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Handlers Without Faces

July 8, 2009
What do you think? Nice alpaca?

What do you think? Nice alpaca?

It seems during every show season the question is raised as to whether it would be more equitable to have third party handlers show the animals. The reasoning behind this , of course, is the suspicion that there may be conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the judge when they see a handler who is associated with very successful farms…and that this bias may affect placings. Some small breeders support this idea because of their lower visibility on the show track; however, some large breeders support it as well.

But is there any foundation to this theory?

Anecdotally, I personally know one case that would say there is. I saw a yearling male owned by a relatively unknown farm but purchased from a very well-known breeding program. The new owners showed the male twice in front of a highly respected judge and the male was placed rather low to their disappointment.  Two months later at a much larger show, the male was shown in front of the same judge in a class with some of the same animals from the last show…but this time he was shown by the highly visible handler from the selling farm.  He won Reserve Champion and placed over the animals he had been placed under just two months before.  Did the relative quality of the animals change that much in that time period? Was it just normal variability in the judge’s assessment? Or could the judge have been swayed by recognition, even at an subconscious level, of the handler and the reputation of their program?

What about now? How has your opinion changed?

What about now? How has your opinion changed?

I’ve talked to a well-known large breeder that supported the idea of handlers from a 4H group for all shows. They had a male whom they had shown as a weanling and he had done extremely well…winning blue ribbons and even a few reserve championships and never placing lower than 3rd in any show.  After selling him to a smaller new breeder, the excited new owners went on to proudly show their new junior herdsire and were dismayed by their placement. The highest they were able to ever place was 4th.  Their dissatisfaction was fed back to the seller, never what you want in a new relationship with a customer. The large breeder was convinced that the male did better with them because of their past well-known success in the ring.

So what about in other livestock shows?   A former horse judge confessed that it’s difficult not to be influenced if the handler is well known.  It’s not a deliberate or intentional bias, it simply happens, as he put it. He confessed that he felt he was probably guilty of it himself but that it wasn’t something he could have actively controlled.

BlinkAlthough it can be easy to quickly condemn signs of bias in a judge as purely intentional, anyone who dismisses the idea of a judge being unconsciously influenced should read Chapter Three in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Here he talks about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that shows how we connect attitudes and beliefs in our minds. You can also take IAT’s yourself online at the Harvard IAT Demonstration Website. These tests, which are often around gender and race prejudices, demonstrate just what associations we make unconsciously. I took a few and was more than a bit abashed. If I look at my test results, I’d conclude that I , as a female minority member, am myself chauvinistic and racist. But Gladwell points out it is just not so. What is revealed is that our unconscious attitudes may be in direct conflict to our conscious values. Those unconscious attitudes are an amalgam of all the cultural messages we have absorbed during our lifetime and reflect in our behavior without any decision making on our part.

So by now, I am guessing you believe that I must be an outspoken advocate of using anonymous handlers for shows. Not necessarily . If the all important reason for shows is to get the highest ribbon placement possible , then by all means, it should be handlers without faces. But I almost think we might be taking the show placements way too seriously if that becomes the only motivator. I like to think of the shows as marketing events, so yes – I think breeders should want to be standing out there with their animal. Having skin in the game so to speak. Show rankings are not the almighty in determining what is good breeding stock, so I’m against anything that would further shore up what seems to be a dismayingly prevalent belief. Show wins add marketing value but that’s not the same as breeding value. Lastly, I don’t believe the degree of influence will consistently hurt an animal’s placement unless the difference between the competing animals is relatively slight. So during any other show, or with any other judge, it could come out differently.

I’m also not advocating the accusation that large farms win because of their recognition. Take a look at the animals that place and judge for yourself whether the wins were deserved. You have to remember the numbers are in favor of those with large cria crops. Large annual production, more to choose from, higher requirements to make the show string. Combine that with experience, smart decisions, and funding and you can see that a smaller, newer,  and/or less funded breeder has to step it up.

There’s so much time and effort put into shows that it’s hard to scoff at the disappointment someone may feel when their animal doesn’t place as well as they thought he or she should have. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum – elation and disappointment- sometimes with the same animal and here’s the philosophy I like to take. Do I know what I have? Did I walk out of the ring with the same animal I entered with? If the answer to both is yes, then it’s silly to mourn over the loss of something I never had to begin with. However, let disappointment overwhelm the show experience, and I’ve let myself be robbed of the sheer enjoyment of the experience, my pride in my animal, and perhaps a bit of my sportsmanship.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cooper Smith permalink*
    July 9, 2009 4:57

    Great first post Melinda! Goods points on an issue of “inside games” that can frustrate many.

  2. July 10, 2009 4:57

    This is a great post Melinda! You raise an important question. Personally, I enjoy training and showing my alpacas myself. I would hate to give that up, but it does seem there is a bias towards certain handlers and/or the farms they represent.

    Recently a potential alpaca owner and friend of mine returned from a trip out West where she visited several alpaca farms. This potential Buyer was told by two different prominent farms that she should not plan to get into the business to show her alpacas because she wouldn’t win. These farms stated that if she went into the showring against them they would beat her each time and they talked her out of getting into the alpaca business altogether! A woman who has traveled extensively to alpaca events & farms and was ready to buy her first alpacas. She actually said, “They talked me out of it.”

    I cannot imagine what these people were thinking as they essentially kicked a potential Buyer to the curb. One of these breeders was an AOBA judge. To me, if there’s a problem and you are a judge – fix it. Work on it from the judging side. Don’t discourage new breeders. If it’s true new breeders cannot succeed, then the alpaca business is not headed in the right direction….

    As breeders diversify their business plans, more will be offering handling as a service. When that occurs, I expect that we will see more people going with professional handlers, especially ones with good track records.

    • pacablogger permalink*
      July 11, 2009 4:57

      It’ll be a sad day when breeders no longer show their own animals if it’s for this reason. But I have seen small breeders take top honors at shows and those moments have been especially poignant. I can only scratch my head at your friend’s story.

      If we do move toward professional handlers, I don’t see how the logic works for breeders to offer this service, unless it is part of a turnkey show package for breeders who cannot travel to shows themselves. I think it would be something mandated across the board using non-breeder handlers or non-showing breeder handlers…or under the table.

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