Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Future Event Horse Champs 2019

This past week saw the Future Event Horse (FEH) Championships unfold nationally. Each region -- East Coast, West Coast, and Central -- hosts a championship event for qualified yearlings, 2yos, 3yos, and 4yos, with the same set of judges presiding over each region's championship.

prize giving for the 2yo colts!
Last year I signed up to scribe for the yearling and 2yo Conformation class. This year I opted to sign up as a jump chute volunteer. The 3yo & 4yo classes are judged across two tests: conformation and the jump chute, whereas the younger age groups just do conformation.

Honestly, I really REALLY loved scribing the conformation but figured it might be nice to see something new. And I've never really seen a proper jump chute set up before, nor had an opportunity to listen in on judge commentary for how horses jump without the influence of a rider.

the lovely 2yo filly winner Wise Ravissante Du Defey
It turned out, tho, that the organizers had goofed when they listed volunteer positions. The two older age groups would be going on Saturday (with jump chute and conformation) and the two younger groups would be Sunday, with just conformation.

Since I was only available Sunday, they slotted me in as a conformation scribe again. Initially I was a tad disappointed, but only briefly. Bc actually I really enjoyed this volunteer position last year (despite the cold pouring rain) and it turned out that this year was even better!

trotting out away from the judges
Horses are broken into groups by age and sex (yearlings vs 2yos, fillies vs colts). Handlers first present the horse standing up to the judges, then execute a pattern for judges to evaluate the walking and trotting gaits, before standing the horse up again to finish.

presenting the trotting side view to the judges across the far end of the triangle
(that mid-line in the triangle is for the walking portion, so it doesn't take 8hrs to get around lol)
Realistically, tho, this isn't an obstacle course. It's not a pattern test or halter class. The judges aren't evaluating obedience or looking for perfect execution. Rather, they're looking for those glimpses (however brief) of the horse showing itself at its absolute best.

And, if they felt like the horse didn't quite show enough for them to evaluate, they simply asked the handlers to repeat the exercise. No big deal.

example individual score sheet. you can see that... at first i was totally scribing the scores in the wrong column, whoops!
This was where handler experience probably made the most difference. There were a few handlers who seemed preoccupied with executing the pattern (as in, stopping and starting at exactly the right places) rather than allowing their horses to truly shine even if it meant going way wide on the triangle.

This is kinda a known factor tho, haha, which is why you see in these pictures the same handlers again and again with different horses (cough, cough, Martin Douzant, notable baby horse whisperer extraordinaire). There's a real art to showing off baby horses who literally vibrate with energy and untoward enthusiasm LOL!

Daedalus WG was the first 2yo colt presented, and he really impressed the judges
I was assigned to the same judge as last year - Peter Gray - and was pleased with how much I remembered from the experience. Obviously I'm still a fully admitted noob when it comes to evaluating a horse on my own. That.... might never change, let's be real.

But... I AM learning. Slowly, slowly. I'm starting to be able to identify horses that are maybe more striking in their "full package" aspect, tho I couldn't yet tell you the exact individual proportions that impress me. It's super interesting tho, listening to these judges.

at almost the very end of the class, tho, out came Royal Casino
When the horse is first presented, they stand up for evaluation on Type, Conformation, and Legs & Feet.

Type is something that... I 100% do not have an eye for yet. To my best understanding, this was where judges were looking for more blood. As in, more thoroughbred. A lighter build with more refinement through the head and jaw. Horses were dinged for being thick through the jaw or heavy in the head and neck.

you might remember Royal Casino from last year, when he won the yearling colts class
Conformation was where they looked at the full package of proportions, lengths, and angles. Some aspects here I have a better eye for now (tho still decidedly amateur).

Key proportional elements were: length of neck, mid section, and hind quarters; and also length of cannon and pastern. Angles tended to relate to shoulder (a good {sloping} or bad {steep} shoulder was highly influential to overall score), pasterns, knees, hind legs, and neck set.

this sheet was new this year - to help the judges remember their range of marks so that they could stay consistent and ensure each class was put in the proper order
Next up before getting to the Movement side of things were the Legs & Feet. Judges wanted to see good sturdy feet with appropriate angles (the Irish judge in particular was ruthless in evaluating lower limbs), and a good amount of bone through the legs. Often judges would return to this scoring element after the movement section began if they observed turning or twisting in the limbs.

