October of 2000, I received a letter from the Northleach Welsh Pony and
Cob show in
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
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
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
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
, I headed for
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
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
home of Lord and Lady Vestey. Lord
Vestey is very involved with polo and one of
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
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.
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
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
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
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
– 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
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
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
USA Equestrian judge, whether in
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
day? Yeah, I am available…..”