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Reflections of an Amateur TD

Michael Hillman

Over the years, I've fortunately had little opportunity or need to interface with the TD at an event. As a result, my view of them was simplistic to say the least: They OK’d the course and enforced the rules. So when I got a call from the organizers at Full Moon Farm last spring and was asked to be their TD, I accepted. After all, how hard could it be?

A few months later, however, I was asked to judge Dressage at an event, and after walking away from that experience with a newfound understanding of just how hard being an official really was, I began to rethink what it meant to be a TD. During the fall season, I used every opportunity to meet the TD at the events I attended, and asked them for their advice and insights. One of the best pieces of advice I got was, "Always remember that events are first and foremost to be fun and safe. And while rules are rules at recognized events, at unrecognized, the focus should be on learning, not on eliminating."

With this and many other time-tested insights in mind, I set about doing something I had never done before (or so my wife says) -- learning the rules. While I've scanned the rules over the years, I've never really sat down and read them cover-to-cover. What an eye opener! The first thing I discovered was I had been dressing 'inappropriately' all these years. I immediately called my coach.

"Julie, what's this stuff about men not wearing white breeches with black boots?"

"Mike, that issue has been around for a while. White breeches and black boots are not proper hunt attire."

"Hunt attire? I'm not hunting, I'm eventing . . . wait a minute, you knew about this all these years and never told me?"

"Mike, it's not an issue until you go Intermediate. I almost brought it up last year when Kat kept dumping you. I was beginning to feel sorry for Audrey having to get those green stains out. I've found it's easier to hide green stains on darker breeches, but then I thought, well damn, he looks so good in white. . . But with Riker going Intermediate next year, you're going to have to get some different breeches."

Smarting from my ineptitude, I proceeded to ask Ashley, our number-one working student, if she had known this rule. "Sure, doesn't everyone?"

Cassie Frederick, our resident pony clubber and foxhunting expert broke into an uncontrollable grin as I turned for her answer. "If you had been a pony clubber, you would have known that proper event attire is based upon hunting attire, and white breeches are not allowed unless you have brown tops on your boots."

My last hope of finding an ally faded when Bethany added in her two cents: "That's the first thing my first coach ever taught me."

As all three walked away, I heard them mumbling: "And we let him teach us? Why?"

Well, suffice it to say, for the next several weeks I went to bed reading the USCTA rule book, and by the time I headed out to see Full Moon Farm for the first time, I had learned more about the rules then I could have ever imagined.

The Course Inspection

My first duty as a TD, according to the rulebook, was to inspect the safety and suitability of the courses. As the stadium course had not been set up yet, I focused my attention on the cross-country course. Karen and Steve Fulton, the owners of Full Moon Farm, greeted me as soon as I stepped out of the car. I admit, I was immediately taken by their friendliness. It was obvious they were nice people and after chatting with them about our backgrounds, I was sure they would do anything to assure a fun, safe event. During the course inspection, only a few items were identified, most of which were already on Steve's 'to do' list. Having recently seen a rider at another unrecognized event cut in the face by thorns from hanging brambles, I asked that brambles along a path between the second and third fence be cut back. The course's seventh fence, a cordwood, gave me some pause, but after re-stacking the upper tier so the top tilted toward the ground, which also made it much more inviting, I passed the fence.

Near the end of the Novice course was a very small, very inviting jump out of water. I was asked my opinion about adding a second flag for novice riders at the water's edge, thereby having them judged for entering as well as leaving the water. Given that the water was at the end of the course, where most horses are their boldest, and how simple the 'out' was, I thought it was a great idea. Being flagged as an A/B, it might also be the first introduction for many to a combination fence, and thus an opportunity to learn.

Overall, I was very impressed with the design, construction, and layout of all the courses, especially the course for the 'eensy weensy beanies'. Laid out in an enclosed paddock, it was sure to bring smiles to every first time rider.

Overall, Steve and Karen's efforts showed in the quality of the course and made my first duty as a TD a pure pleasure to carry out.

