COLUMBIA, Mo. - Distinguishing fat from muscle in a horse can be hard - but details like this are key to good horse judging, said instructors at the University of Missouri Extension 4-H judging clinic in Columbia, March 15.
"This one's definitely had a lot of groceries," said Kayla Lee of the Kansas State University 4-H horse judging team as she pointed to a photo of a horse. "She's thick and heavy, but she's not athletic. This will fool a lot of people because they'll think she's just big. But you put her out to run and she'll be out of breath in five minutes. We don't like them in really heavy condition like that."
Ben Gallup, MU Extension 4-H youth specialist, said the KSU team was invited to teach the clinic and judge the contest to maintain neutrality, and for the outside perspective.
"We bring in outside teams every year to ensure neutrality in judging," he said. "We also like partnering - it lets us reach out and tap other resources. Every 4-H club is a little bit different. Sharing information has immense benefits."
Nearly 40 youth and adults attended the clinic during the state 4-H Horse Judging Contest at MU's Trowbridge Livestock Center. The course stressed how horse form affects function.
Lee and Kally Hood, also of the KSU 4-H team, used slides, videos and a live horse to teach concepts like proper balance, structure and performance in different horse classes and breeds. Each has unique ideal traits that youth must know to compete successfully.
"Halter horses are used for show and breeding," Gallup said. "The quarter horse, Tennessee waking horse and Pony of America are three breeds with very different characteristics. In halter classes, the animals are judged against the breed standard. Then you have performance classes, in which the horse is evaluated while being ridden."
Qualities such as head shape, shoulder position, posture and body size affect how a horse moves. These qualities also affect how a horse is judged in competition, Hood said.
"Shoulder angle affects neck line and stride. When a horse moves, it can't move its legs any more than the angle of that line," Hood said. "When judging, start at the head and work your way back to the flank. A horse needs to be structurally correct and balanced in all the right places to do the job you want it to do."
"In horse judging, the kids are given some horses to critique," Gallup said. "They have to look at soundness, body size, muscling, general appearance, how the horse walks and tracks. What makes this complicated for kids, especially younger ones, is that they have to be able to identify all those differences and articulate them."
Those competing must compare four horses of the same breed from various classes and give rankings based on the ideal breed qualities. Participants then explain the reasons for their rankings to the judges. This year, 150 youth participated in the contest's junior and senior divisions.
For novices to horses or competition, the clinic is a good way to build confidence and skills, Gallup said.
The structured setting makes learning easier for youth, Hood said. "Live horses out on the farm are hard to learn from because it's not easy to get good examples all together at once," she said.
Knowing how to critique a horse has value outside the arena, too, Lee said. All horse owners can benefit from a basic understanding of proper horse form. Adults can save money by knowing how to buy a horse that suits their needs, and youth are more equipped to help at home.
"If your dad says, hey, go to the pasture and get the bay with the white hindquarter, you'll be able to," she said. "As an investment, it's wiser to have a structurally sound horse because you'd have to spend money on soundness problems, or not be able to ride at times because the horse is sore. If a horse is capable of doing what you want it to, for its breed, you'll both have a much better time."
Upcoming 4-H equine events include the 4-H Horse Bowl Contest on April 19 and the Hippology State Contest on April 20. Both will take place in Columbia at MU's Animal Science Research Center.
Youth who want to join a 4-H horse club should contact their local MU Extension office.