By Dr. Bob Womack
Perhaps the greatest problem presenting itself to Walking Horse people is that of determining the relative value of horses in the performance of their gaits. Many newcomers to the industry have left in disgust after experiencing what they considered unfair treatment at the hands of the judges. Some of this resentment against judges was no doubt justified, but some of it resulted from a lack of understanding about the process of judging Walking Horses. The fact that most of the people who left the industry because of judging did not stay around long enough to get themselves informed indicates the industry is probably better off without them.
The purpose of all competition is to determine relative value. The very nature of competition dictates that there can be only one winner. This holds true even in the case of a tie, for in this situation there is no winner. In some situations it is a simple matter to determine the winner but in others it is highly complicated. Unfortunately the establishment of relative value among Walking Horses falls into the latter category.
The complexity of the process through which relative value is established is greatly influenced by two main considerations: 1. Whether or not the characteristics of excellence have been standardized, and 2. the techniques used to measure excellence. In horse racing it has been previously agreed upon that excellence is equated with speed; therefore the horse which comes under the wire first is declared the winner. In a football game it has been previously agreed upon that the team scoring the most points is the superior team and is therefore declared the winner. Furthermore it has been previously agreed upon under what circumstances these points must be scored and every effort has been made to remove human judgement from the situation. In jumping classes excellence has been equated with the height cleared by each entry and that height has been measured exactly alike for each entry. In all these examples spectators unschooled in the technical aspects of the event can still easily determine the winner. No matter how many people watch such events they see the same thing and would in all probability agree on the winner.
Unfortunately the judging of Walking Horses is not so simple. As yet there has been no exact standardization of Walking Horse gaits and certainly no way has been developed to remove the human element from the process of assessing the relative quality of gaits exhibited by competing entries. In the final analysis it is the judge's opinion which determines the winner.
Of course a certain degree of standardization has taken place through the years but by no stretch of the imagination has it made the outcome of a Walking class predictable to the viewer. Assuming the judge is honest and has had enough experience with Walkers to formulate a valid concept of excellence, the above situation should not necessarily prove harmful to the industry. It is certainly a situation exhibitors will have to live with until more standardization occurs. The important thing is that all who participate in Walking Horse shows understand how the process works.
The symptoms of excellence are not a source of controversy within the industry. Most people agree that a horse should nod its head, should reach in front and drive behind, and should carry itself with style. The horse should not amble or have lost motion, its canter should be consistent and rolling, it should be well mannered, and it should be fine in conformation. But the matter of degree immediately enters the scene to cloud the issue. How much nod does a horse need? How much overstride is enough? How much reach and how much drive? How do you equate a good nod with a poor overstride? What constitutes adequate speed? What constitutes a good flatwalk? Almost every individual can answer these questions to his own satisfaction but as yet no one has been able to answer them to the satisfaction of the industry. The truth of the matter is that as individuals of the industry we have never agreed on the answers to these questions.
While all horses in a class are of necessity competing with each other this does not represent the most important competition occurring during a show. Besides competing with each other every horse in the ring is also competing with an idea of perfection which exists nowhere but in the mind of the judge. Every horse that passes before him actually represents an imperfect reflection of the "ideal" horse he pictures in his mind and the winner is nothing more than the entry which most nearly approximates that "ideal" horse. To believe otherwise is to engage in self-deceit.
If all judges possessed the same idea of a perfect horse the problem would be solved and the goal of standardization would have been achieved. But this simply is not the case. Each judge has developed his own unique concept of excellence and since the factors which influenced these individual concepts have been different it stands to reason that the concepts themselves will differ. The question naturally arises then, how do we arrive at our concept of excellence in Walking Horses?
All value judgements ultimately trace to some source of authority regardless of how vague this source might be. We would all like to believe we have formulated our own concept of value and certainly, to some degree, we have but the raw material from which our own unique concept is constructed came to us through sources outside ourselves. Early impressions play an important role in developing such concepts. If a child is brought up in a situation in which Walking Horses are present, the child will surely be influenced by what he hears and sees. His idea of excellence in Walking Horses will forever be influenced by these early experiences. This is the chief reason generation gaps have always been present in judging Walking Horses and the elder statesmen of the breed oft-times disagree radically with the younger set on what constitutes a good horse. Exactly the same thing occurs with adults who enter the industry at different stages of the Walking Horse's development. Their first impressions tend to dominate their value judgements. This has never been more apparent than at the present time.
Most of the younger trainers of today never saw HAYNE'S PEACOCK, STROLLING JIM, MERRY WILSON, MERRY GO BOY or MIDNIGHT SUN in the showring. But those who did see them will in all probability never discard them as models of excellence. Ask any old-timer if there is a horse living today that can flat walk with GREATER GLORY and he will probably say "No". Ask the younger trainer or owner to describe a great Walking Horse and you are likely to hear about a product of the mid-fifties or later which climbs in front and uses its hind legs as crutches. Both groups are sincere and honest in their judgement, each indicating the standards of excellence which it was conditioned to accept. Since neither group pretends that its concept was Divinely inspired neither has the right to condemn the other. Unfortunately both sides of the generation gap dismiss the other as hopelessly lost and little effort has been made to bridge the gap.
Until standardization takes place the exhibitor has little recourse but to accept the decision of the judge as final. He can disagree but he must realize his disagreement will have no effect on the situation. Assuming the judge has rendered an honest decision, the exhibitor has no right to say it is wrong merely because it does not coincide with his own ideas of excellence. The judge has authority by virtue of his position, the exhibitor does not and must live with the fact. If the exhibitor cannot accept these conditions he had best remove himself from situations in which such judgements are made.