From the Judge’s Chair: Wall & Marker Penalties

While markers are mostly there for guidance, they can play a big part in your score.

By Megan Arszman; Photos by Kaycie Timm

Dany Tremblay rides his horse down the fence in a large, fast circle
Markers can make or break your run. NRHA Judge Brett Walters explains how.

The placement of the markers in an arena is important for a couple of reasons. First, they’re there to help guide in the placement of maneuvers, which is key for pattern placement. Second, they help protect the safety of both horse and rider. In the early days of NRHA, exhibitors negotiated a multitude of arena footings, sizes, and conditions. Not only did riders have to navigate through various sizes of patterns, but some had to steer clear of the tractor and dragging equipment resting along the same wall used for circles and rundowns.

Thankfully, today’s arenas are safer, with horse-and-rider teams using the markers mostly for pattern placement, without the concern of safety.

Mark Your Patterns

Typically there are six markers placed in the arena, with pairs placed according to the 2020 NRHA Handbook, page 99: Markers will be placed on the wall or fence of the arena as follows: at the center of the arena and at least 50 feet (15 meters) from each end wall. 

The angle of the judge’s view of each marker depends on his chair placement, which was covered in the September 2019 NRHA Reiner. Larry Kasten, member of the NRHA Judge’s Committee and NRHA-carded judge explained how judges handle the placement of the judge when it comes to evaluating the rider’s placement of stops with the marker.

Getting past markers on the far ends of the arenas can be difficult for a judge on the opposite end to see and judge accurately. “It’s very important when a judge goes into the arena that he gets in his vision where that line would be on the markers for rollbacks that have to be beyond the marker,” Kasten says. “You have to get your eyes set on that line.”

If the rider misses the marker, it’s a two-point penalty, and it is not reviewable. “That puts a lot of burden on the judges to get that line and make sure they have it right every time,” he says. 

NRHA Professional, Judge, and member of the NRHA Judges Committee Brett Walters echoes Kasten. It’s important to him, and most judges, to point out that judges will give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to marker penalties. 

“As far as a marker penalty goes, my rule of thumb as a judge is the first one gets the benefit of the doubt,” Walters explains. “The second time, I’m going to give the marker penalty.” 

One example Walters cites is when a rider must begin his stop after the center. Walters knows it can be difficult to see if the horse and rider passed the marker. 

“The benefit always goes to the rider,” he says. “But, if you do that twice in the same pattern and really make me work to think if you went by that marker, I’ll probably give you the penalty. Most of our arenas are big enough; there’s no excuse for you to miss the center marker.”

According to the NRHA Handbook: “Where designated in the pattern for stops to be beyond a marker, the horse should begin his stop after he passes the specified marker.” That penalty is explained on page 145.

2 Point Penalties.
Section 4.
NRHA patterns require a horse to run past a marker placed in the arena prior to stopping. If the horse does not completely pass the specified marker before assuming a stop position, a penalty of 2 points is to be applied. It is important to note that this penalty is to be applied if the horse assumes a stop position (rear legs up underneath, setting up) whether or not this stop is completed. Further, the judge, by applying this penalty, is only reflecting the fact it happened, and should not be concerned with whether it was caused by the horse or by the rider. Judges should note that it is their responsibility to insure that these markers are placed correctly, and in such a fashion that a horse could reasonably be expected to go past them before executing a stop or rollback maneuver. The NRHA has specified that the end markers be no less than 50 feet from the end wall or fence of the arena. 

When you look at how the patterns are drawn in the NRHA Handbook, it looks as if circles should not go very far past the end markers. Understanding the need to show a difference in the size of small and large circles, as well as adding speed, Walters says judges have allowed riders to go beyond those markers for the large, fast circles. 

row of judges sit in judges chairs along the wall of an arena
Judges try to give riders the benefit of the doubt on a first questionable marker infraction. 

Walls for Containment

The NRHA Handbook also states that riders must stay at least 20 feet off the wall for rundowns. Walters acknowledges that, especially at the more prestigious shows, exhibitors are pushing the limits when it comes to the level of difficulty to gain as much of a point advantage as possible. Because of this, he says when a rider pushes the envelope of the pattern, as long as the horse stays straight on the rundown, it’s most likely that a wall penalty won’t be given. 

“However, if the horse veers toward the wall, that becomes a real problem, or somebody just goes right up against the wall, then that becomes a penalty 1/2,” Walters explains. “Usually that also goes along with a maneuver reduction. It’s very hard to have a horse take you to the wall and give it a 0 (correct score) and then give it a penalty 1/2 because he took you to the wall. Usually with a wall penalty, you have a maneuver deduction, also. Usually—not always, but usually.”

In keeping with A. General, judges are keenly aware of the importance of a horse being willingly guided throughout the pattern. Some outsiders might argue that if a horse and rider push their larger circles as close to the wall as they can that the horse isn’t being guided and should receive a penalty. However, Walters points out how judges can tell if the horse is using the wall to guide himself or if it’s just the inertia: how the horse reacts as the pair comes to the center. 

“Our theory has always been that when the horse and rider come to the center, there’s a large open space,” Walters explains. “So, if the horse is using the wall to guide his circle, he’s going to tell us when he doesn’t guide as he crosses center. Therefore, we’ve never allowed the wall to interfere with the judgement of our circles or anything else.”

Size Matters

Judges also take into account the overall size of the arena itself when it comes to the preferred distance a horse and rider must be between the center line and the wall for their rundowns and stops. 

One small arena that Walters has experience with is at Gordyville USA in Gifford, Illinois. 

“We have that rule that describes running around the ends and down the sides, and if you run too close to center, you receive a 1/2-point penalty,” Walters says. “But, Gordyville’s arena is only 90 feet wide, and you have to stay 20 feet off the wall and 10 feet from center. There’s not much space when you’re at 45 feet from the wall at center already. So, there’s some leeway in the smaller arenas.”

judges watching a horse and rider execute a fast circle
“We love to mark people well—judges don’t sit in the chair to see how many penalties we can give,” Walters says.

Benefit of the Doubt

Walters hopes exhibitors understand that judges aren’t sitting in the chair looking for ways to penalize or deduct from your overall score. It’s actually the opposite. 

“We love to mark people well—judges don’t sit in the chair to see how many penalties we can give someone,” he says. “We’re not out hunting to give you a penalty. It has to be obvious that you’re too close to center. It has to be obvious that you’re too close to the wall before you receive any of those penalties or maneuver deductions. 

“We love marking correct runs or higher,” he continues. “We don’t want to mark them low, but if that’s what the penalties or maneuvers dictate, then we have to. I know some exhibitors think the judges are hard on them, and I just say ‘Well, we’re really not, but we try not to ever change our focus or our maneuver evaluation as to what a maneuver should be. We try to hold that to be true all year round and wherever we go.’ 

“We try to be as consistent as we can with our wall and marker penalties,” he concludes. “Try not to show to where you make us question, ‘Is that a penalty or not?’” 


Brett Walters

Brett Walters, Bourbon, Indiana, has been an NRHA Professional for more than 30 years, as well as a member of the NRHA Judges Committee and is the chairman of the Nominating/Governance Committee. His family’s Walters Equestrian Center provided training and coaching for youth and non pros for the breed circuits as well as NRHA competition.