Preparing for Your First Horse Show

Showing horses is just like any other competition sport in which you might engage yourself. It is an opportunity to show off what you have learned in your riding lessons and to gauge your own progress against other riders of the same experience level. In most cases, horse show classes are sorted according to the age of the rider, the abilities of the horse, and the level of complication. Your horseback riding instructor can assist you in choosing classes in which you will be most likely to excel.

If you are showing in English classes – hunter or saddleseat – then there are two types of classes: ground and over fences. Ground classes consist of walking, trotting,, cantering and halting in front of one or more judges. Over fences classes are competitions in which you will be required to jump a series, or course, of fences at varying height levels.


In ground classes, the judges will be looking at how well you ride your horse, and how well your horse responds to commands. Your presentation in this class is extremely important, as is your ability to ride amidst a large group of other horses. In some classes, there might be upwards of thirty horses in one arena, all competing for the judge’s attention. Your riding and your horse must be such that it gets you noticed.

Hold the Rail. If you end up lost in the middle of the arena with no way to return to the rail, points will be deducated from your score. Inevitably, some horses travel faster than others, which means that passing is almost always required. If you find yourself coming up fast on another horse’s tail end, you need to start thinking about how to pass. Pinpoint a spot on the rail ahead of the slower-moving horse, and while giving that horse a wide berth, head for that spot. Staying on the rail is very important in getting your horse noticed.

Stay Out of Groups. Believe it or not, some riders are very competitive, and will do anything to ensure that they nail blue ribbons. There are several tactics that unscrupulous riders use to knock competition out of the way, and one of those tactics is clustering. They will come up to a horse and rider pair, and position themselves between that duo and the judge, thereby limiting the judge’s vision of other riders. To avoid these clusters, choose a place on the rail where no other horses are. If riders steer their horses toward you, simply cross the arena.

Smile. It seems so simple, but I can’t count the number of times that I’ve watched my students travel down the rail looking as though they were being slowly tortured to death. No matter how you think a show is progressing, smile the entire time! It lets the judge know that you really enjoy the sport, and that you’re having a great time in the middle of his arena.

Respond Immediately. When the announcer calls a transition (i.e. from Trot to Canter or from Canter to Trot) respond immediately. Don’t wait for the other riders to change gaits just to make sure you heard the announcer correctly. Quick, smooth, effortless transitions are one of the largest banks on the score card.

Heads Up. Sometimes, riders fall off during a show. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, you should notice immediately. While concentrating on yourself and your horse, also pay attention to the rest of the riders. If someone falls, immediately halt your horse and wait for further instruction. If the loose horse continues to run about the arena, dismount and stand with your horse. You don’t want to end up in the dirt, too.

Ground classes are a lot of fun, and they force riders to be correct in their aides and form. Even if you are participating in over-fences classes, enter a few ground classes as well. Who knows, you might pull a few ribbons!


In contrast to ground classes, over-fences classes are performed one at a time. There will never be more than one horse in the arena, and you will not be listening for the announcer’s orders. Instead, you will have a pre-learned course that you will have to execute in front of the judge.

There are two types of over-fences classes: hunters and jumpers. Hunter classes are judged on the form and effectiveness of the horse and rider combo. The judge looks for correctness of aides, spacing between jumps, the horse’s form over the jump, and the rider’s form in the saddle. In jumper classes, the rider is not judged at all, and speed wins the class.

Hunter courses are usually eight fences long and range from one foot to four feet in height. Sometimes, the fences will have solids under them – such as flower boxes or brick walls – and sometimes, they will have just rails. In addition to scoring on form and beauty, you are also judged on faults, which means that points are taken away from your score for knocked rails, falls, and refusals.

Jumper classes are a little more exciting, and involve higher fences with no concentration on form of rider or horse. Your job is to get over the fences in the correct order as quickly as possible. You score is based on your time, and time is added to that score for knocked rails, refusals, and falls.

Smile. Again, even if you are in a jumper class, always smile. It shows that you are having fun and that you enjoy doing what you do. Judges of hunter over-fences classes are always looking for the smile.

Memorize. Go over your course with your instructor several times before heading into the ring. At my first show, I forgot my course halfway through, and was eliminated. If you take even one wrong fence in the order, you will be asked to leave the arena, which is rather embarassing!

Slow & Steady. Even if this is a jumper course, your first show should be about having a positive experience, and not about winning. Take each jump with care, and don’t worry about the clock. You can factor in speed later in your career.

Injury. If, God-forbid, you feel that your horse has become lame during your course, STOP! It is better to stop your horse yourself than to have the show steward blow the wistle and ask you to leave. Pay attention to your horse and any problems he may be having.

Look Good. Your horse should be properly groomed, your tack cleaned and oiled, and your clothes neatly pressed. At hunter/jumper shows, appearance is everything, and you don’t want to throw the judge off by looking as though you just rolled out of bed. Your horse shouldn’t have stains on his coat, and your hair (if long) should be tucked neatly into your helmet.

No matter where you are showing, or in which classes, it is normal to be nervous. You will probably not do everything right your first time around, but what is important is the experience you gain. Your first show is about learning how they work, determining what is acceptable, and taking that experience on to your next show. Be excited, but not too worked up, because mistakes during your first show are expected and allowed. You’ll do great, and you’ll have lots of fun!

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