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Steve Heinecke
December 14, 2016
Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke: Leaving a Lasting Impression
By Steve Heinecke
Wednesday, December 14, 2016 :: Posted 01:58:35 PM UTC

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© Sportfot: Steve Heinecke and DicaprioSteve Heinecke and Dicaprio competing in the Performance Hunters at the 2016 Winter Equestrian Festival. (Photo: Sportfot)

As a USEF "R" judge, traveling across the country, I am often asked questions on my judging perspective and technique in the hunter and equitation rings.

First thing to understand is that, although the score is important, the order is more important. An 80 in one class may be a third, and in another class be seventh.

At every horse show, I begin judging as soon as I look up from scoring the previous rider. The overall impression of the horse and rider entering the ring is very important in the judging process. Is the horse a quality mover presenting a happy, fluid and beautiful picture? Once I have an overall feel of the horse and rider, I determine a baseline score then backtrack through each jump. If they are having difficulties, such as adding strides, chipping fences or missing lead changes, then I begin taking notes and edit the score accordingly.

In the hunter divisions, we are judging the horse and not so much the rider, though the whole picture is crucial to achieving a high score. I like to see a quality jumper with a smooth gait, good expression and landing on the correct leads. Consistency is key. I do not want to see eight different styles of jumping or eight different rhythms.

My judging technique comes more from a rider's perspective than from a trainer's perspective. From my experience as a professional, I can relate to what a rider is experiencing on course. I do not want to see a horse buck, but I'd rather him be a little fresh, pull on the reins or even shake his head and he jump great, as long as he's not out of control. However, that is not an opinion that all judges have.

When judges submit their scores for each round, the goal is to be in sync within two or three points of each other. For example, I may submit a score of 78, and another judge on the panel may suggest 82. We often collaborate and discuss the round to come up with an average score. For the derbies, horse shows often place the judging panels in two separate locations around the arena to provide different perspectives. This may result in a 10-point difference because judges will see jumps at varying angles, which will then be added together to determine the final score.

It's important, as a judge, that you see the entire ring — every jump and every corner. It may require a judge to lean around a pole or stand up to ensure clear visibility. The more the judges can see the whole arena, the more accurately they will be able to score each round and be in sync with every judge on the panel.

To close out a successful year of judging, my final stop was the Central California Oak Tree Classic at the Paso Robles Horse Park in November. The setting is stunning with mountains surrounding the venue. At the beginning of the week I judged the Performance Hunters, and the equitation classes followed.

Though the quality of both horses and riders are consistent across the United States, the West Coast circuits seem to offer more classes per show than the East Coast. As far as medal classes go, the East Coast hosts the Medal, Maclay, USET and Washington, which has two phases, so that is five classes. On the West Coast, they offer the same five classes plus they have the California Professional Horsemen's Association (CPHA) 3' AND 3'6" for adults and children, among others, which adds another four medal classes on top of the initial five.

During my judging in California, there were four or five medals a day. Coming right off of judging the 2016 New England Equitation Championships, I primarily saw similarities in position between all of the riders and I was really happy to see that they rode very well.

I also judged the hunter highlight event, the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby on Friday, which was won by John French and Laura Hite's Tivoli Z. John is a beautiful, soft rider and the horses give him so much. He's really good at managing and encouraging the horse to jump to the best of its ability and is a consistent competitor who gives 100 percent every single time.

To sum it up, as a judge, there are three key techniques I often use to determine the winners in a class: consistency, collaboration and comparison. How I judge one rider is how I must judge everyone in a class in order to be as fair and accurate in my scoring as possible. I also discuss with other judges on my panel and hear their thoughts on a rider as well as compare them to previous riders in the class to determine the average score for that rider. In the grand scheme of things, the best way to achieve a high score in the hunter or equitation ring is to strive for correct pace, path and position. This is my mantra and what I always tell my students over and over again. Following the three P's (pace, path, position) and understanding those judging techniques will ultimately leave a lasting impression on a judge, which is the fundamental goal when entering any show ring.

I hope you all have enjoyed my columns on I've had an outstanding year of judging in 2016 and look forward to sharing more thoughts and insight in the new year!

Stay tuned for more "Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke" columns in 2017 as Heinecke makes his way to Wellington for the winter season to judge The Ridge at Wellington series as well as the Winter Equestrian Festival.

Steve Heinecke is a USEF-licensed "R" judge in the hunter and hunter/jumping seat equitation discipline categories. His officiating history displays years of experience and includes some of the most prestigious horse shows throughout the country such as the Hampton Classic, Saint Louis National Charity Horse Show, Mid-Atlantic Equitation Championships, RMI Jubilee, Winter Equestrian Festival, Aiken Fall Festival and at facilities such as the Fairfield Hunt Club and the Tryon International Equestrian Center. This year, he judged the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Tryon in May as well as the New England Equitation Championships in October. Go behind-the-scenes for an inside perspective into the mind of a top-level hunter/jumper judge in his column "Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke" on!

To learn more about Steve Heinecke and Sock Inc., visit and like Sock Inc. on Facebook here!

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