How to Judge a Horse

One Methods:Judging at a Show

Judging a horse for a competition or simply to have fun judging a horse (if you were going to buy one) is a hard job. You need to understand what the horse is supposed to do and how it should move and appear. In the case of a ring event or in the case of a horse to purchase for yourself, you want to make sure you know what you want to get out of riding.

Judging at a Show

Performance (Under Saddle Classes)

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    To begin with, usually only an accredited judge is allowed to judge and award ribbons, but for name's sake, you are more than allowed to judge on the outside of the ring.
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    Look at the horses or ponies as they enter the ring. The class will have specific guidelines, e.g. Hunter Class, Ridden Pony Hack, Led Appaloosa or Western Riding. Make sure you know the guidelines as well as a little about what each rider is being asked to do. Often, a western rider makes a better western judge compared to a jump judge judging a western event.
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    Look at each horse and decide on manners -- which horse do you think is the most well-behaved? When it comes down to a tie, behavior counts!
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    The judge will then say "You are now being judged"; you will then see the riders begin to ride with absolute concentration. As the horses walk around the ring, watch how they move. Are their feet bumping into each other? Which horse is holding his head high, resisting the bit? Are there any horses that are being naughty or seem to be grumpy? Keep these horses in mind (most judges have a steward that writes notes or the judge has a pen and paper writing notes down).
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    As the horse moves into a trot, watch the way the horse moves. Is he moving with ease? Is the horse running through his gate? Which horse seems the most pleasing?
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    When the riders are asked to canter, watch very carefully; each rider asks for and begins to canter; the take off is a good way to tell which horse is listening and which horse is just there to look pretty. Does the horse strike off on the right or wrong lead? How long does it take the horse to establish an easy canter?
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    The horses will be asked to change direction and do the same paces. Watch this lead also, as horses sometimes like one way better than another, and often your first pick may simply not like the lead and his chances are thrown out the window.
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    The judge will then ask the horse and riders to line up in a troop side by side. Here you can tell which horse is well-mannered and who is grumpy around other horses. While the judge is looking at this, she will have a set course in mind to test each horse. Being on the sideline, it's hard to know what the judge is asking of them, but by watching, you can tell if the horse was meant to canter or was meant to halt rather than bolt.
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    In the end, compare your notes and pick your best horse, (1st) then pick the worst two horses (write which one was worse than the other). Now, compare each horse, eliminate the bad and replace with the better (it's very sad when a judge says "No, you're last", while in a ring).
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    Once you have your horses figured out, ask the riders to move their horses into the positions you said.

Halter Classes

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    Even though each class (ex. Showmanship, Hunter in Hand, Stock Halter) has a different set of judging criteria, there are several basic rules and body types.
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    There are three basic body types: Super, Cube, and Tube.
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    Super is the ideal horse (NOTE: there is no such thing as a perfect horse): a long sloping shoulder, short tight back, long underline, long hip, prominent at the withers, sloping (though not overly so) pasterns, deep heart girth, long neck, straight legs, flat clean bone, free true mover (tracks straight, doesn't paddle or rope walk), and a clean throat latch; if you're totally confused by all that, the horse that is easy on the eyes, and seems to flow from part to part, wins.
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    Cube is what I tend to think of as a stereotypical boxy pony; they are long in the back, short in the hip and underline, muttony over the withers, straight in the pastern and shoulder, thick through the throat latch, fine round bone, cow hocked (hocks point towards each other; in order to move correctly, a horse needs to be slightly cow hocked, not overly so though), sickle hocked (the entire rear leg looks like it curved, hence the name "sickle", when viewed from the side), short choppy stride; if none of that made sense, imagine that little pony you once owned that looked like a box with a head and tail.
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    Tube, is the opposite of cube (think excessively long bodied). They are long and weak in the back, rafter hipped, narrow and shallow bodies (it's worth noting you measure body depth by how much body is beneath their point of elbow), overly prominent at the withers, overly long ewe neck (ewe neck means the top of the neck dips down creating the "U"), and rope walked; if none of that made sense, think of a "grocery gator", a horse that after you stick the saddle on it looks like you could put a couple of bags of groceries on behind your saddle.
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    Now that we've covered the hard stuff, here are the bare bones of judging a halter horse.
    • Big beats little (I feel that's pretty self explanatory)
    • Pretty Beats Ugly (Once again I feel that's pretty self explanatory)
    • A whole beats a part (This one's harder - it means look at a horse as a whole; don't kill a horse because he has one splint, kill him if he has many serious faults).
    • And last but not least, A dink is a dink is a dink. It means don't give the most awful ugly dying horse sympathy points.
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    Each class has its own specific areas where more emphasis is placed; there are far too many to list here. However, here are some of the more common ones:
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    Stock horses (Quarter horses, Paints, Appaloosas) place the most emphasis in the muscling, particularly in the gaskin, chest, forearm, and stifle.
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    Arabians place more emphasis on refinement, breed character, and light airy movement. Note: most Arabians I've encountered were cow hocked.
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    Hunters in Hand, one word: movement.
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    I barely scratched the surface on judging - continue to read, attend horse shows, and challenge yourself to be a better judge!

