By Jerrika Mumford
The livestock show was once considered a profitable venture in which producers promoted and sold their stock, in addition to earning premiums. While there are still opportunities to make money showing, it has become more about the experience. Exhibitors take pride in raising and/or training animals and want to show their accomplishments. Exhibitors and breeders want to see the results of their hard work. A large part of the experience is the judge selected to evaluate and place the entries. The judge will have to make the tough decisions about what sets apart the best from those still striving. At the end of the day, the show is for the exhibitors, and choosing a fair and knowledgeable judge is essential to a good experience.
As an exhibitor and a spectator I attend many shows each year. I am the superintendent for a show in Oregon, with the goal of providing a fun show experience. At the state fair, once my llamas are done showing for the day, I look up the show schedule and watch exhibitors with different breeds show their animals as judges work the ring. I never expected to become passionate about livestock, llamas, or showing. I was not raised with livestock and couldn’t tell you what the four “H”s are in 4-H. I did, however, always love animals as a kid. So when I met my now husband, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with llamas. Now more than a decade later I couldn’t picture my life without llamas. My passion has led me to join the ILR-SD Judge’s Committee with the goal of making education about judging llamas more accessible. I want to see the path to becoming a judge more obtainable to those who desire learning more. I also want to see the judges list grow with more judges that exhibitors want to show under. So what are exhibitors looking for in a judge? I set out to find the answer.
How important is judge selection to exhibitors?
Judge selection isn’t the exhibitor’s job, however exhibitors can cast a vote on their approval of the judge with their show entries. While it is up to the show superintendent to select the judge, exhibitors consider the judge selected to be a very important factor in their decision to attend a show. In a survey conducted in November 2023, I received the following responses asking exhibitors to rank on a scale of 1 (not important) to 5 (very important) how important judge selection was in their decision to attend a show.
As part of the survey, respondents were given the opportunity to provide written responses. One anonymous response said, “There have been many shows we have not attended because of who the judges were. We will continue to do that in the future.” Another echoed that thought saying, “If I don't care for the judge, I won't go to the show.” Since the show is ultimately for the exhibitors, superintendent’s should strive to select a judge that will help create a positive experience for all exhibitors. Exhibitors are the “customers” at a show. If good judges aren’t selected, that may result in fewer entries.
What makes a good judge?
Now the question, what are those exhibitors looking for when defining what makes a good judge?
Survey respondents prioritized two qualities as the most important in a judge, integrity & knowledge. Experience was the third most selected, and teaching ability and kindness also received a few votes each.
In written responses, a common theme was exhibitors want judges who know what they are doing, and are impartial in their evaluations. When asked the question, “What are some traits your favorite judges have in common?” Here are some of their responses:
“Experience, integrity, personal success in the show ring showing they know what they are looking for, proving they are worthy of judging others.” -Anonymous
“They know what they are doing. They do not play favorites. They judge conformation and they take in the entire animal. They know how to properly score performance.” -Tami Lash
“They are fair. They don't mingle with or travel with exhibitors at the show. They give each animal a fair lookover. They bump animals out of classes they don't belong in.” -Anonymous
“Experience and knowledge used to evaluate animals truthfully and the confidence and integrity to place them accordingly.” -Anonymous
“Knowledge, quality oral reasons, positive/flexibility in working with show staff, kindness to exhibitors, always willing to lend a hand, humble attitude, and improvement focused/teaching with youth.” - Nicholas Hauptly
“Confidence in their reasons, looking at the animal rather than the handler, they seem to be enjoying themselves.” -Meggan Mumford
How can judges make a positive impact?
