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Sitting in Judgment

Rating: PG

The show ring was a circular enclosure of about four acres, with a spiked batten fence round it, and a listless crowd of back-country settlers propped along the fence. Behind them were the sheds for produce, and the machinery sections where steam threshers and earth scoops hummed and buzzed and thundered unnoticed. Crowds of sightseers wandered past the cattle stalls to gape at the fat bullocks; side-shows flourished, a blase goose drew marbles out of a tin canister, and a boxing showman displayed his muscles outside his tent, while his partner urged the youth of the district to come in and be thumped for the edification of the spectators.

Suddenly a gate opened at the end of the show ring, and horses, cattle, dogs, vehicles, motor-cars, and bicyclists crowded into the arena. This was the general parade, but it would have been better described as a general chaos. Trotting horses and ponies, in harness, went whirling round the ring, every horse and every driver fully certain that every eye was fixed on them; the horses -- the vainest creatures in the world -- arching their necks and lifting their feet, whizzed past in bewildering succession, till the onlookers grew giddy. Inside the whirling circle blood stallions stood on their hind legs, screaming defiance to the world at large; great shaggy-fronted bulls, with dull vindictive eyes, paced along, looking as though they were trying to remember who it was that struck them last. A showground bull always seems to be nursing a grievance.

Mixed up with the stallions and bulls were dogs and donkeys. The dogs were led by attendants, apparently selected on the principle of the larger the dog the smaller the custodian; while the donkeys were the only creatures unmoved by their surroundings, for they slept peaceably through the procession, occasionally waking up to bray their sense of boredom.

In the centre of the ring a few lady-riders, stern-featured women for the most part, were being "judged" by a trembling official, who feared to look them in the face, but hurriedly and apologetically examined horses and saddles, whispered his award to the stewards, and fled at top speed to the official stand -- his sanctuary from the fury of spurned beauty. The defeated ladies immediately began to "perform" -- that is, to ask the universe at large whether anyone ever heard the like of that! But the stewards strategically slipped away, and the injured innocents had no resource left but to ride haughtily round the ring, glaring defiance at the spectators.

All this time stewards and committee-men were wandering among the competitors, trying to find the animals for judgment. The clerk of the ring -- a huge man on a small cob -- galloped around, roaring like a bull: "This way for the fourteen stone 'acks! Come on, you twelve 'and ponies!" and by degrees various classes got judged, and dispersed grumbling. Then the bulls filed out with their grievances still unsettled, the lady riders were persuaded to withdraw, and the clerk of the ring sent a sonorous bellow across the ground: "Where's the jumpin' judges?"

From the official stand came a brisk, dark-faced, wiry little man. He had been a steeplechase rider and a trainer in his time. Long experience of that tricky animal, the horse, had made him reserved and slow to express an opinion. He mounted the table, and produced a note-book. From the bar of the booth came a large, hairy, red-faced man, whose face showed fatuous self-complacency. He was a noted show-judge because he refused, on principle, to listen to others' opinions; or in those rare cases when he did, only to eject a scornful contradiction. The third judge was a local squatter, who was overwhelmed with a sense of his own importance.

They seated themselves on a raised platform in the centre of the ring, and held consultation. The small dark man produced his note-book.

"I always keep a scale of points," he said. "Give 'em so many points for each fence. Then give 'em so many for make, shape, and quality, and so many for the way they jump."

The fat man looked infinite contempt. "I never want any scale of points," he said. "One look at the 'orses is enough for me. A man that judges by points ain't a judge at all, I reckon. What do you think?" he went on, turning to the squatter. "Do you go by points?"

"Never," said the squatter, firmly; which, as he had never judged before in his life, was strictly true.

"Well, we'll each go our own way," said the little man. "I'll keep points. Send 'em in."

"Number One, Conductor!" roared the ring steward in a voice like thunder, and a long-legged grey horse came trotting into the ring and sidled about uneasily. His rider pointed him for the first jump, and went at it at a terrific pace. Nearing the fence the horse made a wild spring, and cleared it by feet, while the crowd yelled applause. At the second jump he raced right under the obstacle, propped dead, and rose in the air with a leap like a goat, while the crowd yelled their delight again, and said: "My oath! ain't he clever?" As he neared the third fence he shifted about uneasily, and finally took it at an angle, clearing a wholly unnecessary thirty feet. Again the hurricane of cheers broke out. "Don't he fly 'em," said one man, waving his hat. At the last fence he made his spring yards too soon; his forelegs got over all right, but his hind legs dropped on the rail with a sounding rap, and he left a little tuft of hair sticking on it.

