Maddy: We were leaving school one day. My mom was with me and Lydia said ‘Hey Maddy, we need a new person for judging, you should join.’ I had been telling her no and my mom looked over at Lydia and said, ‘she would love to join.’
Kendra: How would you describe what competitive horse judging is?
Jessi: I nailed this last time you asked. Ok. In competitive horse judging, contestants are asked to judge 8-10 classes which are split into two divisions of either performance or halter. Performance classes are judged on the horse and rider’s performance where halter is like a horse beauty pageant. After classes are judged, contestants are asked to defend their placings in a two-minute speech to an official or professional judge. Then scores are added up at the end and the highest score wins.
Moriah: I think she kind of knocked it out of the park so I am just going to leave it there.
Kendra: What was your first thought when you first heard what oral reasons were and that you had to give them?
Moriah: I was honestly really scared. I think I heard Jessi go and she is so good at saying things in her reasons and I was really scared I had to follow up to her. That was definitely my first reaction.
Jessi: When I first started doing livestock judging when I was about 8 and I didn’t know what reasons were, but I was given a quick crash course right before the contest. Then I got in the reasons room and talked about how a cow’s tail was really fluffy. After about five years of livestock judging, I moved in to horse judging and was told to be nicer to them.
Kendra: How much ahead of the contest was the crash course?
Jessi: About 10 minutes before.
Maddy: My first thought when I heard a set given was ‘oh no.’ My second thought was my mom sucks.
Kendra: It got better once you learned about reasons after a year or two, right?
Maddy: The first few weeks I loved judging and was super excited. Well, that is not when you go over reasons so by then I couldn’t get out.
Kendra: What has surprised you the most about horse judging?
Moriah: I was really surprised at how hard it was. I went into it thinking it was really easy and that ‘oh, I’m a horse person, I can obviously do this.’ But I was surprised at how hard it is and how much there is to it.
Jessi: I was surprised that the scored classes are the easier ones.
Maddy: The most surprising part was being able to look at all the classes and think there are so many things that there is no way you will be able to condense all that into an absolute knowledge of horses. You learn hunter and western pleasure and you think it is a lot. Then you switch breeds and there is more!
Kendra: What has become your favorite thing about horse judging?
Jessi: Unpopular opinion, reasons! I like going in there and talking a class I placed completely backwards and convincing them that I see what I see.
Moriah: I like horse judging as a whole so it is hard to decide just one thing. The thing I have enjoyed most is definitely the friends you form through it and the memories; how fun it is and the great experiences.
Maddy: I like judging as a whole like Moriah but I think my favorite part of judging is watching high quality horses.
Kendra: What has been the biggest challenge?
Jessi: I think getting over prejudices I have when judging. There is a certain look I would like for a certain class but maybe that look doesn’t have the rest of the qualifications. Sometimes getting past ‘oh, that horse is really fancy!’ and looking to see if he has manners also.
Moriah: I have two challenges. Jessi’s is definitely one of mine because you do form your own opinion of what you like, and horse judging teaches you to take a non-biased approach. That’s challenging and I constantly remind myself to look at the class for what it is and not let my bias play in. For me, I think everyone knows this, I have a hard time trimming down and getting to the point with my reasons. So, focusing on what needs to be said, saying it and getting out.
Kendra: What is something you are always going to remember?
Moriah: Wear lip-gloss.
Lily: Count your spins.
Jessi: Go with your gut.
Maddy: You are not always going to be right. Sometimes you have to live with your decisions like when you place a class wrong. I think that’s healthy. ‘Ok, I made the wrong decision and probably shouldn’t have done that.’ But fake it. Pretend you know what you’re doing. Go give a set that is backward. Live with your decisions. Dive headfirst because that is the only way you’re going to get through it.
Kendra: What is your last thought right before you walk in the reasons room?
Maddy: Deliver!
Jessi: I need to have an empty head with no thoughts before I go into reasons. I clear my mind.
Lily: I asked the reasons taker if I could go get my jacket and he said no! Like I had to give my set right then. Without my coat?! It was so weird.
Kendra: Did you even give a good set?
Lily: Probably not.
Jessi: No, she needed her coat!
Kendra: And her lip-gloss.
Lily: Oh, I had my lip-gloss on.
Maddy: Lily, if it makes you feel better…last year at Arabs I was up quicker than I thought I’d be so they kind of grabbed me and shoved me in a reasons room. I realized I didn’t have my coat on. The judge kept looking at me and I could tell he was looking for my number, so I told him. Afterward Kendra asked how it went and I said ‘oh, I had a Lily moment.’
