Growing up, John Wich never did care much for horses. It was something about their teeth that put him on edge. “Actually, I was afraid of horses when I was a kid,” he laughed. “I thought their teeth were too big.”
You would never know that today as he leads one of his favorite horses, Jack, from a stall at the stable he runs with his wife, Michelle. Together they own and train Morgans at their ranch called Eastwich Morgans in Harshaw, and John, Michelle and their daughter Nellie, have just returned from Oklahoma City, where they attended the Grand National and World Championship Morgan Horse Show.
This was one year they didn’t bring any of their beautiful animals to this event though. In fact they were prohibited from doing so because John was chosen to judge the equines that qualified to attend this premiere horse show. “Naturally, if you are a judge, you can’t show your own animals,” said John. “But I felt honored to be there.”
Becoming a top-notch judge is no easy task. Those who aspire to this must first have a love of horses, which John does, now. This came after he met Michelle, close to 25 years ago. “She had a horse when we got married,” said John. “Then we started buying, training and showing horses. That’s when I got hooked.”
By trade, John is a mechanic at his family’s shop, D&J Auto and Truck Repair in Rhinelander. In fact he used to race stock cars before he got into the world of horses. Oddly, it was his love of mechanics and movement that made him decide to pursue studying to become a horse judge. Another deciding factor was that he is also a farrier. “You know, farriers used to be the mechanics of the world,” he said. “Not only did they shoe horses, but they also fixed wagons and other implements.”
Michelle admits that John has always had an eye for correct movement in horses. And John agrees that it was a big factor in him becoming a farrier. “It’s really important that you watch how a horse moves so you shoe it correctly,” he said. “I think that’s what drew me to think about becoming a judge.”
The Wich’s have always shown their horses as a family, and attending so many shows throughout the years gave John an advantage to watch good and bad judging. “That was another motivation for me,” he said. “Sometimes, there are a lot of politics involved at horse shows and I didn’t like that. I wanted to be the type of judge that I would personally like to show in front of.”
For years, John studied rule books, attended horse shows and participated in showing the Wich stable horses. He has shown horses not only under a number of riding disciplines like Western and English pleasure, but also driving. And he’s won grand championships, too.
It was five years ago when John decided to take the test to qualify to become what is called a “recorded” or small “r” judge. These judges usually handle smaller events. Then he studied for the large “R” certification and passed, becoming registered with the United States Equine Federation. “I told the test giver that my goal was to judge a grand championship show in five years and he just laughed at me,” John said. “He told me you have to be a Large R judge for many years before you are chosen for that honor.”
But John worked hard and impressed officials who organize Morgan horse shows throughout the country. He applied to judge many shows and when he was hired, he did just what he set out to do when he decided to become a judge. “I have great admiration for anyone who brings their horses to these shows,” he said. “From experience, I can attest to the fact that it is a lot of work, so these competitors deserve someone who is going to be fair and impartial.”
The Wich’s traveled to Oklahoma City a few weeks ago so John could judge this grand championship show that featured only the Morgan breed. Michelle and John have been enamored with these horses from the beginning. “They are a very kind horse,” said Michelle. “They are very athletic and showy. And we both like training them.”
There were more than 1,100 Morgans that competed and they were shown in many different disciplines, from carriage driving to English pleasure to western riding and more. There were competitors from all over the country, several from different parts of the world, and the event spanned just a little more than a week. John judged more than eight hours every day for classes that were as large as 30 horses. Classes this large can pose some bookkeeping problems. “It’s real important that you keep track of the numbers of the competitors,” said John. “You have to know what number they are so you can place them correctly.”
During each competition, the horses parade in one at a time. They proceed around the ring at a trot at first. “You really have to be on your game when you show a horse,” said Michelle. “You might be in the ring for 20 minutes but the judge may only see you 30 seconds of that time. You really have to make your horse stand out.”
Eventually, the horses slow to a walk and then canter. During all these maneuvers, John jots down the numbers of the competitors that he thinks are contenders. “When the horses come in, I pick out the ones that really stand out right away and write their numbers down,” he said. “Then I start placing the other horses depending on their performance.”
Horses are judged on a wide variety of aspects. Of course, John always watches their movement to make sure they are fluid and correct. But there are myriad of details that need to be looked at. For instance some classes require that the horse’s hooves be a certain length. How a rider performs is also important, and even the tack and costume of the horse and rider are taken into consideration. There are some classes where the horse is shown at the end of the lead rope and how it moves and responds to the trainer is judged. Every little detail has to be taken into account and one misstep, one wrong move, could cost a contestant the grand prize ribbon.
John admits that he always gets a little nervous before a class files in. But then, when all the horses are in the ring, he starts to concentrate and loses all sense of time and place. “You pretty much just zone in on what you are doing,” he said. “Everything else is just in the background.”
While John has reached the highest pinnacle as far as judging Morgans goes, he is now going to focus on becoming qualified to judge other breeds as well. “I’m going to start working toward my certification for Friesians and Saddlebreds,” he said. “I really like judging and I can see doing more when I retire.”
For now, though, the Wichs are busy continuing to train their Morgans hoping to capture the always elusive blue ribbon. And that fact puts a smile on John’s face. “Yeah, I guess I never figured I would end up being a horse judge,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a good thing I got over being afraid of their teeth.”