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Articles by Alpaca World Magazine:

AOBA Judge Training Program

Kristin Buhrmann and Jill Macleod

Between the two of us, we have probably judged around 200 alpaca halter and fleece shows in the past decade or so. We?ve been given the opportunity to judge all over the USA and Canada, as well as the UK, Europe and Australia. Some of our friends, mostly those not involved with the industry, think our trips sounds glamorous and jet set, and maybe there is a bit of that element to it, but for the most part judging is challenging work, demanding both physically and mentally. Not that we are complaining, in any way. We both love judging. Being asked to judge a show is always an honour and a privilege. But, sometimes, you have to stop and reflect on how we got to this point, both as individuals and as an industry.

We each got our start in alpaca judging under the Alpaca and Llama Show Association (ALSA) System. ALSA was the first organization outside of South America to develop alpaca halter classes. However, as the establishment of the llama industry in North America predated the alpacas industry by several years, early ALSA rules were developed primarily with llamas in mind. There was a heavy emphasis on conformational attributes, with minimal regard to fibre characteristics.

By the late 90?s, the growing knowledge on the specifics of alpacas and their unique fibre qualities drove the need for a more advanced and alpaca-specific formula of judging criteria to be developed. By 1999, the Canadian association had written their own show system rules to replace ALSA rules. Soon afterwards, in 2000 - 2001, the US based Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) undertook development of an in-depth show system and judge training program. The AOBA program is recognized world wide as one of the best judge training programs and AOBA is justifiably proud of the achievement. The roots of the AOBA show system are found in their statement of purpose that it was formed to provide a show system organized and managed by alpaca people for alpaca owners, meeting the specific requirements of the alpaca community.

In the ten years since its inception in 2001, the AOBA show system has grown rapidly, at times even exponentially. In 2011 alone, the AOBA sanctioned slightly over 80 alpaca shows, with approximately 50 of those being halter shows, and the remaining 30 fleece shows. Each year, several thousand alpaca entries are evaluated in the show ring, with an additional two to three thousand fleece entries being judged off the alpaca.

Just as the show system has grown and developed, so to has the judge-training program. The first AOBA organized Judge Training Clinic was held in Fort Collins, Colorado in December 2001. At that time, with the exception of Dr. Julio Sumar and Cameron Holt, all judges had received their basic training from ALSA. While these judges formed the core of instructors, wider livestock industry expertise was secured in an attempt to provide fresh perspective, and firmly ground the AOBA show system in the larger livestock industry as a whole. Dr. David Ames and Dr. Brett Kaysen of Colorado State University Faculty of Animal Science stepped in to begin the challenging, and often arduous, task of teaching solid judging practices and ring procedures based upon established livestock assessment techniques. This is the point where North American judge training began in earnest.

It didn?t take long for the ?out of industry? experts to drive home the point that alpaca judges were really no different than other livestock judges. We learned that the tenets and standards of traditional livestock judging all applied to judging alpacas. However, one difference did become apparent: in a new and young industry, there were few true experts. Collectively we were all relatively inexperienced, and therefore, we started learning to become livestock judges from the ground up.

A primary goal of any judge-training program is to foster consistent assessment of the stock being judged in the show ring. Of equal importance is the ability to verbalize the final class placings in a meaningful and educational manner to exhibitors and the audience. To this end, AOBA again relied on traditional livestock judging practice by enlisting multispecies livestock judge, and collegiate judging coach Dr. Brent Kaysen to introduce a standardized system of delivering oral reasons for alpaca judges. We were also encouraged to develop our own rich, alpaca specific language. Those of us that have been around for a while remember the intense, evening-long, alpaca vocabulary brain-storming sessions that resulted in sometimes hilarious but often useful terminology.

