Equestrian catches the judges’ eyes


Fran Norris, champion“. . . And first place goes to Fran Norris,” the second judge declared.

Fran beamed and nudged Lola to step forward from the lineup of ten horses in her Western Pleasure class at the Dixie National Quarter Horse Show. With the first two judges placing her on top, she was off to a good start.

Fran held her breath as the third judge began announcing his placings. “And first place goes to Fran Norris.”

“Is this really happening?” Fran thought, scanning the crowded stands for her trainer and her husband. One more first, and she would take home the circuit champion title from the Jackson, Mississippi, show.

“By the time the fourth judge placed me as first, I was so overcome with amazement and happiness, you could have knocked me over with a feather!” Fran recalls.

Then the announcer stepped forward, taking the microphone. “By unanimous decision, the Circuit Champion for Novice Amateur Pleasure is . . . Fran Norris!” boomed the voice over the loudspeakers.

Fran Norris horseAll at once, cheers erupted from the stands, filling the coliseum-like arena. Fran felt dozens of eyes sweep over her. “It was an amazing feeling,” she says. “I can still hear my trainer whooping and whistling.”

Though Fran has loved horses since she was young, she didn’t start taking horse-riding lessons until she was in her late forties and waited until 2000 to purchase her first horse. Now she owns five horses, all boarded at her horse trainer, Jay Jordan’s, barn in Comfort, Texas.

Of the five, four are American Quarter Horses—a horse known for its speed and strong, powerful body—and one American Paint Horse, a horse similar to the American Quarter Horse but with broad, spotted patterns of white and dark hair.

She takes both breeds to compete in Western Pleasure shows, a type of Western-style competition that emphasizes calmness and manners in both horse and rider. The rider-and-horse team is judged on a proper walk, jog, and lope cadence and often employs a healthy dose of glitz and glamour. To date, Fran has shown in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

“When you go to a show, you sort of move in for however long the contest is going to be—whether it’s a three-day show, a five-day show,” Fran says. “It’s important to walk [horses] around the arena to acclimate them to the new area before the contest begins.”

Then comes the actual competition. Each judge has been specially trained to critique horses. In the Western Pleasure class, they judge performance, taking into account conformation (how the horse is built), confidence, style, and how the horse performs in its class. “The judges’ job is basically to find the ideal horse and to eliminate those that they don’t think fit the perfect picture,” Fran explains.

Presentation and catching the judges’ eye play a large part in separatingfirst-place holders from the runners-up, especially in Western Pleasure-style contests, where participants are awarded for being “extra neat and extra careful with how you groom your horse,” says Fran. Shaved muzzles, braided manes, and plumped tails all contribute positively to the appearance of the horse and to the overall placing.

“In a way, it’s like a beauty contest,” she says. “I wear pretty much a lot of bling!” Because competition outfits are custom-made and are often covered in hundreds or sometimes thousands of crystals, the outfits are not inexpensive.  Her most recent show outfit, a custom, crystal-clad jacket with matching hat, boots, and chaps, cost Fran upwards of $3,000.

Fortunately, for Fran, the investment paid off, and she now looks forward to taking Lola, her American Paint Horse to many more competitions.

“When your horse is really good, and you’re really enjoying yourself, it’s like winning the Olympics every time!” Fran says.

By Rachel Brownlow

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