Fair Hill Part 1: Brain Dead

How to completely fry your brain in one easy step: sign up for a YEH judging workshop. I learned so much that I’m not even sure I can fully absorb it all. My brain is still mush. In the absolute best way possible, of course.

powered by Wawa

On Thursday we met Marilyn Payne and the rest of our group beside the dressage arena, spent some time talking about dressage judging in general, the YEH program specifically, and what they’re looking for. Then we started practice judging, first as a group, and then on our own, followed by a group discussion. I have to say, I don’t think I’ve ever been so interested in watching very basic dressage tests in my life. It was pretty cool to see that most of the time my scores were pretty close to Marilyn’s, though.

god help me
my scores are the big number, MP’s are the small ones in parentheses

The way the YEH stuff works is a lot different from a regular dressage test. They don’t judge the YEH test by each movement, but rather by the overall impression you get as the horse performs it. As you watch the horse perform the test, you’re looking for it’s best possible walk, trot, and canter, and giving a score based on those “best moments”. We also gave an overall score for submission (where obedience and rideability came into play), and the impression of the horse as a potential future 3* or 4* competitor. The dressage portion counts for 35% of the final score.

In the YEH judging, you are truly hunting for talent. Riders who sacrificed brilliance for the sake of accuracy did not do their horses any favors in the scoring. I actually wondered if some of them really knew how the YEH classes are judged and what exactly the judges are looking for. There were many instances where we thought the horse likely had another level of brilliance lurking in there, but the rider just wouldn’t quite be bold enough to show it. You can’t score brilliance if you don’t ever see it.

After we watched several of the 5yo tests, we walked back down to watch some of the conformation portion. We discussed what makes a good event type, things that were particular positives, and things that were particular negatives. The most important part of conformation is type – does it look like the right type of horse to be an eventer? We want something that isn’t too heavy or too light of bone. Something proportionate, with good feet, a good neck set, well-balanced, with correct legs and a strong hind end. You want a horse that looks as if it’s built correctly enough to stay sound at the 3* or 4* level. Of course, while conformation CAN certainly be a predictor of a horse’s future potential, there have definitely proven to be many exceptions. Conformation only counts for 15% of the final score.

Will Coleman and Trakehner stallion Rusticus

After the conformation lecture, we went back to the dressage and this time judged the 4yos. It was more of the same of what we did with the 5yo’s, really searching for that moment of brilliance in each gait and the overall impression of the horse’s potential. It’s hard to really see it in some of these horses, being so young and green, but it almost became a bit of a game to try to find that glimmer of what the horse might someday become.

At the end of the day we compared our group scores to what the actual judges had, and while we were consistently lower than they were number-wise, we pretty much had the horses in the same order. A couple of things raised some collective eyebrows (especially one horse in particular in the conformation section), but overall I think there weren’t many surprises in how the order shook out.

Marilyn of course gave us homework… we were to walk the course for the jumping portion and be prepared with our thoughts/comments by the following morning, and we were to study the materials she’d given us on how the jumping portions are judged. Clipboards, folders, and pens in hand, we marched over to the jumping course to look it over, then lugged everything home and read about what was to come the following day.

walking the 4 and 5yo course

Day 1 was definitely really long, but SO enlightening. As someone who is really interested in young horses, breeding, and the YEH program, what I learned was valuable beyond measure. To be able to sit with someone like Marilyn, in a group comprised mostly of judges, and hear/be a part of these conversations… wow. Just wow. I really think that having a good eye for a horse is super important, and this kind of thing is such a great way to fine tune it. Many thanks to the USEA and Marilyn for the opportunity.

Tomorrow, on to Day 2 (the fun part)!


30 thoughts on “Fair Hill Part 1: Brain Dead

  1. I can testify to her brain ‘deadness;. LOL she was a walking zombie that evening! My head hurt seeing all their homework. 🙂

    And Wawa rules here. Come on, breakfast sandwiches, coffee, gas. All you need under one roof!!


  2. I did Judging Team in 4-H, and it was similar to this type of clinic, although obviously on a smaller scale and not judging eventing. But I did (and still do) find those experienced incredibly helpful to me as a rider.


  3. Sheetz > Wawa

    As a curiosity (not a witch hunt), having 5 year olds jumping Training Level seems like a lot to me. I get that YEH is to find future stars, but since they’re being judged at Training Level heights (I have no idea about the questions), I would imagine their riders probably have them competing at Novice or Training Level concurrently. Last time I was at Fair Hill, I seem to remember there being an award for the best 7 year old at the 2* level. To be eligible for it, I would imagine the horses would have to be actively competing at Training as 5 year olds. What about horse longevity? These seem to be slower growing warmblood types instead of the Thoroughbreds. Does YEH address any of these concerns? Just looking for an education here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually several of the 5yos have already run a prelim or two. That’s a relatively “normal” timeline worldwide (the European 7yo world champs is a 2*, for instance) for a young horse that has been brought up specifically for upper level eventing from the beginning. Many of them start at Training and move up from there. Some horses are mature enough for that timeline, some are not. I think the more important part is how the horse is managed… many of them don’t jump very often at home and do more long trots than gallops for conditioning. When a horse has 3 or 4* talent, it doesn’t take much for an experienced rider to get them prepped for Training or Prelim. They are still quite green.

      I saw a couple of horses that IMO looked over faced… they should probably not have been in the YEH program. For some it’s just too much, usually mentally. For the most part though, it was quite an easy “canter around” course when you’re talking about this caliber of horse.


