Reflections of an Amateur
little embarrassed to admit it, but 15 years after being
introduced to the eventing world, I finally got around
to fence judging. It all began the Friday before the
most recent Fair Hill event. Having pulled my horse out
of the competition a week earlier due to an injury, I
was looking forward to a weekend off. 'Off' being
relative of course; my wife's 'honey do' list by now was
over a yard long and my fields were in dire need of
Like a true eventer,
however, I couldn't resist stopping by to check out the
course. As I got out of my car, I was greeted by Denis
Glaccum, the event organizer, with a "Good timing, Mike,
you saved me a call. Can you fence judge on Sunday?" I
began to rack my brain for an excuse that would pass the
red face test. Denis must have realized what I was
thinking and beat me to the punch: "If you don't, I'll
tell your wife about you and that blond last fall."
I stammered, "Blond? What
blond?" Knowing that he now had my undivided attention,
Denis' smiled broadened "It doesn't matter. There are so
many to choose from. I know you're innocent and you
know, but how about your wife? Remember, I've known her
twice as long as you, so who do you think she will
believe? Now, do you want to spend Sunday fence judging
or explaining your life's peccadilloes to your wife?" My
diatribe on the evils of blackmail fell on deaf ears.
Instead, Denis calmly remarked, "I'm sure you're guilty
of something, so are you going to fence judge or do I
call your wife?" I mumbled a few choice words under my
breath as he reached for his cell phone. But when he
actually started dialing my home, it began to dawn on me
that I did have a responsibility to give something back
to the sport. My responsibility became clearer with each
"O.K., O.K. I'll do it.
What time do I need to be here?"
"7:30 sharp. And bring
along 2 or 3 others." With his victory now complete,
Denis headed off, spying another victim.
Surprisingly, I found
myself looking forward to fence judging. Though the 7:30
am briefing did cut 6 hours out of my planned Sunday
morning sleep-in, it was still better than competing.
Besides, how bad could fence judging be? All fence
judges do is sit around in lawn chairs sipping
Strawberry Daiquiris, and working on their tans, right?
It even occurred to me that with the idle time between
horses, I'd have plenty of time to write my long overdue
US Event Horse story.
The first inkling that my expected day of leisure might
be a pipe dream came to me as I awakened to the sound of
pouring rain. The forecast varied from 'sunny and hot'
to 'hurricane force winds and torrential downpours',
depending upon what station I listened to, so I packed
for any contingency.
Unfortunately, however, I
somehow managed to forget the absolute essentials of
fence judging: good gin and tonic water.
Upon arriving at the
event, I joined Denis' other 'volunteers' for the
briefing. The group was quickly divided into three
groups: first-timers, those who had fenced judged
before, and eventers. Sadly, there were only three
eventers in the group. We listened attentively as Denis
explained the rules and our roles and responsibilities.
Surprisingly, I did pick up a few things I hadn't heard
of before: like abuse of a horse is considered anything
over three hits, a data point well worth noting.
Following the briefing,
fences were assigned. Like a ghoul at a stock car race,
I asked for the water complex, which three weeks before,
had unseated many a rider.
Denis grinned. "You want
the water complex? O.K. Do you know CPR?"
"Uh, yeah, sure."
"O.K. Show me."
I began my selection
process from among the nearby girls. "No, Mike,
demonstrate it on me." Needless to say, as Denis
prepared to lie down, the barnyard complex began to look
better and better.
positioning my lawn chair, I headed down to inspect my
fence: a two-element combination consisting of a narrow
gate followed by three strides to a large corn feeder.
The near non-stop rain over the past nine days had made
the ground slick and deep. I lost no time in calling for
stone dust to be spread.
The cross-country phase
began on time, and the horses came like clockwork every
two minutes. Any thought of typing out a story on my
laptop during the idle time was quickly forgotten when
the sixth horse slipped and fell in front of me. I found
myself suddenly thinking as a rider. How would I feel
about jumping out of that footing? What would I want
somebody to do for me if I were riding? Already knowing
the answer, I began to shovel stone dust and fill in
holes non-stop for the remainder of the division like a
man possessed. Every subsequent rider jumped clean.
At the end of the
intermediate division, I turned my attention to the
preliminary jump and had just called for more stone dust
when the technical delegate stopped by to inspect it.
Being at the bottom of a long sloping hill, the ground
around it was completely saturated and deemed unsafe. I
had to agree with the decision to remove it from the
Before I could head off to
the coffee wagon (again), Denis reassigned me to the
Coffin Complex. It was located far out in a field, away
from everything and everyone--a welcomed 'relief' after
having just finished my fourth cup of coffee.
