Another great from a showing dynasty, Granddaughter of the amazing Betty Skelton who championed side saddle for so many years, Cindy is a well respected showing judge, having served on multiple panels as well as grading youngstock, teaching, producing and breeding some lovely ponies and horses. Cindy had an eye for judging from an early age, so early that when she won a judging competition for the British Show Horse Associated, aged 21, she found she was actually too young to be on the panel. However, she recently took a break from judging and I was interested to find out why. And she certainly didn’t disappoint.
Why did you choose showing?
Quite simply, it’s what the family did. My great grandfather focused on hunting and showjumping, but he would have horses to sell and there would often be a horse that Granny showed and then she got into it more with Mum. Mum was the most famous child rider of the late 40s, just before the Bullens came into the game.
We didn’t have expensive ponies. My sister and I both rode for other people, often riding the second strings or naughty ones. We were kept so grounded because we hunted and jumped as well as showed. Most of the show ponies we were sent were purely for showing but everything else had a second job. I remember an owner having absolute kittens when Mummy let it slip that their show pony was doing some polework and cavaletti and I wonder whether that was why the pony was taken away from us in the long run.
I went off and evented but I always returned to showing; it was almost expected. I often don’t like the people in it but I love judging the horses, I just lose myself in it. I am obsessional about bloodstock, breeding, “gosh that’s by that”; knowing how something is bred doesn’t influence my judging but I am just fascinated by it.
What is the best piece of advice you got early on and from who?
Granny and Mummy said “There is always another day. Be sporting and keep smiling.” Everyone should live by that, so many sadly don’t.
And try and stay away from the gossip. In every walk of life there is always going to be the gossipy side but I think in showing it is bad. It is what finished me off as an affiliated judge. I am a sensitive person and all the negative comments and competitors remarks just got to me. It got so bad that I stopped, came off all the panels except side saddle and ROR. (Plus New Forest ponies because I forgot!) Having a break from it has done me good but I will return a lot more like my grandmother and say it as I see it. My mother loves judging and showing but bad comments are like water off a ducks back to her, I take everything to heart. Competitors being rude in the ring, or outside, or overhearing things as you walk around is really not nice.
What has been your biggest mistake?
I was judging, in my early 20s, at the Northern Horse Show, it was a very big class of Riding Horses; all brown. They went round, I pulled them in and pulled in the wrong brown horse top! It was an awful ride, not the most attractive, very ordinary. I had made a mistake so had no quarms about dropping it to sixth but felt rather sorry for the rider. Mummy and Granny really taught me to judge; the etiquette and how to behave, and I was mortified about pulling in the wrong horse and then dropping it. 30 years on and that still upsets me. It’s seared into my memory!
I have had a few people that have loathed me, but if I like their horse it can win and be champion. I put all that beside me. But, I have one or two people who have been unbelievably foul: someone said to my Granny, “Mrs Skelton, your younger granddaughter is a great judge, but that is more than I can say for your older granddaughter.” and at this point Granny, drew herself up to her full 5 foot and said “Madame, it’s people like you that bring showing into disrepute.” and she turned and walked away. Granny thought I was a good judge and that meant a lot.
Favourite horse you have had/ridden? Why? What made him/her special?
A 16hh homebred called Sir Lancelot, by Granny’s stallion, Fair Knight, and out of Friday’s Fair. He was a grandson of Chocolate Box, Mummy’s really famous show pony. Nowadays, he would be a top class large riding horse but, in those days, he was a Lightweight and Ladies Hunter. He was the biggest winner, a really attractive and elegant brown horse and had the heart of a lion; so brave, kind and always tried. He was naturally talentless over a fence though, but nevertheless, we took him up to Novice Eventing, he went to the Spillers Combined Training at HOYS three years in a row, did workers, dressage to advanced level and was never beaten as a Part Bred Arab. The first year they introduced Riding Horses as a new category, he won at Windsor. In his older years he did the Riding Club Quadrille. He was a top class all rounder.
Nowadays, everyone specialises so you don’t get all rounders like him anymore. He was just a wonderful horse and I was so lucky to start riding him at 14. The fact that he was homebred made it even more special.
Horse you wish you had/rode? Why?
Castle Whelan, who won the workers at HOYS and went on to win Burghley a year later. He was a lovely, quality, elegant, thoroughbred type horse. I really looked up to Judy Bradwell, his rider, too.
