The Dangers of Deciding
Most people wouldn’t consider judging dog sports to be dangerous. But this is a case where most people are not just wrong, but can be seriously wrong.
It’s a given that judges are always going to be at the mercy of the elements at field events or outdoor shows. About once a year during the 15 years I judged all three types of hunt tests, I had to stop the event because a thunderstorm popped up, and lightning is not something to be taken lightly.
Judges also know it is sometimes necessary to deal with irate handlers or owners in the field or at performance events who can become incensed when you fail to give their dog a qualifying score, even though the dog’s performance was light years away from the minimum accepted standards for that event. It is also always imperative, particularly at field events, to make the test run smoothly and fairly for all dogs.
About once a year it was necessary to stop the event because a thunderstorm popped up, and lightning is not something to be taken lightly.
These aspects of judging are well known and are accepted as part of the job. What somehow never gets included in the “job description” are such things as an aggressive ram, vile-tempered horses and even loose ring matting.
A friend of mine found out about the latter the hard way when she failed to notice it as she was judging the Sporting Group one day.
As she later described it, in her final pass down the lineup of dogs, striding purposefully along, the very picture of a dignified dog-show judge, she tripped over the loose matting and executed a forward flip on to the mat that was flawless in almost every element except one. She wound up on her back instead of on her feet and in the process forgot to tuck both arms. The result was that her left arm hit the mat first and her radius snapped.
Once she managed to regain her footing, she quickly called the group placements before she raced out of the ring in search of medical attention. Fortunately, there were a couple of EMTs at the show who stabilized the fracture, and a show committee member drove her to the local hospital emergency room. Luckily, there was an orthopedist available at the ER because some other unfortunate, this one with a broken leg, had arrived shortly before the wounded judge.
Even in such a sedate setting as the show ring, there can be hidden dangers.
But by far the most fraught-with-danger judging involves field activities or those sports where livestock or other critters are either part of the mix or intrude upon it. I once wound up hip deep in some of the most gawdawful, stinking water imaginable when an undermined section of ground collapsed beneath me while I was judging a retriever test. And if, as another example, you think sheep are soft, gentle critters that amble around eating grass and going “baaa,” a herding judge I interviewed a couple of years ago has a very different view.
“I don’t know what sort of bee that ram had under his fleece, but it certainly made him angry,” he says. “When I entered the arena, I wasn’t paying attention to the sheep. Turns out, I should have been at DEFCON 1 because war with the ram was about to break out.”
The herding judge’s personal Pearl Harbor began with a sneak attack.
“I was a linebacker in high school and college, so I’ve been blindsided a few times, but I’ve never been hit as hard on the football field as I was when the ram plowed into me from behind,” he continues. “I must have flown a good 10 feet and — talk about ‘whiplash’ — I had a headache for a good two weeks after the attack.”
But the ram wasn’t satisfied with just one good head butt and continued his assault. As the stunned judge tried to scramble back to his feet, the ram hit him again, this time from the side, knocking him over once more. The judge says the force of this second blow was comparable to what he’d experienced when he was knocked down by the concussive blast from an improvised explosive device that had been detonated near the truck in which he was riding during his deployment in Iraq.
This time, the sheep pressed his attack home with a third hard head butt, apparently planning to finish off what he perceived as an enemy, although the judge had no clue as to why he had been singled out, and neither did the sheep’s owner.
The German Shepherd Dog was the hero when it was necessary to stop an irate, aggressive ram from attacking a herding judge.
“I suspect a lot of the handlers viewed what was happening in the arena as something from a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton movie, but as the recipient of the ram’s blows, I can tell you it wasn’t a bit funny,” the judge says. “Fortunately for me, the handler who was to have been first to go ran into the arena with her German Shepherd Dog, and between the two of them, they managed draw the ram’s attention away me.
“Actually, all the credit for my escape goes to the dog. The dog’s owner pointed to the ram and yelled, ‘Get ’em’ to the dog, something she said that was her signal for him to get aggressive as a last resort when dealing with bulls in her cattle operation. Fortunately for me, the GSD didn’t care whether the target was a Charolais bull or a blackface ram.”
While mere humans hadn’t had any deterrent effect on the angry ram, the GSD’s impressive set of teeth set things right in a hurry. As soon as the dog got between the ram and the judge, faced with those teeth along with numerous snarls, growls and a very aggressive posture, the sheep gave up the fight and retreated. Once the ram was separated from the rest of the sheep and chased back into the flock owner’s truck — no mean feat, according to the judge, as the ram was in no mood to leave his harem — the judge decided he wasn’t hurt badly enough to require medical attention.
“Even though I was pretty sore, nothing was broken, and a lot of folks had driven a considerable distance to get to the trial that day, so I decided the show, or in this case the trial, must go on,” the judge says. “Fortunately, the GSD didn’t seem to have been affected by having to get aggressive with the ram to bail me out, and he wound up being Reserve High in Trial. This was one time when everyone, including the ram’s owner, was more than happy to overlook a dog getting aggressive with stock. In fact, he was the recipient of several boxes of really tasty treats from me as well as several other handlers along with his RHIT ribbon. The next morning, however, I couldn’t even begin to think about crawling out of bed until some pretty serious painkillers had taken effect.”
Horses were simply a fact of life in pointing breed tests and trials, and during the period when I was judging, I was no stranger to equestrian sports. For about 20 years, I rode hunters and jumpers, many of which were not all that long off the racetrack, and for more than a year, I galloped young racehorses for a trainer on weekends. All of which meant that I got on some pretty fractious horses during that period. Still, I enjoyed riding even the silly, half-broke 2-year-olds.
Horses are a fact of life in pointing-breed hunt tests and field trials. That they’re necessary doesn’t always mean the horse views it that way and will cooperate.
It wasn’t until I started judging pointing-breed tests that a lot of the enjoyment of being on the back of a horse went south. That was because just about every third event seemed to turn into a rodeo of some sort. About half the time, it was just semi-serious bucking, where the horse could usually be finessed into stopping merely by sticking with it and not being abusive about trying to re-establish control. But every now and then, I’d encounter one with the kind of sheer malevolence that would have been a challenge for a champion professional rodeo roughstock rider.
And the worst of the worst was a black Tennessee Walking Horse whose heart was as black as his coat and who wanted to kill me.
Now the TWH ordinarily is a pretty amiable, gentle and calm breed that is a joy to ride. But this particular animal was definitely an exception, and I had the bad luck to draw him as my mount for a pointer test.
It did not escape my notice that the wrangler had a pretty tight grip on the bridle as I mounted, so I asked if there was anything in particular about the horse that I ought to know.
“Wal, this old hoss can get a mite crossways once in a while,” he casually commented. That may have been the most serious understatement I’ve heard in my long career as a journalist — and I’ve heard many understatements, as well as even more exaggerations.
The ride began peaceably enough. When the wrangler let go of the horse’s head, the horse simply stood there. So, I smooched gently to him and applied a little leg pressure. No response except he became more firmly affixed to the spot. So I escalated the pressure by shaking the reins and squeezing a bit harder, along with some verbal encouragement.
Finally, after several rising-in-force attempts to get the horse to move, including at the end, practically sticking my spurs through his sides, I said to the wrangler, “OK, what’s the secret?”
“Ah, you jus’ gotta whack ’em a good one ta get ’em ta move,” and with that, he brought his whip down hard on the horse’s rump.
That definitely got the horse moving: He arched his back and jumped straight up in the air, twisting his body and shaking his head while kicking out behind with all the force he could muster, which was plenty. He landed on all four legs seemingly with his joints locked, which about jarred my teeth loose.
In the half-second or so of pause before his next explosion, I took a death grip on him with my legs, grabbed a big handful of mane in one hand and shortened the reins in the other hand to keep his head up, which, I hoped, would at least put a little crimp in his ability to buck. Faint hope that, as it didn’t seem to inhibit his bucking a bit.
The horse went up, down and sideways. He sunfished, belly-rolled and spun in circles for a whole lot longer than the eight seconds the bronc riders have to stick with a horse at the National Finals Rodeo to get a qualified ride. I have no idea how I managed to still be the one on top when he finally came to a brief halt — sheer blind luck would be the best explanation — and I took advantage of his momentary fatigue to bail out.
Unfortunately, the jump off left me in range of the horse, who chose that precise instant to spin and hit me with his hip, which sent me flying, only to land hard on my back several feet away.
While I tried to regain my feet and get some air back in my lungs, I looked up to see the black devil headed in my direction, snaking his lowered head, his ears laid back and his teeth bared. The only time I’d previously seen that behavior by a horse was in a fight I once witnessed between two mustang stallions in Montana. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to determine the TWH was a horse bent on murder.
Luckily there was a hard dirt clod handy, which I grabbed and hurled at him with all the strength that results from having about a quart of adrenalin suddenly dumped into your circulatory system.
Lady Luck smiled on me once again, as my aim was good. The clod hit that son of Satan squarely between his eyes and detonated. That proved to be enough of a shock that he paused his attack long enough for me to scramble to safety behind my truck.
So, judging is not always a bed of roses. In addition to often being a thankless job, there can be some real risks involved. That’s something to keep in mind if you are tempted to become a judge.