Steve Heinecke is a USEF-licensed “R” judge in the hunter and hunter/jumping seat equitation discipline categories. His officiating history displays years of experience and includes some of the most prestigious horse shows throughout the country such as the Hampton Classic, Saint Louis National Charity Horse Show, Mid-Atlantic Equitation Championships, RMI Jubilee, Winter Equestrian Festival, Aiken Fall Festival and at facilities such as the Fairfield Hunt Club and the Tryon International Equestrian Center. Recently, he judged the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Tryon in May. Go behind-the-scenes for an inside perspective into the mind of a top-level hunter/jumper judge in his column “Keeping Score with Steve Heinecke.”
From June 29–July 3, I was honored with the opportunity to travel to the West Coast and judge the Blenheim Red, White & Blue Classic at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park in San Juan Capistrano, California.
I’ve judged at this particular horse show venue before, but this was my first show judging as a “R” judge at this facility. Previously I had visited as a “r” judge and I was mentoring with Rob Bielefeld.
I judged the Small Junior Hunters 15 & Under and 16–17 division, the Large Junior Hunters 15 & Under and 16–17 division, the Performance Working Hunter division, the ASPCA Maclay class and the Short-Stirrup Hunter division. I also judged the $5,000 Markel Pony Hunter Derby on Saturday, which was won by Juliette Joseph and Cavour, owned by Grace Russo. During my time in California, I was privileged to judge alongside Sue Ashe, Walter James Lee and Joe Dotoli.
As a judge, first and foremost, my perspective comes from being a rider before a trainer.
When a rider first comes in the ring, I write their number down and I just watch. If they don’t make any major mistakes, I just watch, simple as that. In my mind I’m thinking what I think the round is. Is it a 75; is it an 85, where do I fit it? Then I look at my card and I see whom I’ve given other scores of 75 to so then I can compare. If they do make mistakes, I’m marking that on my card. Otherwise I’m looking for an overall feeling. Obviously judging is subjective, but in the hunter ring I like a rider with contact that has shape. I don’t mind if they have a loose rein, as long as there’s still shape. There are riders that don’t touch the reins and yet their horse still has shape through the topline. I don’t like to see a horse that is flat through their topline. However, I appreciate a good jumper and I don’t mind a little mistake here and there.
Primarily I like to see a smooth round with a rider that has a good understanding of their pace and how they want to ride the line. Now if they get there a little snug or a little long but their pace is still right and they let their horse jump the jump, then that’s much nicer to watch than to see someone using three gears — shifting all the time — going fast, then slow, then fast.
There were many really lovely horses and riders to judge at the Blenheim Red, White & Blue Classic.
One particular moment from the show sticks out in my mind.
There was a little boy I judged in the short-stirrup, and he was clearly a good rider, but he was having some bad luck. His first round, his pony spooked at a garbage bag that was flying around. Then he won a class and he went in the under saddle and he picked up the wrong lead. So he was just having a bad day. He was riding by me to the next class and I said to him, ‘Are you having a little bad luck?’ He just looked down and said, ‘Yea.’ I said, ‘Aw, don’t worry about it. Keep on riding, it’s all going to be good.’ A big smile came across his face and the next class he was awesome. It was nice. He was a sweet little kid and you could tell he was beating himself up, but it was just bad luck. It didn’t mean he wasn’t a good rider.
Even though, as a judge, I’m criticizing others all day on their riding, I also like to be encouraging and positive. Showing can be hard, especially when you’re having a bad horse show, and everyone has those days as a rider.
My pet peeve as a judge is seeing somebody rough up their horse. You’re showing, you’re not schooling. I know these things happen, but you need to do it in a way that is appropriate. Sometimes you see people become inappropriate. Not unlike if I were to discipline my children. There’s a level to which you can go, and there’s a time and a place. I don’t want to see that — not that I see it that often, but I don’t like that. I also don’t like fast and scary. If you’re fast and deleting strides, you’re in the 50s. Safety first.
At the Bleheim Red, White & Blue Classic, I saw a couple of kids or amateurs come in and they didn’t have the best trip, but they walked and they pet their horse. That’s what you should do. No big deal, it’s just one class, tomorrow’s a new day.
The horse show was fantastic. The newer horse shows are becoming more commercial nowadays — they understand the business side of things and how to make a show productive and proficient. The Blenheim facility is an older, more traditional facility and what’s nice about it is that it has a lot of character. It feels very classic and old school, like the way it used to be. It is run very proficiently, like the newer shows, but has not lost the charm of the older shows. It was a really nice horse show and I thoroughly enjoyed my time judging at the Blenheim Red, White & Blue Classic!
About Steve Heinecke/Sock Inc.:
Sock Inc. is a hunter, jumper and equitation training operation located directly outside Charlotte, North Carolina, catering to riders of all levels. Owned by world-class professional hunter rider, trainer and judge, Steve Heinecke, Sock Inc., affectionately named after partner Ken and children Olive and Charlie (Steve, Olive, Charlie, Ken = Sock Inc.), is known for producing top quality horses and riders while enforcing a high standard of professionalism and understanding of proper horsemanship in all its students so as to continue to better the sport for future generations to come.