It was interesting on this day bc a couple horses received comments on their "fragility," from both judges. And they mused a bit to themselves about how they've been saying for years that the breeding programs need more blood, more thoroughbred influence for that lighter build. But now they see some products that end up with less bone overall (small feet, dainty cannons) that perhaps demonstrate the pendulum swinging too far.

meta creeping on Royal Casino, the ham lol, with Daedalus WG standing in as reserve
Another interesting bit to listen in on, was the judges' commentary on the difference between "continental" and international breeding programs. There was one horse in particular (can't remember the name, number, age, sex, etc) that was LOVELY. Really, the full package. Except... One very club foot. Which like... what a shame, right?

The Irish judge seemed to think that it was a direct result of US ("Continental") breeding programs focusing on show jumpers who maybe can be more coddled, whereas a club foot will have serious soundness implications for the event horse. He said internationally, flaws like that had been relentlessly stamped out.

the yearlings were... definitely less mature haha. Wise Master Zaphiro wanted to eat Martin for lunch LOL
The second portion of the judging sheet reflects movement, with horses showing walk and trot on a triangle. Judges are positioned at one point of this triangle, with the walk covering a shorter "smaller" triangle then the trot going large. In this way, the horses move straight away, sideways, and then straight toward the judges for evaluation of ground cover, quality of movement, impulsion, etc. Horses were dinged for being out behind, twisting, or flat, and rewarded for being fluid, marching, uphill, with good reach.

Another difference in "Continental" vs International breeding evaluation showed up in this section, when the yearlings came out. The first yearling on the block was.... erm, feisty haha. I'm about 97.5% positive that the thing clocked Martin once pretty good while they were doing some ground work to settle down before showing.

The judges had Martin take the horse out and back in a lonnggg straight line in trot, rather than try to get around the triangle. Initially I thought they were just giving an exception for this one baby horse who was... misbehaving haha. But when they sent the next yearling out in the same pattern, I asked why.

TFW the colts want nothing to do with your game lol
The judge I was scribing, Peter, said it was because he doesn't believe in sending yearlings around the triangle. Said it wasn't reasonable to expect yearlings to be able to hold their balance and carriage around those turns.

And, moreso, it wasn't an evaluation of training or obedience. Yearling horses should be out in the field, not in training, so they didn't think it was reasonable to expect them to have good "start / stop" buttons yet -- and felt like the twisting and pulling necessary to stop a runaway yearling was extremely counterproductive.

this yearling filly Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken was supremely easy on the eyes, what a sweetie!
Turned out, tho, that the US Eventing staff on hand disagreed strongly. They said that every horse had to be judged in the same manner, to which the judges retorted that they were judging them all the same (the long out-n-back trot instead of the triangle).

But US Eventing pushed that the program was the triangle, so everyone needed to be on the triangle. And the first two horses who'd not trotted the triangle had to be represented (fwiw, their scores did not change...). This was where one judge quipped  that, "Only in America will you see this happen..." lol

Arden Nike took the win for the yearling fillies - the full package!
Anyway, tho, that all goes to show that the judges were very forgiving of the baby horses being... babies lol. They were just looking for the best each horse had to offer.

It was super interesting, tho, bc honestly both judges often came to pretty snap conclusions upon first laying eyes on each horse. There were a few that, right away, the Irish judge was waving over the US Eventing photographer to start snapping shots of this "model example." Including coaching the handler in exactly how to stand up the horse for the shot.

handlers doing whatever they can to show off their animals
There were a few times, tho, where horses packed a surprise. For instance, there were a few horses that walked into the ring immediately wowing the judges based on build and presence alone. But then.. Were maybe a little less impressive in motion.

Similarly, one or two horses really didn't spark any sort of excitement in the judges while stationary. Not that they had blemishes, flaws, or early warning signs of future lameness -- but just sorta ho-hum proportions. But then, in motion, suddenly they transformed into something else altogether - something very special.

she had a very pretty face <3
I asked Peter what he would prefer based on two back-to-back examples we saw, one with conformation issues but fantastic movement, and another with strong robust build but ho-hum movement. And... Ya know, his answer was telling. For the Olympics? For the highest echelons of the sport? You need that spark, that WOW factor.