And the other, who I did have the opportunity to ride twice; once when he won and went champion at HOYS and once the following year at a qualifier, a large grey hack called Formidable. He was and still is the epitome of what I was bought up thinking a hack should be. He was like riding silk. The nearest comparable horses on ride were Guy Landau’s; it takes a combination of training, breeding and conformation to get a ride like that.
There are one or two professionals who I always dreaded getting onto their horses. You like the way some ride because you like the way they have been schooled and trained, then you hear “So and So is going to win because that is who the judge likes” and other exhibitors don’t seem to realise that we like the way their horses go, not necessarily them. So their horse may do better but that is nothing to do with the person, it’s to do with the schooling.
What has been your hardest day showing?
Stuck in my memory is one show. Mummy laughed at this; reminding me that I had won the 12hh, 13hh and 14hhs that day. We were at Fordingbridge show, we had two lorry loads of horses, it was July, in fact it was my 10th Birthday; I thought that was a real landmark age. We had such a busy day with all the ponies and horses there; I got shouted at all day and no one remembered it was my birthday. On the way home, I remember Mummy saying “Stop being so miserable. What’s wrong with you?” and I burst in to tears saying “It’s my birthday!” Everyone had forgotten! Mummy still has guilt about it.
When looking for a show horse, what do you look for?
A horse walks in the ring and I like it or I don’t immediately. I don’t usually change my mind. It’s got that indefinable look at me, that presence, and a good walk. I love them to have that look of evil; “I’m smart and I know it.” You can’t see the nitty gritty of conformational faults from far away but you can see the picture. I am sometimes disappointed when I get in close but it’s rare for me not to spot a splint or a curby hind leg from afar.
Conformation faults can be very personal – which do you hate most? Which don’t bother you so much?
Crappy feet and limbs, I can live with what’s above. If you haven’t got good feet and limbs then they won’t stay sound. They may stay sound for the show ring but I always look at horses to have another job. Showing was something we did in between, but is now is a sport on its own.
My mother once said to a vet “we have never had a horse breakdown in 17 years.” The vet responded “you have been very lucky” And she looked at him and replied “Young man, luck has nothing to do with it. Correct conformation and conditioning has everything to do with it” We long rein our youngsters; all the groundwork needs to be done before you start to get on, and you have to read your horses; they will tell you when they are ready. Give young horses time, it is the ones that aren’t given the time at the start that have the problems later.
As a grader for the Sports Horse Breeding, I think too much emphasis is put on how horses trot rather than longevity. A lot of graders are just looking for flash and not for soundness.
I don’t mind a shorter neck. Everyone loves a swan neck but I can live with a shorter neck and a longer back. Longer backed horses can be more comfortable and carry side saddle better.
What do you wish non-showing people knew about showing?
Put simply it’s who has the prettier horse, like Crufts for horses. It’s very subjective.
I don’t think the horse showing world is as bent as people think though. The problem is uneducated, unknowledgeable people who have lots of money, who think they have a pretty horse, don’t win and so they become keyboard warriors and everyone becomes tarred with the same brush. There are rotten apples, there always will be, there are one or two I know are doing people favours, it’s obvious, but I believe that is the minority.
I think the skating marks system that is sometimes used makes it more interesting for non-showing people. It is more fun, gives more interaction and makes judges more accountable. In dressage, judges give comments, or when you judge cows, you explain your placings. I think that would open things up to the audience and competitors. Accountability is important.
What is your favourite show?
The New Forest Show because it’s local and family are involved.
And the East Anglian shows: Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincoln. Judges are so beautifully looked after, made to feel so special. At some of the big high profile shows, it’s all about the glitz and glamour and judges are just a subsidiary, a boring cog. I love the old fashioned shows, with old fashioned values and community spirit, when you are treated like a King, well looked after, well fed and you feel good when you leave.
What piece of equipment would you not want to do without?
A neck strap. Mummy used to break 70 a year in her heyday, all types of horses and ponies, and Pip, my sister, and I were crash test dummies. But the neck strap was not just to hold on to, I had a very influential dressage trainer in my youth who said “Why pick up your reins to stop your horse when you can stop it with your mind and just putting a finger in your neck strap and saying woo.” So everything is broken in a neck strap and stops from that first.