Ask any judge or apprentice judge what aspect of judge training presents the greatest challenge and causes the most anxiety and they will tell you, without exception, that is delivering coherent and concise oral reasons. It was no easy task to get a group of adult learners of varied backgrounds, heading down the same path of using the standard methods of stock reason delivery. Dr. Kaysen needed every tool of the trade, along with a combination of positive reinforcement, tough love and monumental patience. In time, his methods began to make an impression and we all realized the critical importance of delivering a set of clear orals. There isn?t an AOBA judge now that doesn?t repeat the mantra ?Be bright, be brief, be gone? when we know we?ve been too lengthy with a set of orals on a class, or ?Above all do not tell a lie? when faced with a close or difficult class.

Currently, there are just over 25 judges qualified to judge in both the huacaya and suri halter ring. Not all judges are active in any given year and we now see a few judges retiring from ?active duty? in the ring. AOBA?s apprentice program ensures that there are new judges to join the team and fulfill the demands of the show ring.

Livestock judging is not for everyone. The whole process can be a bit daunting and as judges, we are given huge responsibilities in the ring. It is not to be taken lightly. Successful candidates must possess a specific demeanor combined with a significant body of knowledge on the subject matter they are judging, namely alpacas. While undeniably an excellent educational experience, a judge-training program is not the place for breeders to learn about their alpacas. It is a place to put theory into practice, applying existing knowledge with ability to exercise competent judgment.

Entry to the apprentice program requires commitment and tenacity, and should be considered carefully. The entry qualifications are minimal, however the pre-apprenticeship program is extensive. Prior to gaining permission to begin apprentice judging in the ring, completion of a series of entry clinics is mandatory, requiring both considerable time and financial commitments. The process begins with application and successful completion of the introductory clinic. From this point, successful completion of the Total Immersion Fleece clinic, Oral Reasons clinic, Form to Function clinic and a choice of either the Total Immersion Suri or Huacaya clinics are required. This generally takes a period of at least two years, as not all clinics are offered in a given year.

At each clinic, performance and aptitude is assessed, primarily through a process of peer evaluation and review. If adequate ability is demonstrated consistently, candidates are given permission to begin apprenticeships. For halter judging, at least four successful apprenticeships with a qualified judge trainer are required. A minimum number of each breed type must be assessed throughout the duration of these shows. For example, an apprentice must have assessed a minimum of 200 suris during the show process. At this level, an apprentice independently places eight classes and the results are compared to that of the judge trainer. Scores are arrived at using the Hormel class cut system. Ability to deliver oral reasons and general comportment at the show is also factored into the final score. A minimum score must be achieved in order for the apprenticeship to be recognized as successful and the candidate to move forward.

The final component of qualification involves attendance at the testing clinic held every other year in December. Certification candidates are subject to a mock judging scenario using testing classes structured with the class cut system. In addition to the class placings, delivery of oral reasons is assessed for clarity and accuracy by a panel of senior judges. There is also a minor written component. Certification requires a combined score of 80% or above.

Even after certification as an AOBA judge, the education process is on going. Under the AOBA system, judges are required attend one training clinic annually to maintain certification. All judges, including senior judges, are subject to re-certification testing every four years. Senior judges must achieve and maintain a testing score of at least 90% while non-senior judges may maintain certification with a minimum score of 80%.

A new addition to the continued education for certified judges is the Mentorship and Calibration Program. Recognizing the benefits of co-judging scenarios, under this program, judges can apply to be ?mentored? in the ring by another judge. This allows for discussion and calibration between the judges, although unlike a true co-judging scenario, the placing decisions and responsibility of oral reasons falls solely to the contracted judge. Those taking advantage of this program have found the process extremely beneficial.

Even though the AOBA judge training program has come a long way in its development, it is clearly still a work in progress. The past decades have seen tremendous growth and change in the alpaca industry as a whole. The judge-training program continues to adapt to these changes and build along with it. Where it will go in the future will, to a large extent, be dependent on how the industry matures. From our perspective, our involvement in the process has been both an extremely humbling yet tremendously rewarding experience.