As a USEF “R” judge, travelling across the country, I am often asked questions about my judging perspective and technique in the hunter and equitation rings. I have also teamed up with Robindale Farm in Waxhaw, North Carolina, to host a clinic on Dec. 18 to teach about a few ways to improve a rider’s score and understand where the score comes.

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.

I begin judging as soon as the rider enters the ring or as soon as I look up from scoring the previous rider. The overall first impression of the horse and rider is very important in the judging process and the overall picture presented should be pleasing and positive. 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 lead. 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 we often collaborate and discuss the round to come up with a score that we both agree on. 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.

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 this helps riders learn how to achieve higher scores and have a better understanding about the scores they are receiving. You can read more about this subject in my column, “Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke,” on and please join us for the “Improve Your Score with USEF “R” Judge Steve Heinecke” clinic on Dec. 18 at Robindale Farm to hear more on this topic!