Also, a double bridle, all horses should go in a double. We used to go snaffle first, then Pelham, then into a double. Anything that is naturally hard-mouthed, even now, I will soak a rag with treacle on it and gets them to soften the jaw. And I loose school in elasticated side reins so I can drive them forward into the contact.
Plus Granny’s Pelham, I have never had a horse not go well in it. It has a slight Mulhan mouth and a long shank, horses are so respectful of it.
What has been your funniest showing story?
A great friend of the family, Pam Harvey-Richards, who was very instrumental in the New Forest pony world and the archetypal M&M lady; not a bust, more a shelf. In her older years, late 70s, she was judging Shetlands somewhere and she always wore skirts and bloomers. At this show, her bloomers came down as she was judging. They got lower and lower, and the whole of the line up, and the stewards, dissolved into hysterics. But she was so confident in who she was, she quite calmly bent down, stepped out of them, picked them up and put them in her pocket. The whole line up was creased over apart from one gentleman at the top of the line who was completely straight faced, looking ahead of him. When asked afterward how he kept a straight face he answered “I haven’t ever been called in at the top of the line before and if you think I was going to risk being demoted for giggling you have another thing coming.”
The story got around and then at the New Forest Breed Show that year, there are famous flag poles and someone had put an enormous pair of bloomers up the pole!
Who do you most admire in the showing world?
My own mother. Jinks Briar, and Joanna Macinnes. Both have the old fashioned values of honesty, dignity, discretion as well as so much knowledge.
Joanna is my absolute hero and has bred so many beautiful horses. She is also a truly, lovely person. She hasn’t got Mum’s lack of tact, Mum says it as it is!
Mum has no malice, no axe to grind, but if she thinks someone is a fool she tells them, a lot of people loath it. At a show once, Mum said “If you bore me, I will stop watching!” Responses of “we have paid our money.” were replied to with “I don’t care, I have paid my money to get here.” People don’t always think about the judge’s side of things; showing is Mummy’s raison d’etre but she can’t afford to be a member on all the societies to be able to judge anymore! It’s crazy that judge’s have to pay societies to judge for them.
What is the worst trend you are currently seeing?
Total lack of manners and respect for judges. There needs to be better rules in place, better disciplinary measures. Very sadly we have become more American; people don’t tell people not to do things as there is always the threat of court. In British Evening, people are disciplined there and then on the spot and you don’t get the lack of manners and respect that you see in the showing world.
Who do you see being a big winner in the future?
Nell Stevens, she is 6 years old and exceptional. I have taught a lot of children but she stands out. She is brave, she listens, is very adult in attitude, a natural. She is riding, on loan, the Grynnalt ponies, proper old fashioned section B’s. She won the First Ridden at the Royal Welsh, her first time in the ring. Although, she may not stay showing, she was hunting age five and will have a wealth of equestrian experience.
What are your concerns for the future of the showing world?
Ride judging will be a thing of the past, and I recon fairly soon, because of the insurance and the health and safety. A lot of horses are so badly schooled and badly prepared for the show ring, unless societies get a grip of the discipline of competitors it won’t continue.
I don’t think we are going to see Riding Pony classes soon either. My grandmother was at the forefront of breeding in her day but things have changed so much. Showing ponies are, in their essence, miniature thoroughbreds and, by nature, really sharp and there just aren’t the riders for them. Lead reins are overbred, like dogs, there is no place for them. The modern riding pony is being bred for topline not for function, they are like boxes on matchsticks. Things have changed a lot in the horse world too, horses that were workers in my day were all eventer types but are now warmblood showjumpers, big, heavyweights. They are not quality little horses like they used to be. 90% of hunters and hunter ponies wouldn’t know what mud and a hunting field was.
I remember when there were 30 or 40 in a class; there was a back row of horses, the back row was called in first, the judge would have a quick look down the back row in case they had missed something and if not, the back row was dismissed. Nobody complained, it’s what happened and it still happens in Australia and New Zealand. There are much smaller classes now. The showing world will always continue as there will always be people wanting to pit themselves against each other. “My pony is prettier than yours.” But when ride judging goes it will just be like a glorified dressage competition. It will survive, but in what form I am not sure. A lot of the fun has gone for me, it was a privilege to get on these horses and see which one you would most like to take home but then it became more like a chore. We need to get more of the fun back in.
How would you like to be remembered? What would you like to be remembered for?
For being utterly honest, judging what was in front of me regardless of who was sat on it, for giving every horse the best ride I could and for riding well.