I fully expected nothing
less then three hours of sheer boredom, based upon how
easily the coffin had jumped in an event three weeks
earlier. The fact that it was fence #13, however, should
have told me otherwise. As it would turn out, at least
one quarter of the riders had problems at the fence,
including three falls, two run-away horses, four
eliminations, and twenty or so stops. My knowledge of
the rules was quickly put to the test when one of the
first riders veered to the left over the ditch and
missed the 'C' element. My biases as a rider allowed me
to accept that the horse had never been presented to
'C', and had the rider circled around 'C' and jumped
from the right, I would have considered her clean.
Instead, she circled to the left and crossed her tracks
- twenty penalty points.
Later, while talking to
Denis and the TD, a horse spooked as it approached the
fence. Watching the rider circle, Denis asked me how I
would call it. Again, I gave the benefit of the doubt to
the rider. The spook and subsequent circle occurred a
good 100 feet in front of the fence, which was now
surrounded by tractors and cars. My belief in the
correctness of my call was reinforced by the ease at
which the horse and rider negotiated the fence when they
regrouped. During this conversation, the TD had remained
quiet, but upon my scoring the rider as clear, she
offered her opinion that she would have called it a
refusal, feeling that the horse had been presented. For
the next half-hour, the TD gave me a one-on-one lesson
on the finer points of judging when a horse is
considered presented, insights that will serve me well
as a competitor.
With my own horse's
performance through the coffin still fresh in my mind,
my fence judging position gave me a chance to get a good
look at my competition. For the better part, the
preliminary riders looked pretty knowledgeable, though
some were obviously new at this level. One rider
approached the fence barely cantering and I could see
the stop coming.
Turning around for a
second try, the rider did nothing to educate the horse
to the fact that stopping was unacceptable. Needless to
say, the second attempt met with the same outcome as the
first. While the combination successfully jumped it the
third time, they were eliminated at the next fence. As I
watched him leave the course, I wondered what the
outcome would have been had he been more aggressive.
Throughout out the day, I
often found myself about to 'cluck' for those who looked
headed for trouble, but somehow managed to always bite
my tongue. I found it hard to tell someone they were
eliminated, even harder to watch them leave the course
dejected and disappointed. I've been there and it's not
Just as the preliminary division concluded, the rain,
which had subsided for an hour or two, began again. By
now, I had pretty much had it with the radio
communications. In the morning briefing, we had been
instructed that our radio communications were to be
short and sweet. "Just say the number of the horse,
clear or had a stop, and what your fence number is.
Don't babble or tie up the line."
admit, when someone looked great, and the line was
clear, I added a commentary, but some couldn't resist
adding their own play-by-play for every horse, i.e.
'Number 73 flew effortlessly and with grace, " etc.
Unfortunately, the unnecessary chatter soon had its
consequences. Reports were being cut off or not received
at all and it wasn't until the announcer laid down the
law again that things improved. As I watched the last
preliminary horse gallop away, Denis, like a bad penny,
once again appeared and instructed me to hop in. "I'll
bring you to your training fence ... or should I call
your wife?" So much for going home and drying out.
The training divisions
went fairly fast and proved to be a useful training aid
to a novice level rider I had brought with me that day.
Interspersed with the training riders were pros and
semi-pros, so my student got repeated demonstrations on
how to--and how not to-- jump a fence. As we drove home
that afternoon, she remarked that she now understood
what I meant by sitting back in front of a fence. If she
learned only that, it was a day well spent.
As the last horse crossed
the finish flags, the announcer thanked all the
volunteers and specifically singled out the fence
judges. As a competitor, I can't begin to count the
number of times I've heard the announcement, yet never
given it a second thought. This time however, it meant a
lot. Looking back on the day's events, it occurred to me
that many of the fence judges had taken it upon
themselves to do everything they could to make the
footing around the fence safe. We had been ready and
willing to help anyone in trouble. We all had hoped for
the best as each rider approached the fence.
Reflecting on this, I
began to remember the fence judge who I had almost run
over at CDCTA, and realized, like me, he had been
filling in the holes so my horse would not stumble on
his takeoff. I remembered the fence judge who grabbed my
horse after a fall at MCTA and sat with me as I regained
my bearings. And I began to remember the many fence
judges over the years that hooted and hollered
encouragement as I jumped their fences and galloped on.
announcer's parting, I never really appreciated just how
much fence judges have done for me --or the sport. So,
to everyone who has fence judged, a hearty well-earned
thank you. For those who have never fence judged, do so.
It's a learning opportunity that one should not pass up.
More importantly, without fence judges, there is no eventing. So next time you have an opportunity,
volunteer to fence judge. You won't be sorry you did,
and like me, you may even learn something!
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