Enforcement of the Rules

After completing the course walk, Karen, Steve and I discussed how strictly we wanted to enforce the rules. While this would not have been an issue of discussion at a recognized event, at an unrecognized event, it's a very important issue because it sets the overall tone of the event. On their Full Moon Farm web site, Karen and Steve had signaled that the event would be run under USCTA rules, and added that only hard hats with chinstraps would be allowed. While this latter decree was a notable goal, I pointed out that hard hats without chinstraps were acceptable for adults in the dressage phase at recognized events. I also pointed out that being it was a starter event, there was a very good probability that a large number of riders would probably not have medical cards or possibly chest protectors, which were rules, and if enforced to the letter, would probably result in the elimination of many.

Both Karen and Steve agreed that what they were looking for was an event where competitors got to learn and have fun, as such, we decided to use errors of omissions as learning experiences, not grounds for elimination. Offenders would be given the benefit of the doubt, and instead of elimination, would have the broken rule explained to them, and then allowed to continue. Only those actually eliminated for cause, i.e., three stops in stadium, three stops at one fence on cross-country, missing a fence, etc., would be marked as eliminated in the score sheets. The finals say on whether a rider would or would not be eliminated, however, would rest with me.


Sunday morning, the day of the event, arrived way too early. After checking that my course changes had been made, I reported to the Dressage Judge, who as I had learned in the rule book, also was the ground jury, and as such, my superior for the day's events. After informing her of my acceptance of the course, we discussed my role during cross-country. Given that she would be preoccupied judging dressage during the day, we agreed that in accordance with the USCTA rules, I was to serve as the ground jury during the cross-country phase. And the event was on.

Being shorthanded, Karen asked me to cover for a late dressage ring steward. I no sooner had assumed my position than a rider bolted by me and tried to enter the dressage ring while another rider was doing their test.

"Excuse me, I'm sorry, you can't go in till this rider is done with their test. You need to wait until the ring steward tells you to go in. But now that you're here, have you had your ‘bit check’ yet?"

"My what?"

"Your bit," I smiled.

"No. Why do you want to do that?"

"It's the rule. If you don't have it checked, you can get eliminated. Have you ever evented before?"

"No, it's my first time, and I'm a little bit nervous, sorry."

I smiled back, and as I checked the bit, I told her the background of the bit check rule. By the time I was finished, the rider in the ring had finished her test. "OK, you can go in now. Have a good ride."

After finishing their test and putting her horse away, she sheepishly approached me.

"Sorry about that," she said, and with a half grimace, half smile, asked, "Is there anything else that could get me eliminated today?"

"Yea lots of things, let me go over them with you. Got a pen?"

It soon became obvious to me that lack of knowledge of the rules was going to be a bigger issue then I had expected. The policy that errors of omission should be used as learning opportunities was going to save many that would have been eliminated at a recognized event.

The dressage steward eventually arrived. Unfortunately, she also lacked the necessary knowledge of the rules. Fortunately, she, like all the others Karen and Steve had recruited to help, was eager to learn, and as such, was a pleasure to work with. The new steward quickly figured out her responsibilities and within a few riders had got the hang of what was and wasn't an acceptable bit and spur. With two great judges, and two able stewards, dressage went off without a hitch.

The First Infraction

I no sooner left the dressage warm-up area than the announcer called me. "We have a rider showing her horse the first fence on the cross-country course. I told her to get away twice, but she is still there."

Hum. . . How was I going to handle this? Showing your horse a fence was a major no, no, and would definitely get you tossed out at a recognized event. But what do you say to a little 10-year-old who hasn't a clue that what she was doing was wrong?

"Excuse me, is your coach here?"


"Is your Mom or Dad here?"

"Yes sir, they are right over there."

"Good, will you come with me please."

The parents, who where busy browsing one of the event's trade tents, were unaware that the announcements to move away from the fence had been directed toward their daughter. Needless to say, they were mortified when they found out that her actions would have been grounds for elimination. After explaining to them the rational for the rule, I asked her "If I let you go, do you promise never to do that again?"