BUT. For his business? Buying, selling and training? He said he'd take the solid build with mediocre movement every time. Bc realistically, that's a very useful horse for a very broad audience.

but hey, even national champions can exude derp when the moment calls for it!
Overall it was a very fun day, and I was especially pleased to recognize some of the same horses I'd seen the year before. It's an interesting sort of class, especially considering I'm not exactly super educated when it comes to conformation. But listening in as the judges evaluate in real time is extremely insightful haha.

Again, tho, we're somewhat spoiled in this particular area. Obviously this is a national program with championships happening across the country, but the East Coast is still leading the charge when it comes to developing breeding programs for the future of the sport.

Qualifiers are popping up in more and more locations, tho. And as the program continues to grow, more folks will get involved. So... if you're curious at all about this experience, definitely keep an eye out for qualifiers (esp volunteer opportunities) in your area.

And in the meantime, I'm looking forward to the Young Event Horse (YEH) East Coast Champs coming up in a few weeks at Fair Hill. So, ya know, stay tuned for that haha!

Does this sort of thing interest you? Do you consider yourself a conformation buff? Or a guru at identifying quality or relative fanciness in any given horse? Or maybe you're more like me - not so well versed but interested in learning more?


  1. That was fascinating. I can see how volunteering is so educational. I've noticed a trend in the judging of dressage that the less 'flamboyant' but more accurate and steady horses and being judged more positively then in the past. That is just my subjective opinion, I have no data. :)
    But when Peter commented about his business it resonated with me. Too many people buy the 'wow' but can't really ride it.

    1. ha yea it's so hard to tell about the judging sometimes, but it's definitely great to feel like a horse and rider are being rewarded for accuracy, consistency and correctness. in the long run that definitely seems to matter more for more amateurs!!

  2. Thanks for this. Really interesting! I can't wait for the YEH at Fair Hill. Jump crew on Friday and I always learn a lot (judges are willing to share their wisdom with us volunteers). And I'm sure I'll catch some dressage on Thursday too.

    1. it should be a great time at the YEH this year! i'm hoping to come spectate on friday and saturday, so hopefully i'll see you there ;)

  3. I am not a conformation buff at all. Especially of WBs. But I did work on a TB breeding and sales farm and definitely would get a sense of a "wow" factor in a horse. A few of the yearlings with A+++ bloodlines that I worked with sold for big, big money, while frankly, I was unimpressed with them as individuals. Meanwhile, the colt that I loved went on to be a graded stakes winner, ran in the Breeders Cup Sprint, won $800k+, etc. And a filly I really liked went on to be a black type winner as well. So sometimes, that gut feel can be right on.

    1. agreed so much that there are often other qualities that aren't necessarily apparent to the naked eye just based on a glance. like, charlie is actually kinda one of those examples. he's got classy breeding and a classy build, and sold for $100K as a yearling (not the biggest of big money, but still decided big haha). but... while he made money on the track and was a "useful" sort of racehorse to keep on the books for years (retired at 7), he definitely didn't win as much as his connections expected. his last trainer attributed it to his heart and ambition, said he'd get to the front of the pack and then just sorta cruise with his friends instead of going in for the kill. he didn't have that winning sort of instinct, i guess.

  4. That's some interesting stuff! I'm really not into all that- I can probably tell you if something is glaringly wrong (maybe), but at the same time there are so many horses who may have conformation "issues," yet rock whatever discipline they're in, that I guess I tend not to look too hard. Always fun to learn more, though!

    1. honestly, i'm with ya about 1,000%. from an amateur's perspective, it's important to get a reasonable gauge on soundness concerns -- but even that is sorta fluid depending on what you want from the horse. like realistically, most sound and reasonably well built horses can get around 3' jump courses and 2nd level dressage without much concern. for amateurs, i tend to think it's more critical to focus on attributes like disposition, temperament, and rideability, since any issues there can prove to be pretty massive obstacles.