"I like to see 'em feel their fences," said the fat man. "I had a bay 'orse once, and he felt every fence he ever jumped; shows their confidence."

"I think he'll feel that last one for a while," said the little dark man. "What's this now?"

"Number Two, Homeward Bound!" An old, solid chestnut horse came out and cantered up to each jump, clearing them coolly and methodically. The crowd was not struck by the performance, and the fat man said: "No pace!" but surreptitiously made two strokes (to indicate Number Two) on the cuff of his shirt.

"Number Eleven, Spite!" This was a leggy, weedy chestnut, half-racehorse, half-nondescript, ridden by a terrified amateur, who went at the fence with a white, set face. The horse raced up to the fence, and stopped dead, amid the jeers of the crowd. The rider let daylight into him with his spurs, and rushed him at it again. This time he got over.

Round he went, clouting some fences with his front legs, others with his hind legs. The crowd jeered, but the fat man, from a sheer spirit of opposition, said: "That would be a good horse if he was rode better." And the squatter remarked: "Yes, he belongs to a young feller just near me. I've seen him jump splendidly out in the bush, over brush fences."

The little dark man said nothing, but made a note in his book.

"Number Twelve, Gaslight!" "Now, you'll see a horse," said the fat man. "I've judged this 'orse in twenty different shows, and gave him first prize every time!"

Gaslight turned out to be a fiddle-headed, heavy-shouldered brute, whose long experience of jumping in shows where they give points for pace -- as if the affair was a steeplechase -- had taught him to get the business over as quickly as he could. He went thundering round the ring, pulling double, and standing off his fences in a style that would infallibly bring him to grief if following hounds across roads or through broken timber.

"Now," said the fat man, "that's a 'unter, that is. What I say is, when you come to judge at a show, pick out the 'orse you'd soonest be on if Ned Kelly was after you, and there you have the best 'unter."

The little man did not reply, but made the usual scrawl in his book, while the squatter hastened to agree with the fat man. "I like to see a bit of pace myself," he ventured.

The fat man sat on him heavily. "You don't call that pace, do you?" he said. "He was going dead slow."

Various other competitors did their turn round the ring, some propping and bucking over the jumps, others rushing and tearing at their fences; not one jumped as a hunter should. Some got themselves into difficulties by changing feet or misjudging the distance, and were loudly applauded by the crowd for "cleverness" in getting themselves out of the difficulties they had themselves created.

A couple of rounds narrowed the competitors down to a few, and the task of deciding was entered on.

"I have kept a record," said the little man, "of how they jumped each fence, and I give them points for style of jumping, and for their make and shape and hunting qualities. The way I bring it out is that Homeward Bound is the best, with Gaslight second."

"Homeward Bound!" said the fat man. "Why, the pace he went wouldn't head a duck. He didn't go as fast as a Chinaman could trot with two baskets of stones. I want to have three of 'em in to have another look at 'em." Here he looked surreptitiously at his cuff, saw a note "No. II.", mistook it for "Number Eleven", and said: "I want Number Eleven to go another round."

The leggy, weedy chestnut, with the terrified amateur up, came sidling and snorting out into the ring. The fat man looked at him with scorn.

"What is that fiddle-headed brute doing in the ring?" he said.

"Why," said the ring steward, "you said you wanted him."

"Well," said the fat man, "if I said I wanted him I do want him. Let him go the round."

The terrified amateur went at his fences with the rashness of despair, and narrowly escaped being clouted off on two occasions. This put the fat man in a quandary. He had kept no record, and all the horses were jumbled up in his head; but he had one fixed idea, to give the first prize to Gaslight; as to the second he was open to argument. From sheer contrariness he said that Number Eleven would be "all right if he were rode better," and the squatter agreed. The little man was overruled, and the prizes went -- Gaslight, first; Spite, second; Homeward Bound, third.

The crowd hooted loudly as Spite's rider came round with the second ribbon, and small boys suggested to the fat judge in shrill tones that he ought to boil his head. The fat man stalked majestically into the stewards' stand, and on being asked how he came to give Spite the second prize, remarked oracularly: "I judge the 'orse, I don't judge the rider." This silenced criticism, and everyone adjourned to have a drink.

Over the flowing bowl the fat man said: "You see, I don't believe in this nonsense about points. I can judge 'em without that."

Twenty dissatisfied competitors vowed they would never bring another horse there in their lives. Gaslight's owner said: "Blimey, I knew it would be all right with old Billy judging. 'E knows this 'orse."

Iconic Australian bush poet and author of "Waltzing Matilda," capturing the spirit of rural Australia.