A common assumption is that exhibitors don’t like judges if they place poorly under them. Based on the responses from the survey, I would argue that the reason they don’t like that judge is not because they placed poorly, but rather that they didn’t understand why they placed poorly. Exhibitors want to understand the reasoning behind the judges evaluation so they can learn and improve. Exhibitors value judges with good oral reasons and that take the time to teach. When asked how a judge can have a positive impact on exhibitors, here are their responses:
“Keeping criticism constructive, and if time allows willing to answer exhibitors questions.” -Anonymous
“Having patience with new handlers or young animals. Giving good suggestions for those not placing in the class or offering pointers to those who didn’t tip the class. There is always room to learn!” -C. Peterson
“When judges explain why they chose one animal over another and talk about the positive and negative qualities of a particular animal, it can be very helpful to an exhibitor and also be a learning experience.” -Anonymous
“Take the time to show you've evaluated every animal, give accurate reasons, and be consistent in what you're selecting for from one class to the next.” -Anonymous
“Encourage exhibitors; find at least one great trait they can exemplify as well as make suggestions on how to improve.” -Anonymous
"Taking the time to talk to/work with the youth exhibitors and interact with the public at the show in an educational way ." -Anonymous
Judges who go above & beyond
Judges that go above and beyond their duties leave a lasting impression. Truly great judges may not stand out on a judges list with names and phone numbers, but if you ask around and the same names keep coming up it is likely because they excel in their duties as a judge. When asked to share a story of a judge that went above and beyond and truly impressed, here is how respondents replied:
“I had a very shy girl showing and the judge, I feel, realized this and went above and beyond and made the experience positive. She is still showing!” -Anonymous
“I saw a judge do a quick release knot demonstration to a group of children after they watched several adults do a quick release knot that she did not approve of. She explained why she liked her knot and why she didn't like the other knot. It was a great learning opportunity for the kids, and she did it while they were waiting in line for a walk through so all kids heard the same information so it was taught in a fair manner.” -Anonymous
“I was in Showmanship with a novice animal. He was being very skittish and jumpy. Even though I didn’t place in this large class, one of the three judges went and talked to every class exhibitor from first to those who didn’t place.” -Anonymous
Negative experiences with judges
While we have focused on the positive and what makes a good judge, it can be important to understand what reasons exhibitors have for not wanting to show under a judge. The appearance of bias is a common reason. This comes back to exhibitors valuing integrity and good oral reasons. Not all exhibitors will leave satisfied with their results, however a good judge will be able to clearly explain their placements and help exhibitors learn. When asked about judges they don’t enjoy showing under, respondents shared the following:
“Terrible oral reasons for placements. Rude and demanding to exhibitors and show staff. Judges who can’t wait to leave.” –Nicholas Hauptly
“I heard a judge ask an exhibitor about their animal's pedigree while in the ring, that has always bothered me and changed my opinion of the judge.” -Anonymous
"Poor or no oral reasoning for placements, judges who were short with new exhibitors or kids, judges who place with an eye on politics." -Anonymous
“I do not enjoy it when it appears that a judge places an animal based on the farm or exhibitor relationship rather than the individual llama and their positive traits.” - Anonymous
“Poor reasoning for placements, inconsistent, slow, and indecisive” -Anonymous
The Path Forward
How do judges and superintendent's move forward from here? Personally, I’d like to see judges who are taking the posture of lifelong learning. I hope that judges and future judges who read this article takeaway a willingness to continue practicing their craft, and recognize there are always areas to improve and new things to learn. For superintendents, I hope they are willing to listen to exhibitors and their well-reasoned thoughts on judges; that they strive to hire good judges. The judges list will always change and there will always be judges on the list who exhibitors like and dislike. There will be judges who some people don’t feel are qualified. There are also judges on the list that do a great job. It is up to show superintendents and exhibitors to endorse good judges by hiring and showing under them. I’ll end this article with responses received from the open-ended question, “Is there anything else you’d like to share about judges from an exhibitor's perspective?”
“I’m extremely happy with all the llama judges I have had the pleasure to show under. I especially enjoy watching the judges help out 4-H and other exhibitors on show day. Again, a smile and kind word can go a long way!” -C. Peterson
“Judges who are consistent really leave their mark - if you’re sorting one class this way and the very next class you change it up, it looks horrible and you lose all credibility amongst exhibitors. I also enjoy a judge who can joke and have fun with exhibitors in the ring - let’s have a good time!…. While remembering our place at the show.” - Anonymous
“I know judging is hard and exhausting but it can be frustrating at big shows when you feel like they aren’t even watching you in performance. If you go off course or have a refusal but still place when you shouldn’t, but do so because the judges are tired and not paying attention.” -Anonymous
“Judges work hard and often put in long days/nights! There are a lot of great judges out there and showing is enjoyable!” -Meggan Mumford
“Those who are best at communicating with their classes usually have much more relaxed exhibitors. Getting straight down to business and being too harsh on criticism just makes both kids, adults, and animals more nervous. Giving positive feedback to the entire group is more helpful, and even better when it is opened up to ask for specific ways to personally improve.” -Anonymous