      1. Absolutely agree with ‘how the horse is managed.’ I would expect the horse’s brain has to be mentally developed enough to be able to handle the work, and that’s probably the most important part of being successful in this program since it is the fast track (though the caliber of horse matters a lot too!). It makes sense that more successful riders would have to jump the horse fewer times per session with less sessions to get the point across (because they know what they’re doing and all). It all makes more sense now. Thanks!


      2. I have always wondered about this too. Are there any numbers on the relationship between score in YEH classes and future eventing potential? It would be a fascinating analysis! Obviously not all horses jumping 3’3″ at five break or break down, and as you said the way they are managed and ridden at home is going to have a lot to do with that. But I would love to see some concrete info on this!


        1. Not yet. Honestly, many of them are sold before they get to the upper levels. Usually if a horse gets to YEH championships it is attractive, rideable, and talented… those are always the first horses to sell. The first horse we’ve sent to Lion for the World Championships on the Turner-Holkamp grant placed 9th in YEH Champs. The majority of the ones that had placed above it had been sold and were either in different careers or were ammy horses by the time they were 7. But that horse (DA Duras, who is now a 3* horse) also placed 9th at Lion, which is encouraging for the quality of horse that the YEH program is producing.

          The fact is that most of these horses will not make it to 3* or 4* level, just by the very nature of them being horses and people being people. The height of the YEH stuff is actually small compared to the US and European Young Jumper programs – those guys jump 1.0m-1.10m in the first half of the year, and 1.10-1.20 the second half of the year. Many horses from the YJ program have gone on to be successful grand prix horses and the program in general has been pretty successful. I would expect the YEH program to produce the same as it gains footing, grows, and matures.


    2. OH I LOVE SHEETZ but we alas have none near by. Went to Hanover with my dad a couple years ago to visit friends and we stopped at one and i was like this is the MOST AWESOME PLACE EVER! 🙂 LOL


    3. I agree with you on this. I personally think 5Yo should not be running training or anything similar, let alone 7 at 2*, but thats obviously my opinion and its not widely accepting considering people run these horses at YEH with little to no concern. I just think its too much too fast. But, people can do what they want. I won’t ever be overtaking my babies like that though.


  4. i’m definitely interested in opportunities to develop an eye for what makes a horse special, or how to judge horses better on their individual and combined qualities and characteristics. not sure the YEH is precisely the program for that, but this really does sound like a great experience all around. it didn’t even occur to me before but now i’m super curious about whether you saw my coach or his girlfriend with their horses (5yo and 4yo respectively) haha


  5. So glad you got to do this! I’m really jealous, I’d love to pick Marilyn’s brain and just follow her thought process about young horses. Did you have any favorites from the championship?


    1. There really wasn’t one in particular that jumped out at me throughout all 3 portions. 2 AM was impressive of course, but I disliked a few minor things about him (not talent related). Quantum Leap and Tropics were probably my favorites, if you’re making me pick favorites. They were perhaps a little greener looking than some of the others but I thought they both had good instincts, ability, and desire to do the job. Luna was a very smart, forward-thinking horse, too. There were several that I would have loved to take home as an amateur horse, though!


  6. Very cool! I’ve scribed for some dressage young horse classes and found listening to the judge’s discussions very interesting, but to actually learn what to look for yourself would be a whole new level.

    I agree about the issue with riders not understanding what the young horse classes are looking for. I’ve seen it myself where the rider is entering an obedient rather than spectacular horse, or riding conservatively. It makes a big difference.

    I’m curious about these collective eyebrow raising things?


  7. I’m really interested in hearing about this, especially since I’ve now got a future event horse in the stable 🙂 Though of course I won’t be competing in the YEH because there’s no way 3′ is on the docket for this year (or 3’3″ next year for that matter) and oh yeah, I have no aspirations of getting to the 3 or 4* level anyways 🙂


  8. That’s interesting that the dressage testing is used more to look for movement and talent than anything else. My impression was that later tests don’t even factor movement into the equation. But I suppose brilliance and talent will still make a test stand out, and certainly the tests at the 3* and 4* levels will be easier for a talented horse with correct movement.

    I’m also curious, are the tests used for the YEH stuff curated to help show off and encourage good movement and allow for moments of brilliance, or do they use other existing tests?


    1. All dressage tests factor gaits and quality into the equation, for sure, all the way up the levels. There is a gait score at the bottom of every dressage test. If anything, it’s more important at the higher levels where things are often separated by fractions of a point… the better moving, more capable horse will score better.

      It’s important in a young horse because you’re looking for something that is very correct, with plenty of ability to perform the more difficult movements. That usually comes more easily to a horse that is more naturally brilliant (unless their submission is terrible or they are improperly trained).

      The YEH classes have their own tests, similar to Novice or Training level equivalent tests but with a few extra things to help show submission and quality of the gaits.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting! I’ve 0 Eventing experience, so my knowledge is based entirely on what I’ve read on blogs and picked up watching it. It does make sense that it would be important to the movements themselves and therefore worth scoring.


        1. Yeah, the gaits really encompass a lot of things – rhythm, impulsion, balance, unevenness or weakness, stiffness, tension, suppleness, elasticity, stride length, impurities like a lateral walk or four beat tendency in the canter, etc etc…which is why they’re so important. It’s not just about a pretty or flashy trot, or a “leg mover”.

          Liked by 1 person

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