She nodded yes so fast that I thought her head would fall off. At the end of the day I saw her with a ribbon in her hand and a smile from ear to ear. It was impossible not to smile back.


The event's stadium course had not been set up when I walked the cross-country course on Friday, so I inspected it an hour before stadium was to begin. Set in Full Moon Farm's nice sand arena, I found it a very inviting course. Karen and Steve had indicated to me that they would like to incorporate a small Liverpool for the Novice riders. After listening to their description of it, I concurred that it would add a nice 'big event' feel without unduly complicating what was otherwise going to be an easy course. Their description was accurate: it was an inviting Liverpool. Based upon the giggles of many riders recanting to their friends how boldly their horses had jumped it, they were successful in their efforts to create the 'big event feeling'.

Karen and Steve had also incorporated an old style Swedish oxer (one with an equal number of rails on both sides) in the course, which at first gave me pause. But when I realized that it was to be jumped both ways, I knew that this type of oxer, as opposed to a square oxer, was much more rider friendly. Given the space limitations in the arena, I found myself complementing Karen on her ingenuity. The oxer looked more like a solid X then anything else and got my nod of approval.

The simplicity of the stadium course helped me to decide how I was going to handle requests to go cross-country from those eliminated in stadium. Years ago I had witnessed first hand the results of allowing someone to go cross-country who had been eliminated in stadium. As far as I was concerned, if someone couldn't make it around this simple stadium course, they had no business going cross-country. There was going to be no exception.

(While the Liverpool and Swedish Oxer seemed a good idea at the time, the incorrectness of this belief was pointed out to me during a peer review of this article. OK, OK, during a review of this article by someone much more experienced then me. For those wishing to learn why, I've included their comments in the Hindsight section.)

Errors of Omission

Following my inspection of stadium, I headed off to watch the first few horses warm-up for stadium. I no sooner turned in the direction of stadium warm-up than I saw a rider jump the vertical warm-up fence in the wrong direction.

"Excuse me. Can I talk to you for a minute?"


"Are you aware that in eventing, you can only jump fences in one direction?"

"Yea, but this is warm up, I didn't think it mattered."

"The rule is especially important in warm up. Let me tell you why . . . "

Once again, with a promise that the error would never be repeated, I set the rider on their way. By the end of the day, I had repeated this discussion no less then 10 times, and thanks to several experienced riders and coaches who helped the stewards police the warm-up arenas, probably twice that number now know the basis for this rule.

While for the most part those breaking rules were courteous and thankful, there were some exceptions. Having years before made the mistake of using a running martingale without rein stops, I knew just how dangerous it could be. I was therefore on the look out for rein stops. When I approached one rider without them, I was told quite pointedly: "Well I wish you had said something earlier to me, I can't possibly jump without my running martingale."

"I'm sorry, but it's dangerous, and that's the reason for the rule. If the rings get caught over the end of the reins……" Before I could say another word, I was abruptly cut off. "How come they never said that to me at any other event?!"

"I'm sorry, I can't explain what other events have and haven't done. But at a recognized event, jumping with a running martingale without rubber stops on your reins would be grounds for elimination." She didn't want to hear it and marched off in a huff.

Another rider using a standing martingale also tried to fall back on the "I've been to lots of other events and no one has stopped me from using it" excuse. Fortunately for me, her father was standing near by and intervened before she finished.

"Thanks for the warning, we'll take it off right away," he said.

"But Dad, they let me use it at horse shows!"

"Honey," her father said, "This is not a horse show; this is an event. Events have different rules, and you should learn them if you want to event. Now take the martingale off."

"But Dad!!!!"

But Dad wasn't biting. "Take it off, now!"

I thanked the father, and left, quite satisfied that that rider's evening would be spent with the rule book in hand.

