Mel and Chris Cook Eventing fence judges

By: Horse Deals

Mel and Chris Cook Eventing fence judges
Mel and Chris Cook Eventing fence judges

Horse Deals goes behind the scenes and meets the people who make equestrianism tick

Words by Margaret Shaw
Pictures by Heather Shaw


Mel and Chris Cook’s home borders Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. This is true eventing country and it’s little wonder that their fence judging services are called on throughout the season. Mel has ridden since the age of five and competed at all levels from Pony Club to BSJA show jumping. She helped run the family feed and tack business, obtained all her BHS teaching grades and is still a judge and examiner, while also breeding sport horses.
Chris took up riding quite late in life and his first love is hunting.

Many horse trials volunteers consider fence judging the ideal way of putting something back into the sport. Chris and Mel Cook wholeheartedly agree, although Mel came into officiating purely by chance.

Having sold the family business, she decided to study equine and business management at Moreton Morrell in 1999. While there, it was suggested she should help with the horse trials, either by fence judging or as part of the "start team".
"It was like going back to Pony Club days, where we all took our turn to do whatever was needed. But when you think about it, if it wasn’t for that person shouting in the collecting ring, checking tack, timing or judging, no one could compete," says Mel, who has a two-star horse, Fabienne, with Brook Staples.

Mel and Chris now officiate at approximately 30 events each season. It’s a ritual at the start of every season to pack the "grey box" into their car — nicknamed "The Beast" because it’s big and black!

In this grey box is everything — or hopefully everything — they’re likely to need: umbrellas, Wellingtons, spare socks, fingerless gloves — "you can’t write in normal ones" — hats, spare coats, scarves, loo rolls, and sun lotion.

The night before an event, Chris and Mel prepare the picnic hamper.
"We like to spoil ourselves, so we probably buy a lot of things we wouldn’t normally," says Mel, who includes a mixture of hot and cold drinks.
"We considered bringing a mobile fridge at one point," she confesses.

Although Mel says most events are good at supplying the necessary tools, she packs her own clipboard, pens and pencils, along with the all important whistle and pencil sharpener. But the most important items are the folding chairs.
"Whoever invented them deserves a gold medal. They’re cheap, light, and very comfortable," she says.

On the morning of the event, fence judges attend a briefing by the British Eventing (BE) technical delegate (TD) and organisers.
"These are usually quite amusing. Every TD has a different way of explaining things and most tell funny stories. It’s quite a social gathering, especially if bacon butties are on the menu," explains Mel.

Once at their post, the serious stuff begins and at complexes such as the water and combination obstacles, the utmost concentration is required.
Mel enjoys the BE training days throughout the year.
"It keeps us up to speed on rule changes. There are always times when you ask yourself: did that horse stop or did that rider steer the correct side of the flag? One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to keep spare pieces of paper, to draw diagrams," says Mel, who recalls the first ever water jump she and Chris judged.
"It was the naivety of it. We were complete newcomers and arrived with no Wellingtons. When a rider went for a swim, Chris had to wade in to retrieve the horse. We’re much better prepared now and when a rider lost both her boots in the water at Henbury, Chris managed to retrieve them without getting his own feet wet."

Mel also remembers the time World Champion Zara Phillips stopped for a chat when walking the course.
"Zara was being followed by an army of fans and I think it was her way of giving them the opportunity to take photographs," explains Mel, who survived on half-rations another day.
"We left the boot of the car up and didn’t notice when a dog helped itself to our pork pie and sausage rolls!"

Fence judges invariably answer questions. Spectators want to know where the best place is to watch the most fences, journalists enquire how many have faulted and competitors often ask who has taken the direct route.
"There’s little time to admire the scenery," points out Mel.
At Chatsworth this year — after an hour’s sleep because Mel’s former point-to-pointer decided to give birth to her foal — Chris and Mel did relief judging.
"That’s a good system. We started at fence one and continued round the course to give judges the chance for a break. We got round four times," says Mel.

At the end of the event, volunteers usually take part in a debrief.
"It’s not just a case of returning your equipment and away you go. It’s a social event. There are normally refreshments, and everyone exchanges tales," says Mel. "You give your time to the event and the organisers give something back to you. Fence judging really is a great way of putting something back into the sport. We’d recommend it to anyone."