As a person who’s been at both the end of a halter and as a judge in the center of the show ring, I’ve been exposed to many showing “techniques.” Many of these don’t fool the judge, but have become common practice.

The good
Having a well-groomed animal is critical. Some folks like to stay in the barns to ensure this. Others get up early to wash animals and take care of business. Many exhibitors will hire a professional fitter, especially for the bigger shows.

About an hour before the show, most exhibitors like to give their animal “fill.” This is usually done with beet pulp and water. Some exhibitors use ice water to entice their animals to drink. You’ve probably heard of some other hocus-pocus concoctions, as well. But time does need to be given to allow the liquid to settle so the animal doesn’t appear lopsided.

At some of the smaller shows, the order into the ring is first-come, first-served. We always liked to be early to let the judge get a good look. At the bigger shows, order is by age. Regardless, a judge always appreciates well-fitted toplines and well-blended shoulders. My dad was our “professional” fitter. I say that sarcastically, but actually he could hold his own. Matter of fact, I should see if he’d be interested in being my current hairstylist. He could do magic with just a little bit of hair. (By the way, with the subtle reference to my hairline, this paragraph should probably go under “The Ugly” heading.)

Once in the ring, if everyone is hugging the rail (or fence), bring your heifer out a little. When done right, this can make her appear a little bigger. Of course, don’t make it too obvious.


If you’ve got a small, fancy heifer, you’ve probably been told, “Stay away from that monster.” It’s true that you should keep some distance from larger animals when possible. But be careful; it can become annoying to a judge when an exhibitor keeps pulling out and circling in a lineup or leaving huge gaps between animals. A good judge will see your heifer’s positive merits, as well.

Even most novices know how to set their animal up for the judge: near leg back on heifers and near leg up on cows. Working with your animal (tweaking topline, keeping head up, grabbing throat, etc.) is fine, but stay out of the judge’s view of your animal, and don’t forget to watch him or her for cues.

Sportsmanship is always important. I can’t tell you how proud I am when a kid comes up and thanks me for judging after I’ve had to consistently place him or her toward the bottom of the class. Seeing someone helping his or her competitor also does a number on the judge subconsciously. And trust me kids, developing habits like these will come in handy later.

The bad
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to win. When I was still showing, I would make a pile of shavings for my animal’s front feet to give her the appearance of being a taller animal and walking uphill. Looking back, this probably appeared pretty amateur. Of course, that was back in the days when my sister and I thought bringing a wild heifer to the showmanship class would give us an advantage in case the judge made us switch animals with other competitors. But this usually backfired, too. And when my sister would beat me, I’d credit it to the pretty bow in her hair and her big smile and not her ability. (Remember the paragraph on sportsmanship?) I don’t know if that was true, but I have learned that a smile never hurts – something I, personally, always had trouble with.

Back in the barns, some fitters use glue to fix strutting teats, even though most judges can detect this. Others tie strutting teats inward together. After being tied for a while, the teats hold their form for about 45 seconds. Then you’re just left with some twine marks. I still don’t know a good (and ethical) solution to the teat-placement problem.

When it came time to show our best cow, Dad would usually take the halter. Whether he didn’t trust our showing capabilities or if he was letting the judge know we were pulling out the “big guns,” I don’t know. Perhaps it was punishment for the fact that my sister and I had trouble with the “early” part of waking up early. Oftentimes, our heifers in the first few classes would have what was known as “the wet look.” It didn’t help win blue ribbons.

The ugly
It’s always frustrating to see calves in classes with heifers that have been dehorned and already healed. But aside from altering birthdays, I won’t mention some of the other unethical things I’ve heard of – partly because they don’t deserve the press and partly to avoid encouraging such behavior. But anyone who’s ever walked past those dark corners of the barn has probably witnessed some of it. Like a narcotic, it is addictive, not too hard to find and usually easy to detect. Not only can it ruin a good reputation or business and get you banned from shows, it can destroy your animal. Steer clear. You’ll know if something’s not right.

On a lighter note, it always helps to come prepared. This may mean doing some research. I was at a show one time where a kid worked his dairy heifer with a show stick. Of course, he simply didn’t know any better. But, still, it wasn’t pretty.

The beautiful
Remember when you are exhibiting that you are not only representing yourself and the dairy, but the entire industry. With spectators from all walks of life, it is important to paint a positive image – even if it means something other than a blue ribbon. Integrity and hard work (with research when needed) can go a long way, and taking this path is always more rewarding that the contrary. Whether it’s a big or small show, just go out there and have fun while trying to do your best. As always, God does the rest. PD

Through the Chute by Brandon Covey