Kendra: What have you learned that you think will benefit you in the future?
Jessi: Confidence
Maddy: Critical thinking
Moriah: How to make decisions and defend what you believe
Lily: Memorization
Kendra: What is a challenge of being on a team?
Maddy: Comparing yourself with others, for me. An example is we all give very different sets, and it doesn’t mean one is better or worse than others. I am super short and to the point and Moriah has these big, beautiful sentences. I think ‘well maybe I shouldn’t be so short and yelly.’ It’s hard but you can’t compare yourself to others.
Moriah: I agree with Maddy. It’s funny she mentioned my sets because I actually have to watch myself with Maddy. I think ‘oh wow, she can get to the point and say it in a really pretty way.’ I definitely agree it is hard not to compare yourself to others especially when you are listening to other sets. 
Kendra: What is something you have faced that you feel you have overcome?
Jessi: Not fidgeting during a set of reasons. Also breathing. 
Moriah: Horse judging has helped me with my confidence whether it is making decisions or talking in front of someone or being confident under pressure. Horse judging has helped my confidence more than anything I’ve ever done.
Kendra: If you were talking to someone who is interested in horse judging, what would you tell them?
Maddy: Horse judging is not an easy thing to do. It will challenge you in many ways you don’t expect but I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I couldn’t imagine where I would be without it.
Jessi: From a horseperson talking to a horseperson, I will say there is nothing that will improve your riding and your showing than learning exactly what the judges are looking for and why it is how it is. It broadens your horizons and shows you things you hadn’t known before. It will inspire different paths.
Lily: I would say they should do it. It is really fun and community building. There are a lot of opportunities that come with it. 
Kendra: What is something you want to share about the team?
Maddy: My favorite part of the team is that you can show up to judging in the worst mood and I always end up leaving with my guts hurting. Everyone manages to make me laugh. They make a joke out of anything. We end up having the most fun even if we are tired. Also, I hear others say ‘oh man, you travel with a team of all girls. That must be so dramatic and catty.’ And there is none of that. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten in a fight with any of my teammates. I have never had drama with any of them. I think that is probably one of the best things ever…I’m always laughing and never been mad at any of you. I feel like Rachel and Kendra would not tolerate that. If someone was being catty, I feel like you guys would lock us in a hotel room until we worked it out.
Jessi: The best inside jokes come from slap happy reasons at 10 p.m. the night before the contest. No matter what team you are with, many jokes will come from being very slap happy giving your last set of reasons before the contest.
Maddy: What, like ‘he was inconsistent with his consistency’?
Jessi: Ha-ha don’t attack me like this, Maddy!
Moriah: I would agree with Maddy. Everyone is a lot of fun to be around. I thought horse judging would be serious and game on all the time, which it is, don’t get me wrong. But we have plenty of fun. I was also really surprised about the meme page. That really added the icing on the cake.
Lily: My favorite thing about this team in particular is how we can all be ourselves. We don’t each have to fit into a persona, we can just be ourselves. That is fun because some teams you have one annoying person and one person who starts the drama. We can all just be ourselves and like each other at every point of our personalities.


Co-Coach Kendra McConnell’s Summary


Participating in county, state and national contests supports our equine industry and encourages our talented and driven youth to continue in the equine world. These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities provide connections which have proven beneficial to our members in their futures as they tackle other projects and activities, begin their collegiate careers and emerge into adulthood. Competing at a national event offers these youth a chance to further their knowledge of horses, evaluate high quality animals, live, and compete with and against their peers, improve their public speaking and critical thinking skills and be exposed to national level events which may influence their future educational, career and lifestyle decisions. Further, these competitive events draw college recruiters who frequently speak with our team members and often offer scholarship opportunities and professional connections. 
The team’s national championship in 2020 marks the 19th win for this team at the U.S. Arabian & Half-Arabian National Championship Show since 2000. We are grateful for the support and encouragement from CAHC and Region VIII and are always looking for new members to join this impactful program.
Submitted by Kendra McConnell, CAHC/Region VIII Horse Judging Team co-coach,

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