As I noted earlier, with the rare exception, those making errors of omission were courteous and pleasant. As the day wore on, I also found myself admiring parents who listened closely as I talked to their offspring, and later approached me with either thanks, or requests on where they could learn more about the rules of eventing. It was apparent that most everyone, from riders to parents, wanted to learn. Karen and Steve had accomplished at least one of their goals -- that of making the event one for learning.

Martingale issues ranked second in the list of errors of omission noted that day (9), just behind jumping warm-up fences backward (10). Inappropriate spurs and whips (3), over eager parents clucking at fences (3), and a saddle seat cover rounded out the list. All thankfully, were resolved without elimination.

The Cross Country Fence Judge Briefing

On the Friday before the event, I was asked if I would conduct the briefing for the fence judges. Figuring I could pull something off the net, I agreed. Unfortunately, the USCTA web site had nothing on the topic, so I was left to my own resourcefulness.

Fortunately that evening, my wife and I were having all the working students over for dinner. Given that they had all fence judged at least once somewhere this year, I was sure I would get an exhaustive list of do's and don't from them. Boy was I mistaken.

"Ashley, what instructions did you get when you fence judged?"

"Hum……the usual. You know, what a stop was, how to record it. The usual."

"OK. That was a lot of help. Bethany, can you add anything to Ashley's bountiful load of insights?"

"No, she pretty much said it all."


"Well……They need to know what is and isn't an elimination."

"OK. Cassie, can you add any words of wisdom?"

"I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"

Just then Ashley jumped in and saved the day. 'Ooh, Ooh, I know. Tell them to watch out for coaches giving unauthorized assistance, like you did at my first event that got me eliminated. Remember?"

Needless to say, I finished the list of instructions by myself.

The actual briefing went smoothly, thanks to the quality of the people Karen and Steve had recruited. In all my years, I've never seen a better bunch of dedicated fence judges. While only two of them had any prior experience, what the others lacked in experience they more then made up for in eagerness to learn and attentiveness. Methodically we worked our way down the gambit of items, from what was and wasn't a stop (which I discovered, depended upon whether the fence had height or not), to the rules governing falls, unauthorized assistance and cruelty to horses. In each case the questions were insightful and at times so lucidly worded that I felt like I was briefing Nobel laureates.

While I thought I had covered everything, I quickly realized I had failed to address one very important aspect of their job, the administrative side. Fortunately for me, Karen had been listening to my briefing, and just as I was about to dismiss them, Karen jumped in and saved the day. Karen's directions on how to record what they saw proved its worth throughout the day. When questions were raised, I found that in each case, the fence judge had done such an excellent job in writing down what had happened, that the comment sheets could have been safely put in a time capsule and read with the same result 100 years in the future. The fence judges did a great job, and I can't say enough good things about them. They were so good in fact, they could probably make a fortune if they formed a company and hired themselves out en mass to other events, but then again, that would mean having to pay them with something other than beer.

Eliminations for Cause

Fortunately no one got eliminated in dressage, which as we all know, does happen. Unfortunately, several did get eliminated in stadium. As noted earlier, I've witnessed first hand the disastrous effects of letting someone eliminated in stadium jump run cross-country. After seeing how simple the stadium course was, I felt safe in my belief that anyone who couldn't get around it had no business jumping cross-country. To be sure I had all the facts, however, I decided that I would double-check each of my decisions with the stadium judge, after all, it was quite possible someone could be eliminated for doing something stupid, like missing a fence. After conferring, with the stadium judge, we agreed on this approach, and it was followed throughout the day.

Plans are one thing. It's something completely different when you have to tell someone to their face that they can't run cross-country.

Cross-country had just begun when I was once again called to the control center. The parents of a rider, who knew they needed my permission to run cross-country, had sought me out for just that. Thankfully, they made this difficult task easy. They listened attentively to my explanation for why I would not allow their daughter to go, and politely accepted the decision, asking only if it might be possible to come back at a later date and school the course. While I couldn't speak for the organizer on that issue, I did nevertheless encourage them too follow-up on the possibility.

