I judged my first Arabian dressage show 20 years ago in New Jersey. There were all of 15 rides. Since then I’ve watched the direction at Arabian breed shows turn not just toward more dressage entries but also toward the Sport Horse division, which includes both judging on the triangle and group hack classes. The clear emphasis is form to function. Arabian Sport Horse classes can be judged by any regular dressage, hunter or jumper judges, not licensed Arabian breed judges. Now at Arabian breed shows I often see full days of multi-ring dressage classes plus full days of Sport Horse classes.
At an Arabian show in Lexington, Kentucky last week, as usual the Sport Horses were sort of a “show within a show” for me. There is the main arena, where the bulk of the Arabian classes – saddle seat, western, costume, etc. -- are held, but the only time I might see them is if the lunch concession overlooks the ring. I confess that I really don’t understand what’s going on in there, but I suspect the same is true in reverse. Over in the Sport Horse ring, we did a full morning of hack classes, followed by a full afternoon of judging on the triangle. There was a dressage ring going on somewhere else as well, but I never saw it.
The Arabian Sport Horse division has come a long way in a short amount of time, with their own national championships. I used to see a lot of cross entering from the main ring, when horses clearly bred and trained for another purpose would show up to maybe get another ribbon or points and where halter handlers would park out their horses while holding the nose higher than the poll. No more. The Arabian Sport Horses are for the most part purpose-bred and trained. You see big solid feet and sloping croups. “High behind” is a term I rarely hear with Arabian dressage horses any more, like I used to a couple decades ago.
I know quite a few people who show Arabians in straight dressage and bypass the breed shows and vice versa. I doubt they even cross paths. As far as the judging is concerned, however, nothing changes between straight dressage shows and breed shows. I see capable riding and less-wonderful riding at both.
The area I think is really fun is the division for cross-breds. I see Arabians crossed with just about anything, and they can be vibrant in appearance – every coat color imaginable, with lots of pintos and an amazing variety of conformation types, which makes it a lot easier to judge when there are a dozen or more horses in a hack class.
I’m told that I am an “Arabian-friendly” judge. I presume that means that I am known for not having a breed prejudice, but it sort of bothers me. I feel no dressage judge should have a breed prejudice. I personally don’t know any dressage judge who feels that way, and I certainly don’t approach the judging at a breed show any differently than I would a straight show.