  5. It's so interesting to hear how the judges evaluate young horses!

    Getting around the triangle was kind of a struggle for all the yearlings at the FEH competition I took Madigan to earlier this year- two of them dragged their handlers in a straight line for a few strides before careening around the corner, and Madigan slowed way down in the corners. It's hard to be an awkward yearling lol

    1. oh man, yea it was really a struggle for some of these babies!! idk about the judges at the qualifiers (i think they might have been all different), but at the championships it was the same two judges who traveled to each of the three regions. and at least at this show, they instructed the yearling handlers to try to slow down and walk through the turns - avoiding any need to torque or whip the horse around its neck or front legs. going way wide around the triangle was not penalized in any way shape or form tho - so if that's what it took to allow the horse to trot freely and fluidly, that's just how it went!

  6. So interesting, thank you for the awesome write up! We've got very little vet assistance where I live, so I tend to buy as correct and functional as I can because even the little maintenance things that would be no big deal in the city end up costing huge here ($300 farm visit fees!)

    1. yea that honestly seems like kinda the most actionable takeaway for me, too. like, some of the conformation stuff they were looking at only really comes into play at the highest levels, where horses are galloping and jumping at the physical limit. but a lot of the stuff - esp relating to the proportions and angles - was pretty interesting in terms of understanding long term soundness implications. i definitely find it interesting and useful to learn more about it!

  7. These are so fun to read! I hope you keep going every year because reading the insider tidbits is really what makes this exciting for me. Awkward baby horses in hand are a bit of a bore otherwise lol.

    1. lol i'm 100% there for the tidbits too, tbh, bc yea... this branch of the sport has basically zero bearing on my own experience as a low level eventer LOL. tho, being real here, i'd rather scribe for these classes over scribing for the same intro and BN dressage tests over and over again for hours!

  8. I imagine USEA was married to the triangle because USHJA is also lol

    1. lol i mean, conceptually i understand needing a consistent rubric for these evaluations... but it was kinda interesting being a fly on the wall for those conversations!

  9. I LOVE being a scribe for this very reason to pick a judge's brain. It's why I love watching the ERM series dressage so much since they have a dressage judge in the commentary booth. I am such an audio/visual learner, so I love looking at the horses and hearing the judge talk about what they do/don't like. I'm pretty good on QH conformation, but am learning a lot on English-type horses and certainly want to learn more!

    1. definitely agreed! it can be hard scribing bc we spend so much time listening with our eyes down on the paper, vs being able to really watch each step of the way. tho i found that this year i had a better grasp of the routine so it was easier to watch more. also, yea it's interesting how points of conformation are prioritized differently across different breeds and disciplines. like in dressage you often hear folks liking a shorter coupled horse bc collection will come more naturally, whereas in eventing that can sometimes be a disadvantage bc too short of a back can limit the horse's scope over a fence. just more evidence of how versatile horses can be tho!

  10. Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I admit, I assumed that manners would play some role in judging. Also I'm kind of surprised to see all the handlers wearing helmets.

    1. the helmets are definitely required attire for this class, safety first when handling feisty babies!!!

      and re: manners, i'm sure there are in hand classes out there that DO consider manners. but the intent of this FEH program is to evaluate young horses (and, by extension, their breeding programs) on their potential for success in the highest levels of eventing. a sort of implicit assumption is that the best horses would likely be developed by pros, for whom manners and temperament aren't necessarily major concerns.

      plus... ya know, these horses are extremely young haha - they're just babies!

  11. Very neat experience, I love hearing what judges see and think esp those times our sport becomes an blur of objective vs subjective. Nothing can be an informed gut instinct feeling sometimes though!

    1. yea for sure! i think i liked this so much bc while there are a few conformational flaws that are reasonably cut and dried, there's actually a huge spectrum in variations of what makes a "nice horse." it's not just any one individual piece, but rather how all the component parts work together to form the complete package.

  12. I don't know much about conformation, but this post was fascinating. I'm looking forward to the next time you volunteer at one of these events.

    1. it was definitely fascinating to experience - glad you enjoyed reading it! my post from last year actually had a ton of detail too, including a lot of different but equally interesting insights that i didn't repeat this time around - you should check it out!


  13. It's cool that you got to do this. I think I'd enjoy scribing at such a session and learning about conformation in person. It's not something I've ever felt I can really learn from books/magazines/videos.

  14. Very cool to scribe for something like this and learn from the judges. Although, it is sooo different from the breed show halter confo and what they are looking for, I'd be confused. lol


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