What’s Your Point: The Difference Between Penalties and Maneuver Scores in Trail with Holly Hover

January 11th, 2016 9:42 AM | No Comments

By Nadia Aslam

There seems to always be a bit of frustration that a penalty applied to a horse often doesn’t carry the same weight that a maneuver score does. I’m going to try to give you an explanation of how this works from a judge’s point of view with AQHA judge, Holly Hover.


In a nutshell – Trail is a scored event, and that score comes from two different ways of thinking, one is subjective – which is the maneuver score, and the other is objective – which is the penalty score.


The judge is held to a very strict code on applying penalties. Our penalties are vast, the best way to learn them is to check your AQHA Rulebook. It gives a complete and very thorough description of the penalties and how they’re applied.

In a multiple judge situation, depending on where a judge sits, what they can hear, and what they can see, penalties can occasionally be different. Normally though, all judges should see and report the same penalties.


On the flip side we also mark the maneuver from a subjective point of view, and in that, we are talking about movement, way of going, top line, attitude, expression, rein length, etc.


A person can be attached a penalty and still receive a positive maneuver score, a lot of times people don’t understand that, but the judge, of course, takes into consideration the good as well as the bad!

When I’m giving clinics I like to play a video on scoring; it gives exhibitors the opportunity to get an idea of what it’s like for us. Very often everything happens very quickly; It’s enlightening for exhibitors to see how it works from our side of the fence.


You know, I think the detail in the score sheets for Trail, Western Riding, etc. has been a big factor in what has driven our industry forward.

It used to be very random; you could go show, place fifth and think “What the heck, I thought I had a nice go.”

One of the best things that the score sheet does now is that it addresses footwork of the horse i.e. ticking, hitting, breaking gait, etc.

A penalty that could instead be attributed and applied to a rider, for example, would be a penalty score zero, for going off pattern or dropping a gait.


Primarily the judges try to stay positive, but let’s say we have a horse that’s really clean, he doesn’t do anything wrong per se, but his ears are pinned, he’s swishing his tail and clearly unhappy. In that instance, he could receive no penalties at all but -1 on the maneuver score because of his attitude.


I think it’s significantly important! The exhibitor can look back over their score sheet and say. “Hey if I didn’t break gait – my score would have been three points higher, and I would have been third in the class.” So I think it’s a great positive reinforcement for exhibitors to improve, and it tells you exactly what it is that the judges saw.


I think that the biggest misconception from the exhibitor is that they think all judges should judge exactly the same. It does seem sensible that all judges should find the penalties the same. However, you have to throw the variables in there such as weather, where the judge is sitting, sound, etc.

Very often they’ll say well I got a plus ½ under judge A and a zero under Judge B, and that’s OK because I might like red and you might like blue! And that’s a big part of what makes this fun.

My suggestion to those people – just don’t have a penalty! You will be rewarded for excellence in your presentation as well.

The great horse appeals to all schools of thought and as an exhibitor and a trainer, I enjoy showing to judges from different arenas – it brings a really good circle of knowledge to what you’re presenting, and if you are the winner, you will appeal to all eyes.


I don’t think there is a judge in the world that wouldn’t want to give you some feedback and be encouraging, after all, we become judges because we like to help riders improve. Having said that, because of the size of our shows – it’s very difficult to go five days, seventeen hours a day, giving feedback along with everything else that we do.

I can tell you for a fact; I have never judges alongside a judge who wasn’t doing their absolute best to, first of all, place the class, and second to give some feedback to the exhibitors.


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