Western Judges Holly Hover and Debra Jones-Wright Share their Thoughts About the 2023 IHSA National Championship

IHSA - 2023 Nationals - Western Judges - Credit Danielle Dunn
Western judges Holly Hover and Debra Jones-Wright with their scribes. Photo by Danielle Dunn

Holly Hover (Cave Creek, Arizona) and Debra Jones-Wright (Abbeville, South Carolina) officiated all the Western divisions at the 2023 IHSA National Championship Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky. Both bring more than three decades of judging experience, holding cards with AQHA, APHA, NSBA, NRHA and more. They shared their experience from the last few days of judging the IHSA riders.

What did you think of IHSA Nationals this year?

Hover: I have done this once before, but it's been several years. I will say that I think the quality of the horses and riders has certainly made itself evident. One thing that I will tell you that really made an imprint on me was the camaraderie of the teams. You don't see that a lot in competition. I noticed these kids were high-fiving each other – really supportive of each other, which makes your heart warm – it's very refreshing.

Jones-Wright: Absolutely, yes. The atmosphere is very positive. I feel like this horse show has a lot of good sportsmanship. I love how IHSA makes it into a nice event at a great venue. The decorations, the meals, the ice cream, all the things that are so beautiful, the way they fix everything up for the kids. The awards are very refreshing. You know, you go some places and they don't even have you out in the arena to get your award. This is a big deal and they make it a big deal. We love that.

What did you think of the quality of the horses?

Jones-Wright: Well, I was certainly impressed with the number of horses. That speaks volumes about the schools, barn managers, and coaches because people will bring their horses and let them borrow them when they know they're cared for. They're petted. They're loved on. They're appreciated. They're not just a tool for a win. I see that in the IHSA and I love it. The horses were very good and stayed strong to the end.

Hover: And I think a real level playing field. I don't think any horse won an event for a rider here. I think we were able to pick the best rider without the horse dictating that to us.

What were your thoughts about the Back on Track Western High-Point Rider group?

Hover: My winner in the reining had some issues in the horsemanship.

Jones-Wright: Our horsemanship winner had trouble in the reining.

Hover: That speaks volumes to the quality because it was that close, right? Not, not one person dominated. There were a lot of really good riders. They're top-tier. They're clever riders. I think there was a lot of thoughtfulness on their part in reading the horses in the reining. I especially appreciated people finessing their way through some horses that threw some stuff at them. They were right on target. If I were coaching them, exactly what they did would be exactly what I would be saying. That's a testimony to those kids being real horsemen, not just showing.

Jones-Wright: This event is very special in that you've got to make a relationship with that horse. And it's so fun to see them on the rail. And when we call the rail, we may even call some of the combo maneuvers in their pattern to help them get a feel for that. It is so exciting to me to see when a light bulb goes off and they plan how they will ride that (maneuver) when they get to their pattern. I saw some very impressive decisions.

Hover: And on-the-fly decisions.

Jones-Wright: And kudos to the coaches.

Hover:  I thought the level of the horses and the level of the riders was such a unique combination because the horses weren't just push-button. It took some horsemanship to get it done.

The IHSA is so indebted to the Western governing bodies partners, AQHA, NRHA, NSBA, and new this year, APHA, partners are really important to the IHSA.  

Hover: I know that it is important for all of them to bring in new people and to get more exposure.

Jones-Wright: Holly and I are both involved with those associations, and I would like to say they're ready. So don't hesitate to come up with some new ideas to involve them.
Hover: And I think you did a really nice job recognizing them. The banners and, constant comments and the announcer voicing who the sponsors were – absolutely top-tier. It was very noticeable and very much appreciated. The management of it is spot on.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Jones-Wright: I had a blast. I hope I'll get to come back in some way, some form again another day.

Hover: We love it. It's a real feel-good for someone like me. I've been in it a long time and it's an experience. I have a big smile on my face. I really enjoyed it.