It takes a village to…train judges
It takes a village to…train judges

Where did I put that fleece? I laugh and think, “How many alpaca owners have ever said that?” Many of us put down an object and think, “That was just in my hand and I KNOW it is in this room!” Of course, that happens any time you are trying to organize something. Why was I looking for a fleece? I was helping to prepare for the Total Immersion Fleece Judge Training Clinic, which took place in August. I love preparing for judge training clinics because I know the end result will be so fantastic for AOA judges and so important to the integrity of the AOA National Show System. The task of preparing for a training clinic requires a great deal of time and effort but the result is such a satisfying accomplishment. It is a relief to begin the first day of the clinic because that means the first phase of prep work is finished and we are in the on-site clinic phase.

While they are required, the judges also find these clinics very valuable and some even come more often than required. A few years ago there were judges flying in from all over the world to attend a halter clinic in Ohio. It was winter and the snow piles were taller than me! I was sure we would not get everyone to the venue (I absolutely remember pacing the day prior to the clinic). What a wonderful relief it was on the first day when everyone arrived! All twenty-seven flights landed on time! Whew! The rest was downhill!

The first phase of each clinic is really where all the preparation takes place. Each clinic has a logistics check off list. Venue, hotel, fleeces, instructors, and/or animals are all secured for the event. I work in tandem with the AOA Judge Training and Certification Committee (JTCC), who help organize and run the event, to make sure that every item is checked off the clinic list.

Excellent preparation is vital to ensure the ultimate success of the clinic. Specific areas of focus must be determined to ensure relative and current topics are covered. Hands-on training is a component of each clinic and truly an outstanding way to expand skills. Work in the ring, oral reasons, and fleece characteristics are examples of topics that are routinely addressed in a clinic. When setting the schedule, it is imperative to set aside time for discussion as there is a tremendous exchange of information. Finally, good communication with attendees is a must!

The Judge Instructors, who are always Senior Judges, come in early and spend a great deal of time preparing for the clinic. In the case of a halter evaluation clinic, they will pre-judge the alpacas that will be used for testing. The same applies for the fleece clinic that I spoke about above. In that case, Senior Fleece Judges Cheryl Gehly, Amanda VandenBosch, and Diana Timmerman prejudged more than 80 fleeces to prepare for the testing and classroom work, before anyone else even arrived.

The on-site phase is what occurs in the second part of clinic responsibilities. This includes ensuring everyone knows where to meet and what to bring, and when the judges and apprentice judges arrive to begin the certification process. During this phase, the JTCC and I check that all supplies are ready and that printed materials are prepared, while working to keep the process on schedule, which is vital so that every minute is used to its full potential. These clinics are very important to the judges. It’s amazing to me to see the energy and drive they bring to the process, even though it requires such intense work on their part. Judges come from many parts of the world and the sharing of current trending, especially in fiber, is beneficial. As I observe the judges and apprentice judges interact with their peers, I am reminded of the incredible depth of knowledge they have about fleeces and animals.

At the fleece clinic, judges are submersed in a study of all the characteristics of both suri and huacaya fiber throughout the clinic. Characteristics such as handle, luster, crimp, uniformity, and many other areas are analyzed individually and in small teams and then discussed. Entire fleeces are evaluated and then the results are reviewed and discussed. Evaluation comes at the end of the event for those that have come for certification or re-certification. The fleece evaluation is set up just as a true fleece show would be judged. Scorecards and placements are done in exactly the same fashion as a fleece show. The goal is to imitate a fleece show as closely as possible to determine competency and those testing must score the fleeces consistent with the instructors.

Halter clinics and evaluations are completed in a similar fashion using alpacas instead of fleece off the animal. During this type of clinic both the fleece and conformation of the alpaca is scored and must be consistent with the instructors’ scores. In addition, the judge or apprentice judge’s oral reasons discussion is reviewed as part of the testing.

If you are interested in a more comprehensive overview of what judges go through at clinics, consider reading “The Art and Science of Alpaca Judging”. This book was written by AOA Judges and gives an insight to some of the training.

Of course, nothing is ever complete without the last phase; clean-up! Wrapping up the clinic means a variety of things including making sure items are shipped and returned to their proper place. We also work to gather feedback from the judges on what they feel would be beneficial to study at future clinics. Re-capping the clinic and making notes to remember what items need to be adjusted or added for the next clinic is the final piece of the process. Once all the participants have headed home and the last fleece is boxed up, we start the process over as we begin planning for the next clinic.

Judges are required to attend a certain number of these clinics throughout their AOA judging career. One of my roles is to assist them with tracking those clinic requirements. Apprentice halter judges must attend a qualifying event, two halter clinics and the fleece clinic during their four years of training along with gathering a required amount of apprenticeships. Halter judges must attend two halter clinics and one fleece clinic in a four year certification cycle. Fleece judges must of course attend the fleece clinic.

This type of continuing education for our AOA Judges is very important. As the industry evolves, judges must continue to strive to be the best they can be for the industry at any given place in time. It is vital to AOA and the industry that judges are current in all aspects of judging these magnificent animals and their fleeces. How is that done? Commitment! This commitment is required of both AOA and the judges through their contribution of time and resources. AOA Judges work to develop alpaca judging skills from many areas outside the ring. Attending clinics is one area, but there are many others such as developing and critiquing alpaca literature, actively participating in show rules development, assessing animals (both in and out of the United States), research, developing seminar material, participating in alpaca activities in their local area, and many more!

So what about this year? In 2014, AOA Judges came together from all over the world to calibrate, discuss alpaca conformation and fleece in depth, and to expand their judge knowledge base at both a halter clinic in March, and a fleece clinic in August.

I am proud to say that AOA Judges are respected all around the world and are in demand for their evaluation skills from the United Kingdom to the Czech Republic and onward to New Zealand. Why is that? A contributing factor is certainly the determination of AOA and the judges to continue with an intensity and emphasis on education! We are so very fortunate to have this group as a part of the AOA team! I could go on bragging about AOA Judges because I am so proud to be associated with this professional group but really need to get back to the business of making sure the clean-up phase is all complete!

Margie Ault, AOA Show and Marketing Division Administrator