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Reflections of an Amateur Fence Judge

Michael Hillman

I'm a 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 cutting.

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 number dialed.

"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.

After carefully 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 course.

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 fun.
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."

I'll 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.

Until the 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!

Read other stories by Michael Hillman

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman