Ox Ridge judge has an eye for horses
DARIEN -- Jimmy Lee sat in the shade alongside a horse ring at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien Saturday afternoon, his light blue eyes carefully tracking the movement of the horse that passed through the obstacle course in front of him.
"This horse is very, very good here. You can see how smooth he is, at least so far," said Lee, 73. "You don't see a variation in his pace. He just goes along in a very steady way. See, it's very effortless of him to jump."
Lee is one of five judges working at the 81st annual Ox Ridge Horse Show, which concludes Sunday. The light blue eyes he keeps glued to the animal riding through the ring in front of him are some of the most highly respected in the business. He has been judging since 1965.
"He's extremely knowledgeable," said Peter Hugo, 46. Hugo is both a judge in this weekend's competition, and the technical coordinator who hired Lee for the equestrian event. "He's an old-time traditional horseman from Virginia. Hunters are very big in that part of the county, and his opinion is very valued by all the exhibiters here, because he's so well respected in the horse business."
Lee continues to watch the horse in the hunter competition -- where judges evaluate the horse's talents, rather than the rider's -- explaining why he finds that particular horse so impressive.
"See, you don't see the rider doing very much. She might be squeezing with her legs a little bit, or something to get him to go forward, but I mean, it's very smooth. It's very nice," he said. A moment later, he scratches two numbers in blue ink on the grid he has clipped to his clipboard.
"Eighty-four," he tells the announcer next to him, who echoes the score into his microphone.
Judging hunters is kind of like figure skating, Lee said, after issuing the score, which is rated on a scale of zero to 100. It's about style, smoothness and grace, he said.
"It's all about the horse doing it easily, smoothly and in good style. And as you watch the way of moving, the ease, the grace of going over the ground. It should be effortless," he said as he watched the next horse jump over one of roughly a dozen obstacles set up on the course. "I love it. It's just the love of the horse, and I enjoy watching horses. It's a love affair. That's for sure."
His love of horses keeps him perpetually in motion, flying from one show to another to judge throughout the circuit for the majority of the year, he said. On Monday he was in Chicago; after Darien he will pack up for Pennsylvania before flying to California.
"There are some judges who have other jobs, but not me. I do this every week," said Hugo, who calls Franklin, Tenn., home, but only lives there 15 weeks a year.
"I enjoy what I do, but the drawback is that there' a lot of traveling, either in planes or cars, and you never really have a steady, consistent home life," he said. "I'm sort of like a gypsy, I just move around traveling from horse show to horse show."
Hugo has been attending Ox Ridge for 30 years, and judging at the event for the past five. It's worth the trip for him and the other judges, he said.
"This is sort of the best of the East Coast, if you would. The caliber and the quality of the horses here, you hold them to a very high standard, whereas if you're in the Midwest or down South, or in Nebraska, the quality of horses isn't nearly as good," he said. "So, the standard is appropriate to the quality of stock. You see the best of the best at Ox Ridge. It's the highest standard, the highest level. So when you win, or you're a champion at this horse show, it means a lot."
Hugo judged the jumping competition on Saturday, during which time he watched horses sail over fences in the Grand Prix Ring.
"Jumper judging is kind of like scorekeeping, if you would, to put it plainly. Jumper judges will kill me for saying that, but mainly that's what we are, is scorekeepers," he said. Over in the hunter ring, judging is based more on opinion, he said.
"In hunting, if there's a horse that's really sharp-looking and has a good arc, a good bascule, that really catches my eye. That's what I like to see. And when I see the one I like, I base the other ones against that. So if my favorite is an 87 or a 90, a second place is an 80, because he's just not quite as sharp, but he's eye-catching and stylish, if you will," he said.
For Lee, a truly special horse will remain in his mind for days and even weeks, despite the fact that on days like Saturday he judges more than 125 horses a day.
"They don't meld together," Lee said. "There's always special ones that you remember when the day is over, and you remember the next week or next month. Ones that go really, really well. The special ones."
Staff Writer Maggie Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-964-2229.