How to Succeed in the Horse Show Circuit

If you're like many horse owners, sooner or later the "show bug" is bound to bite you. A horse show is an organized, public opportunity in which you have the chance to show off your horse, your riding skills and your horsemanship to the judge, other competitors, and onlookers.

There are literally thousands of American Horse Shows Association (AHSA)-affiliated shows each year in the United States. No matter what kind of horse you have or your riding discipline, there's sure to be a show for you. Competitions range from show jumping, vaulting, dressage, hunt seat and saddle seat, to Western pleasure, reining, gymkhana, trail class and cutting. At any one show, often several hundred, and sometimes thousands, of horses are ridden and judged.

What's the main drawing card? If you're like most people interested in showing, it's competition. "People like to see how they stand up against other riders," says Audrey Bray, an AHSA judge in Seminole, Florida. "They've put a lot of hard work and effort into their horses and want to test their skills against others of the same caliber." She adds that competitions don't have to be cutthroat. "They can be casual and quite a lot of fun," she says.

What does it take to come away with a ribbon? Over and over again, judges point out certain key factors which set a champion horse and rider apart from other competitors. Here's what judges say you need to do if you want to suceed in the horse show circuit:

Look the Part

When you enter the ring, it's very important that you and your horse look like champions. "While it's not the end of the analysis, a good first impression makes me anticipate a good performance," says Pam Rush, an AHSA judge in Tampa, Fla. On the other hand, she says, "if you come in looking sloppy, I'm not going to have as high expectations from you and I'm going to have to work my way up to thinking you're doing a good job."

Your riding clothes and tack should be clean and in good condition. "Your attire should be appropriate for the riding event, and should be tasteful, neatly pressed, and should not clash with the horse or the tack," says Marilyn Ackerman, an AHSA steward and a show manager in Sodus, N.Y. If you have long hair, it should be worn up, she adds.

A clean, neatly turned out horse is imperative. "The horse should be groomed according to the class in which he is participating," says Sandy Arledge, an American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) judge in San Diego, Calif. "Styles are different for a reining horse as compared to a pleasure horse."

For example, Arledge says a pleasure/trail/western riding/showmanship horse should be clipped around the face and muzzle, have his ears and bridle path clipped and his legs/pastern/coronet band trimmed. The mane should be shortened and banded to lay flat. The horse should also have a bath so that the coat is free of dust, dirt and stains. A reining horse's legs are not clipped, nor is his mane shortened, but is allowed to grow long. It has no bridle path or a very short one (1 inch). An English (hunt seat) horse should have his mane shortened and braided in a style keeping with the hunter look.

Enter Your Horse in the Right Class

Not just any horse can do any event, just as not all people are suited to do all jobs. "You need to have a breed of horse that is suited for the job you're asking him to do in the competition," Rush says. For instance, warm-bloods and thoroughbreds are by far the most predominant breed of horse in hunting-jumping events. "If you bought a Tennessee walking horse and you wanted to go to a hunter-jumper horse show, you probably shouldn't bother, because the probability of you competing successfully is slim," Rush says.

Make Good Demeanor a Priority

But just having a nice breed of horse is not enough. The horse also needs to have the right demeanor: he should be obedient, have a pleasant disposition, should not be easily spooked, and appear to enjoy the task at hand. "Sometimes people think that if they buy a very well-bred horse that they're going to be instant champs," Bray says. "But you could have the most well-put-together horse in the world and if he's got a bad disposition, you're not going to have much success showing him."

Know the Show Rules

Make sure you know the rules of the show – before you head for the competition. "It is the obligation of the exhibitor to know the rules of the association which governs the show," Arledge says. "It is also the obligation of the exhibitor to know the protocol and procedure for the class. There is no substitute for being well prepared, and lack of preparation will show." If your type of competition has a rulebook, get a copy of it and read it carefully. If you do something in the ring that's against the rules, you could easily be eliminated from the competition.

Be Organized

A winning rider is also very organized, Rush says. "You can't expect to win if you get to the horse show and then figure out what equipment you need, what you're going to show in, or what you want to accomplish." Before you leave for the show, make a list of items you need to take with you so you don't forget them – such as tack, grooming equipment, rulebooks and special clothing. Set aside important paperwork that you need for the show such as proof of a Coggins test and vaccination records. Check your trailer to make sure that it is in proper working order. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the show grounds so that you don't feel rushed.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whatever types of maneuvers you and your horse are expected to do at the competition, you should practice at home, not just once, but over and over again. "If you're going to be asked to stop and stand quietly, and take a couple steps forward, then walk backward and stop again, you should practice this drill at home so that your horse will be comfortable doing it," Bray says.

Keep in mind that when your horse performs at the show, he will be in new surroundings and that in itself will be enough of a challenge for you. "You don't want to worry about whether or not the horse can do the drill, on top of dealing with any anxiety he may be feeling," Bray says.

In order to be a champ, you have to have the talent and time resources to put into this sport. "People very much underestimate how much time it takes to do it well," Rush says. If you want to be a winner, she says, you have to "know your stuff."