Judging a Horse you are Thinking of Buying

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    If you can get to the horse early, do so, and watch the horse get caught and haltered. If a horse is rude and runs, you know that you will need to wear good runners!
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    Look at the horse without a saddle or bridle, and try not to touch the horse at first, as you want to see how the horse stands without a poke. You should be looking for a good straight back, straight legs and correctly aligned hooves. Look to see how much fat the horse has on its crest (the fatter the crest, the more you will know the horse or pony is strong).
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    Look at the vitals (eyes, nose, teeth, under tail, hooves, ears, belly, etc); you want to make sure it's not sore or has any wounds.
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    Ask if you can ride the horse. If you can, do so. Walk for a short while, and judge the way it moves. Is it even? Is it easy and forward moving? Then ask for a trot. The trot should be easy to ride to, either sitting or rising. What you want, you should get out of the horse. Does the horse seem evenly paced and balanced? If you feel confident, ask for a canter; this pace should be floaty and easy to receive. How long does it take to get the pace? How long does it take to stop?
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    Halt the horse and then go from there.
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    Tailor your questions to the type of horse you want. If you are looking for a Show jumping horse, ask if it has jumped and if it has, ask if you can jump it. If you're looking for a Western Competition Horse, ask to try it over some poles and open a gate. If you only want a pleasure riding horse, make sure it stops when you ask and goes when you ask.
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    (Note: Only do this if you are experienced and have reins.) Drop one rein and see if the horse stops or simply takes advantage of you. You ultimately want a horse that slows but continues as long as you haven't asked for a halt. Most of the time, if the horse is what you want, you can try swinging your legs and see if the horse reacts or is quiet, ride with more reinforced commands, a bit harder squeeze, a lighter or harder pull of the reins, sit floppy in the saddle. The owner may ask why? But you know that if the horse objects to this he is probably not suited for less experienced riders
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    If you love the horse, ask to have it on a week's trial. This way you can ride it every day for the week and really try it, even take it to a competition if appropriate.

For a Breed Class

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    Look at the horse overall. The horse should look nicely proportioned. It will take some time to pick up different things, but patience is rewarding.
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    Know the characteristics of the breed. For pure breed these are usually decided by the breed society.
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    Consider 5 key characteristics: balance, structure, muscle, quality, and breed.
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    Consider 6 balance keys: topline, back, croup/hip, girth, shoulder, and neck.
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    Look for any structure problems:
    • Any kind of travel problems
    • Any kind of deformity
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    Acquaint yourself with 7 additional muscle mass points:
    • Chest or pectoral region
    • Forearm
    • Shoulder
    • Loin
    • Croup
    • Stifle
    • Gaskin
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    Know 6 quality characteristics:
    • Head
    • Throat latch
    • Feet
    • Bone structure
    • Leg position
    • Calmness
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    Keep breed and gender characteristics in mind, such as:
    • Quarter Horses will be heavier built than Riding Ponies
    • Stallions compared to Geldings will be toned and spirited
    • Geldings should be relaxed but well toned and muscled
    • Mares will be fine and have a feminine' disposition.


  • make sure you are not getting too complicated; be patient, simple, and calm
  • know the parts of a horse to see what is correct and what is not
  • Practice judging with an experienced judge; you could get some good pointers.
  • practice judging at home with your horse
  • practice on other animals what good about them and what's bad
  • have a friend to help you


  • Never touch a horse if you don't have permission by handler
  • It's important when working around these magnificent creatures to know your’s and the horses' limits.
  • If the handler says he bites take notice
  • Keep in mind that these animals are dangerous and you should always listen to a horse’s handler.

Article Info

Categories: Horse Showing and Competition