As if almost an afterthought, the father came back to me and shook my hand. "I know that was a hard decision for you. I have a safety background. I understand why you did it. Thanks. We enjoyed the day. My daughter learned a lot, as did I. See you next year."

His comments made my day.

Fortunately, I only had to tell two others they, too, could not run cross-country. Unfortunately, as I would later learn, several riders who had been eliminated were unaware that they needed permission to run cross-country, and thus never sought me out. The start box, unaware that they had been eliminated, allowed them run.


I've never had much involvement in scoring. The way I've heard it, all the volunteers are made to draw straws and the loser has to do the scoring.

Having stood around once too often at the end of an event waiting for scores to be posted, Karen was bound and determined not to have her participants suffer this inconvenience, and had arranged for a ‘‘ringer’’ for scorekeeper. And what a ringer she was. Dressage sheets were collected so often that riders were almost assured to see their score posted as they returned from putting their horses away after dressage. Under the able hand of our scorekeeper, scoring moved like Swiss clockwork. Near the end of the day, however, I received a call from the scorekeeper for a ruling on how to break a tie. At a recognized event this would have been easy. The closest to optimum time wins. But we didn't keep time. So ties had to be broken by dressage scores.

Thinking the dressage judge had already left, the scorekeeper handed me the two tests in questions. I stood there with the two tests in my hands, racking my brain on how to break the tie. I had once read somewhere a procedure for breaking ties, and while I knew it began by comparing the collective marks, and from there it went to individual movements, the order of what took priority escaped me. Fortunately, or so I thought, I recognized that the tie had come about because one of the riders had had an error. So I gave the first place to the rider without the error. In my mind, a test without an error was the better test.

I had no sooner given my opinion and returned to the grounds when I spied one of the dressage judges. I sought out her opinion.

"Well Mike. Understand, how you break the tie is all up to you. Everyone has a different way of doing it. If it were up to me, I would have chosen the rider who had the error. They had the better test as scored by the individual and collective marks, they just made a mistake."

"Wow," I thought. I had never looked at it that way. We returned to the scoring office and reviewed the test.

"Now if there are no errors, I usually award the top place to the horse with the lower score on gaits."


"Yes. Think about it. The horse with the lower score for gait had to work harder to get the same scores as the horse with the better gait. So you want to give it to him."

"Wow," I thought. And so it went for the next half-hour. I was the beneficiary of years of dressage judging experience. Her insights were enlightening, and for the remainder of the day, I followed her guidelines for breaking every tie presented to me. Given that we were short on ribbons, the scorekeeper didn't even want ties for sixth place; as a result, I had lots of opportunities to break ties!


Based upon the number of smiles I saw at the end of the day, I have to say the event was an unqualified success. But like any activity or process, there is always room for improvement. If I could go back in time, I would suggest a few minor tweaks that would have made it even better and eliminated some causes of confusion.

First, while it is commendable to run an unrecognized event under USCTA rules, and frankly anyone who wants to use the term eventing should run their activity under the rules, I was not prepared for the sheer number of riders who had no idea just want the rules were, and the complications that brought.

As a first step in rectifying this situation, instead of waiting till the course inspection to meet the organizers, I would meet with them much earlier. I would also suggest a pre-meeting of all the officials, including the dressage judges, ring stewards, and scorekeeper. Given that many officials are often not eventers, or at least active eventers, I would conduct a briefing, similar to that given to the fence judges, and clarify the rules and establish just how we as a team, because we are a team, would run the event.

Second, on the day of the event, I would spend more time insuring that the 'gears' of the event were running smoothly. It never occurred to me to check that cross-country was being told who had been eliminated in stadium, and as result, those who had been eliminated and knew the rules sought me out for permission to run cross-country, which I denied. Yet those who were eliminated in stadium and were ignorant of the need to seek out the TD’s permission got to run cross-country. This created the unfortunate perception to some that if you followed the rules, you were penalized.

