By Jeff Nowak, 2018 Downeast Medal Finals Judge
It's been about a week since I got home from judging the Downeast Medal Finals and wanted to share some thoughts with all of you while they're still fresh in my head.
I'm always excited to judge at a horse show I've never been to before. I have no idea how it will go or what I will see. Every show and every horse show manager is different. And while I've known Ginger and Scott for decades and I've seen many Downeast posts on social media, beyond that I was coming in to this year's finals with a completely blank slate. Ultimately, after sitting in the judge's box for three days in Skowhegan, and watching almost 500 trips go around the ring, I walked away feeling like the Downeast Medal Finals was one of the best judging experiences I've had. There are a few specific things that really stood out in my mind that make these finals exceptional...
1. Quality competition:
At the end of the day, judges want to see great riders and horses delivering great performances. It makes the job more fun and it feels good to reward quality with high scores. The fact is, the riders who won the medal finals and derby classes at this year's event delivered a very high level of quality and could be competitive at any of the finals across New England. Winning scores were almost always in the 80's (even the upper 80's!) and most ribbon winners were in the 80's or solid 70's. When that happens as a judge, you know you've seen a good class and you had to actually judge the class, rather than just tally up the numbers based on major mistakes.
2. Real-time improvement:
As a judge, you understand that different exhibitors have different goals when they're riding in front of you. Some riders are hoping to win the class, some riders are hoping to complete the course, some riders have other personal goals that they've set for themselves and their horses. As I sat and watch many of the same horse and rider combinations compete several times in various classes over the course of the three days, I could literally see them getting better over that time. These riders taking what they experienced on the course (good or bad) on Friday, learning from it and applying it to what they did and how they performed on Saturday and Sunday. You could see so many riders learning from mistakes, gaining confidence, getting smarter and making better decisions on course as the weekend went on. As a judge, that's exciting to see and to be reminded that not everyone has to win the class in order to walk away feeling like they've accomplished something.
An emphasis on “showing”:
One thing was very clear from the first horse stepping in to the ring for the first class – the exhibitors and trainers (as well as the management) at these finals take great pride in the “showing” aspect of this horse show. The courses were beautiful and asked a range of challenging questions. The trophies and prizes were first-class. The ring equipment and technology were state of the art. Most riders were turned out perfectly, down to the clean tack and shine on their boots. Horses were well-groomed and beautifully braided. Trainers cooperated and helped us get through the very full schedule. As a judge, those things matter. Not only to help us break a tie when competitors are neck and neck, but to help create the sense that this horse show is a moment in everyone’s year that really matters. It was so clear to me that the Downeast Medal Finals are a truly important event to the people who run it in addition to those who are competing in it. And it helped me feel a big responsibility to bring my best to the judge’s box for every day, class and round that I watched.
4. A vibe like no other:
For as stiff as the competition was, and how seriously everyone approached this event, the thing that may have stood out most to me is the overwhelming sense that everyone WANTED to be at this horse show. There are many times when I’m judging a show where it’s clear people are chasing points, or filling a class, or not as inspired to compete as we hope they would be. This show is different. Show management truly appreciates the exhibitors supporting their event, trainers and riders are motivated to compete at their best, and parents, family and friends are excited to celebrate at the end of the busy show calendar. All of this, on top of a steady stream of fun activities going on outside of the ring create a tone and a vibe that is unlike any other.
It was an honor to be invited to judge at this year’s Downeast Medal Finals and 3 of the most fun days I’ve had sitting in the judge’s box. Congratulations to everyone who competed and a huge thank you to Ginger and Scott for the opportunity to be a part of the 10 anniversary festivities. Here’s to a restful holiday season and a great 2019!