THERE WAS a time when only hunting and National Hunt racing were truly active at this time of year and the rest of the equestrian community braced itself for the winter months ahead, longing for daylight to start lengthening again.

It is the latter which is the killer for most of us and not the weather, but neither seems to affect a growing number of modern equestrians who remain competitively active throughout 12 months of the year. Not for them the practice of a good friend who used to call her blacksmith to pull the shoes off her Highland pony when the clocks went back in autumn and put them on again when the clocks went forward in the spring!

It would be fair to assume that much of the rationale behind this trend lies in the increased leisure time and flexible working arrangements available to many people nowadays as well as the availability of all-weather facilities at home.

Competition centres have popped up all round Scotland, some of which boast extremely good facilities which are available for hire even at weekends. Long gone are the days when dependency on riding lessons for income at weekends made ‘indoor schools’ out of bounds for organisations keen to host a winter activity.

However, as more and more riding centres have turned to hiring their facilities as a major source or revenue, the greater the demands made by the hirers and users whose needs have become greater and tastes more discerning over time.

Over the past few weeks, I have attended shows at three centres whose facilities range from the sublime to basic and common to them all was that cold feet syndrome which many a livestock market goer will recognise. Unlike dressage competitions, where it is possible to turn up to compete at a set time, pack up, go home and wait for the results to be posted on line, there is always a lot of hanging about at showing shows.

The demand for winter shows seemed to reach a hiatus a few years back and dwindling entries this time round may well have sounded the death knell for many.

Interestingly, the North of Fife Foal Show enjoyed success when it moved to a centre last year to commemorate its centenary and this year it proved to be a popular event from both exhibitors and public. It’s one of the few equestrian events which manages a gate, so there was a healthy income from visitors to help with the costs.

The showing of Clydesdales, foals in particular, is interesting for an outsider and I have yet to fathom what the judges are looking for, save for the few outstanding animals which anyone could judge to win.

An aspect of this year’s show which captured my imagination was the procedure adopted by the judge of the ridden class which provided a fine interlude from the in-hand classes and a timely reminder to the traditionalists that possibly herein lies the salvation of their breed. Having walked round the ring once or twice, the horses were pulled in any order and asked to complete an individual show before final placings were made.

There was no trot and canter together and there was no apparent system of judging conformation – that didn’t mean to say the latter was not taken into account and I thought the winner was quite outstanding, a real HOYS contender in the future and one to watch next season.

Unwittingly, I suspect, the judge was unaware that she followed a procedure which has been subject to suggestion at many a judges’ conference over recent years in response to the accusation that they don’t take into account the ‘go round’ when allocating final marks.

Obviously, if exhibits aren’t asked to go round together, a judge can’t be criticised for ignoring this part of the performance phase. Experiencing this format for the first time, I felt the class lost a key element of showmanship for both class and ringside, so not one I’d adopt in the future.

The topic of allocating marks remains a ‘hot potato’ within judging circles, whatever the discipline and some more than others are taking serious steps to set standards and educate judges and competitors alike on the relevance of the mark given during competition. With major titles being won by small margins, it is important that societies and governing bodies work towards the fairest result possible so, as difficult as it may be, they are obliged to take up the challenge.

It is well known that this is a hobby horse of mine and it both surprises and depresses me that not one showing society has dealt with the issue head on, let alone make an effort to guide their judges towards making a better job of the allocation of marks.

While not the choice of everyone, the use of marks has the appeal of transparency for the exhibitor who is now looking for consistency between and among the judges. Training is the only way to achieve this and, yet again, I would appeal to all societies to carry out a review of the ‘marks system’ involving all stake-holders.

A better system may come about as a result and if nothing else, the industry would have offered a listening ear to all concerned and shown a willingness to embrace the critics as well as advocates.

There were no marks required Down Under, recently, when the Dumfries-trained Nakeeta did the nation proud when finishing a creditable fifth in the famous Melbourne Cup. Hopefully, this remarkable training feat by Iain Jardine will be formally recognised at home as well as abroad, although the race industry seems not to attract much publicity within the Scottish equestrian community (bar The SF, of course!).

On this subject, I read with interest a recent tag line for the Scottish Equestrian Awards, ‘Honouring all that is good with Scottish Equestrian’. With 104 nominees for the 26 diverse categories, I notice that jockeys and trainers don’t feature for some reason and there are some well-known names outwith that industry who appear not to have gained popularity with the nominating social media fanatics.

On-line voting opened on October 29 with a presentation scheduled for early February, in Aberdeen. A good night out towards the end of winter as well as an opportunity to meet face-to-face their on-line pals might just be the tonic for enthusiastic equestrians gearing up to a new season of competition.