Third, while I understand the importance of getting the show under way, I would in the future insist that everything be put in place before a specific phase begins. This will insure that everyone starts off on a level playing field.

Forth, if it is the intent to run an unrecognized event under USCTA rules, I would recommend that any exceptions be clearly displayed for all competitors to read.

Fifth, given that many competitors at unrecognized events do not have access to a USCTA rulebook, I would suggest to the organizer that a synopsis of key rules be included in each competitor's packet, especially rules governing elimination and safety equipment. I would also recommend a rulebook be available at the secretary's stand for further review.

Lastly, and sadly I must say, I would recommend to anyone volunteering to TD to develop a thick skin. As in every other aspect of life, no matter how hard you try to be fair, there is always bound to be one person bent on blaming their own inadequacies on someone else. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is cut out to be an event rider. There is nothing you can do about them other than grin and bear it and find solace in the realization that for every one disgruntled rider, ninety-nine will go home safely with smiles on their faces.

After writing this article, I sent it out to some experienced riders for their review and comments. While I received many comments on my creative spelling and sentence structure, I also received some insightful ones that gave me pause to think about just how much I still have to learn.

With regard to the Liverpool and Swedish oxer in Stadium, I received the following advice from a well respected, recognized TD:

" Mike, you ignorant dolt……A Swedish (or a fan or a narrow fence) is NOT allowed at Novice--and NO spread fence can ever have more than one rail on the back side--this one is a real safety issue. If they have to have a fence that is jumped both ways--it has to be a vertical -- with little ground lines on both sides - -or a brush box or stone wall, or a brick wall box under it.

Liverpools are NOT appropriate for Novice - -would you like the feeling of that huge jump on a very, very, green horse with a loose beginning rider on it when that green horse jumps 6 feet high and 10 wide over it? Would you want to be responsible for the trip in the ambulance when the kid gets dumped in that situation -- I wouldn't!

At the low-level unrecognized events the show jumping needs to be very safe and inviting -- they don't know what they're getting into and aren't schooled to do jumper courses, most of them. They've only ever done the twice around and diagonally through the middle of the little hunter courses -- or it's the VERY green horses of some of the more knowledgeable riders and they're there because they aren't ready for recognized yet.

A lot of the show jumping 'rules' are hard to find in the rule book because they are not only in the section under "Show Jumping" but also in the back where each level is described, AND/OR they are in the AHSA Rule Book under 'Jumper' rules!"

With regard to the breaking of ties using dressage scores, I received the following insightful information:

" The AHSA dressage rules state: 'In case of equality of points the competitor with the highest marks received under General Impressions shall be declared the winner. When the scores for General Impressions tie, the judge may be required to decide on the winner after review of both score sheets or the horses may remain tied."

With regard to dealing with disgruntled participants. I got the following well-seasoned advice from a new friend:

"Make sure the organizers have a case of your favorite beer, and start drinking early, say around the start of dressage."


While I had expected to learn something from the experience, I would never have dreamed I would learn so much. I left at the end of the day with a newfound appreciation for how hard it is to put on a good event. Karen and Steve Fulton deserve the accolades from everyone who competed there that day. They made a Herculean effort and it paid off handsomely for everyone.

I also have a new appreciation of how important unrecognized events are in the education of new riders to the rules and code of conduct in our sport. I appreciated even more just how important a good eventing coach is, for throughout the day, I constantly overheard coaches doing the same thing I was doing, explaining the rules and the rationale for them.

I also have a renewed appreciation for the unwritten responsibility of experienced riders to keep an eye out for their inexperienced counterparts - be it stopping them after jumping a warm-up fence backwards or explaining to them how to best jump a fence. We who know the rules are in the best position to explain them. By doing so, we can all insure that everyone has a safe and profitable day.

Lastly, throughout the day, I witnessed well-meaning parents doing everything they could to insure their children had a fun learning experience. At the recognized events, it’s rare to see this level of involvement by a parent. It was heartwarming to see.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman