JUDGING NORTHLEACH
By India Haynes


           In October of 2000, I received a letter from the Northleach Welsh Pony and Cob show in Northleach , England , asking if I would be available to judge the Cobs at their annual show the following summer. I was, needless to say, honored and excited about the prospect and accepted with great enthusiasm.
            This was the first time for a foreign judge to be invited to one of the major “medal” shows.  In the
UK , there are literally hundreds of Welsh breed shows held each year.  The "Big Three" are Lampeter, Glanusk, and the Royal Welsh, granddaddies of them all.  After them, in importance, come ten or so medal shows, of which Northleach is one. These shows are roughly the equivalent of “A” shows in the US .  Since I was foreign – an American at that – and a woman to boot, I felt the invitation was a resounding endorsement of my past 20 years spent with Welsh Cobs on both sides of the Atlantic as having been well spent.
            Sadly, on return from the 2001 American Welsh AGM, news of the foot and mouth outbreak was leading the headlines.  By April it was clear that the show season was to be lost along with millions of head of cattle and sheep.  Although horses do not contract the disease, the transport of any livestock was prohibited except by license.
            Asked if I might be willing to come in 2002, of course, I said yes.
            On
July 4, 2002 , I headed for Boston airport on a blistering hot day.  My mother traveled with me as we planned to spend a few days hiking in the Brecon Beacons after the show. We arrived in a cool and damp London , which felt quite pleasant after our previous week in the hay fields.
We hired a car and traveled to Stow-on-the-Wold, a few miles from the show grounds.  This is a picturesque village in the heart of the Cotswolds where villages are full of yellow stone cottages with the inevitable stream babbling nearby.  Stow-on-the-Wold is the sort of place one expects Miss Marple will come out of the yarn shop at any minute.  After settling in our bed and breakfast, we wandered around, napped, and had a proper tea.  After a good night's sleep we were off to the show!
            To say that Northleach is held on a show grounds is not strictly correct.  It is held in a vast lush green field in the shadow of one of the loveliest stately homes in
England , the home of Lord and Lady Vestey.  Lord Vestey is very involved with polo and one of England ’s premiere polo patrons.  Lady Vestey has been breeding Welsh Cobs for a long time, producing many successful performance Cobs as well in-hand winners.  There are seven grass rings on the grounds with caravans and tents set up for the amenities. Like most UK shows, Northleach is a one-day show. The rings are large with simple rope fences. There are separate rings for in hand classes for each of the Welsh sections, A, B, C and D, a part bred ring, and two rings for the ridden classes.  The driving classes were held in the afternoon, after the In-hand championship.
            In addition to the many in hand classes, UK shows offer ridden classes for each section and for part-breds, plus working hunter classes for each as well.  Since the show was a qualifier for the Horse of the Year show (the name says it all), classes were large with quality running very deep down the line.
           
UK shows bring in judges for their specialty.  There were 11 judges at Northleach, one for each in hand section, one for part-breds, three ridden judges (plus their riders – more about that later), a judge for driving, hunter classes, and a separate judge to pick the supreme in hand and ridden champions.
            The Hon. Mrs. Legg-Bourke filled this last position. A very grand, whiskey-voice lady who is a great character (imagine Auntie Mame written by Evelyn Waugh) and effusive about ponies and people (her daughter was nanny to Princes William and Harry), she kept a lively banter through our very proper English lunch in a tent on the grounds, effortlessly moving from meal to cigarette without intake of breath as far as I could see.
            The riding classes are interesting and significantly different from our own.  The larger pony breeds, show hunters, and show hacks in the
UK are judged half on conformation and type and half on their ride.  That means that the judge, or someone the judge appoints, actually rides every animal in the class, which is why UK exhibitors show in only one class.  There are no endless divisions of the same horses coming in time after time doing the same thing.  There is one class.  Although as many as 30 animals may be in the class, the judge rides each one. In some shows, the judges may pull in a front line to ride only these, but, usually, the judges give every horse a go.  This takes forever, but only – and nothing but – well and, above all, correctly schooled animals win these classes. Exhibitors can’t get by with gimmicks when someone else is in the saddle.  These classes are magnificent, and it takes a real horseman to produce winners in these classes time after time.  All the reasons why these classes are so magnificent are also the reasons why we will never see classes like this in the US .
            After being ridden, the horses and ponies are stripped and run up like an in-hand class before being tacked up again and pinned.  Winning Cobs must produce a huge trot and gallop under saddle.  The sight of these animal going full tilt on turf in the shadow of a stately home makes one think that one might be, not attending a horse show, but an extra in an opulent David Lean epic.
            My classes were just right, with a good number of quality animals in each class. There were not too many (I have seen classes at some Welsh shows with 47 yearling fillies!) and something decent in each class, with a few standouts throughout the card, so I knew I would have something pleasing to put champion.
            As with most shows – whichever side of the
Atlantic – the stallion class was the weakest.  The mare class, with three of the top mares in the country present, was very good; three-year-old colt class was also very strong.  (Classes are divided by colts and fillies; weanling, yearling, two-year-olds and three-year-olds.)  My champion was a big mare, full of scope, that would make a grand broodmare or riding mare.  As it would happen, she was a half sister to my own stallion!  My reserve was a smashing three-year-old colt that moved very well.
            Very political and outspoken, the Welsh spectators never hesitated to comment whenever I went wrong in my judging – and whenever I went right.  I was pleased that my top mare, which up to that day had not beaten the mare I put second, was over her in the subsequent Royal Welsh and the International Centenary shows.  One handler commented that I must have been very nervous about judging there.  To the contrary, I actually found it to be the most fun, especially since I knew none of the animals, despite knowing most of the professional handlers and even having shown in the
UK myself. To come in the ring and see dozens of animals fresh is the “purest” judging I have had the pleasure of.  In my travels all over the US as a USA Equestrian judge, whether in Tulsa or Maryland , I judge the same ponies over and over again in a season. To judge new animals in a new setting was a refreshing experience that renewed my enthusiasm for judging. 
            What could top this experience?  As I was leaving the show grounds, a well known Cob breeder and judge asked if I would be interested in judging the ridden Cobs with her sometime.  “What, you mean ride 40 of the best Welsh Cobs in
Wales in one day? Yeah, I am available…..”
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