Horse shows can be an amazing experience. Many equestrians learn a lot about themselves and their horses when they’re competing at a horse show. However, if you aren’t prepared, it can be easy to become quickly overwhelmed and confused. Whether you’re interested in competing at English horse shows or Western horse shows, we’re here to help.
This blog has everything you need to set yourself up for a successful first season of horse showing. From the horse show lingo you need to know to the tack your horse needs to wear, we’ve got you covered with all of the horse show basics.
1. What to Wear to an English Horse Show
2. What to Wear to a Western Horse Show
3. Competition Levels Explained
4. How to Plan Your Show Season
5. Tack Do's and Don'ts
Horse Show Glossary
In order to have a successful show season, it helps to understand what everyone is saying around you. Whether you ride Western or English, we have some basic horse show terminology below to help you get a good grasp of your surroundings.
Related to Riders
Amateur: An amateur is an adult rider who does not get paid to ride, train, or show horses. Amateur riders have a varying level of experience and can show at a wide variety of levels.
Professional: A professional rider is anyone who gets paid to ride and train horses. It’s important to be aware of your status as a professional as you will be barred from competing in some classes.
Junior: The term junior is used to refer to any rider who is competing and is less than 18 years old. Some shows even have special classes just for junior riders.
Hunter: Hunter classes are judged based on the horse’s movement. Ideally, horses and riders in this style of horse show should look relaxed, with a smooth rhythmic canter and floating movement.
Showjumping: Showjumping classes are judged based completely on the time clock. Riders must complete a course of fences as fast as possible with as few faults as possible. Penalties are added for knocking down rails and riders are disqualified if they go off course.
Equitation: Equitation classes are based almost entirely on the rider’s position and control of the horse. Horses are typically ridden on a shorter rein and jumping courses have tighter turns and are done at a slightly faster pace.
On the Flat/Under Saddle: When someone refers to a class at a horse show as being “under saddle” or “on the flat,” they mean that this class has no fences. Horse and rider are judged on their flatwork and must perform at all three gaits: walk, trot, and canter.
Verticals: These fences have poles that are placed parallel to each other and do not intersect. Vertical fences typically have between two and three poles, one of which is placed on the ground.
Crossrails: This type of fence features two rails that “cross” or intersect with each other. There is a low point in the middle of the fence where the rails form an x-shape.
Oxers: Similar to verticals, oxers are a type of fence featuring several rails that are placed parallel to each other. Unlike verticals, oxers also have a second set of standards behind the first one to form a wider fence.
Course: At a horse show, the course is the order in which the rider must jump a series of fences. The rider is given the pattern before the class and must memorize it.
Walking the Course: This takes place before some jumping classes. During this time period, riders and their coaches are allowed to walk the pattern in which they must jump the fences. This helps the riders better remember the course and work out any problem areas.
Off-Course: A rider is considered to be off-course when they deviate from the pattern in which they are supposed to jump the fences. Going off-course results in immediate disqualification.
Jump-Off: Exclusive to the sport of showjumping, a jump-off happens when two riders tie. The fences are raised every round, and whoever can jump the highest at the fastest speed without knocking down a pole wins.
Refusal: When a horse stops short of jumping a fence and “refuses” to jump it.
Runout: When a horse swerves to run around the fence instead of going over.
Rollback: A rollback occurs in any jumping class when riders must ride a tight, round turn from one fence to another.
USHJA: This abbreviation stands for the United States Hunter Jumper Association, which is the organization that hosts the majority of rated hunter/jumper shows in the United States.
#-Stride: When you hear someone refer to a jumping combination as a 3-stride or 5-stride, they’re referring to the number of steps the horse takes to get from one fence to the next. In hunter/jumper classes, there is an ideal number of strides the horse must take.
USDF: This abbreviation means the United States Dressage Federation. Acting as the governing body of dressage horse shows in the United States, USDF promotes dressage competition and education.
Dressage Test: A dressage test is the pattern of movements that a rider must adhere to in order to place at a horse show.
Calling a Dressage Test: This takes place when a rider enlists the help of a friend, other competitor, or coach to stand by the edge of the dressage arena and read out loud the pattern of the dressage test.
#-Meter Circle: You’ll often hear riders and coaches refer to a circle as 10-meters or 20-meters. This refers to the diameter of the circle.
Frangible Pins: A relatively new innovation, frangible pins allow the rails of a cross country fence to fall if a horse knocks against it. They were designed to greatly increase safety on course and prevent injuries.
Finish on a Dressage Score: Riders who finish on their dressage score truly have something to brag about! These riders had no penalties in either cross country or stadium jumping. Their only score will be their final dressage score.
Red on Right: Refers to the different colored flags on either side of a fence. One side will have a white flag; the other side will have a red flag. All obstacles should be jumped with the red flag on your right side.
Start Box: A “box” made of L-shaped fencing, this is where all horses and riders start their cross country course.
Barrel Racing Glossary
Rodeo Performance vs. Slack: When barrel racing at a rodeo, there’s only so much time available during a performance when the stands are filled with big crowds. Riders that barrel race during the “performance” compete in front of large crowds in an electrifying atmosphere. Riders that compete in the “slack” are usually given a time in the early morning or late evening when there are no crowds and the stands are quiet.
Rookie: A woman in her first year of barrel racing competition is designated as a rookie. There may be certain events at competitions that are specifically designed for rookie competitors.
Side pot: Some Western horse shows have side pots. These are additional ways for competitors to win money outside of the main jackpot. Riders usually pay a little extra to enter into a side pot contest.
Be thinking: If you’re waiting your turn at a Western horse show and you hear the phrase “be thinking,” you should start getting ready to ride! This phrase means that there are three riders ahead of you before it’s your turn to race.
In the hole: Start visualizing your ride when you hear this phrase. Now you’re third in line before it’s your turn to race.
On deck: If you hear this phrase at a Western horse show, start getting your reins together and get ready to run. You’re up next!
Up: It’s your turn to race!
Draw: Unlike some horse shows, reining horse shows don’t create their order of go based on who entered first. Instead, there is a “draw,” which places all competitors in a random order for their turn to ride the pattern.
Fencing: A great way to warm up a reining horse, fencing is when the horse and rider run from one end of the arena to the other and finish with a sliding stop right in front of the fence.
Markers: These orange cones break up the arena into thirds and show riders where they’re supposed to perform each maneuver in the reining pattern.
Minus Maneuver / Plus Maneuver: Minus maneuvers have a low degree of difficulty. Plus maneuvers, on the other hand, are considered to be very difficult to perform.
Run Down: An important part in ensuring a proper sliding stop, a run down is when the horse picks up speed in order to prepare for a stopping maneuver.
Zero Score: A zero score occurs when a rider deviates from the reining pattern. Similar to going “off course” at an English horse show, this means that the rider is disqualified from the class and no score is recorded.
Willfully Guided: Awillfully guided horse is one that has a very pleasant demeanor and listens attentively to the rider. The horse should appear relaxed and happy. To be “willfully guided” is one of the biggest attributes of a reining horse.
Do you ever have nightmares about showing up to school in your pajamas? You’ll get that same feeling of embarrassment if you show up to a horse show wearing the wrong clothes! A successful show season requires the right attire.
Show Coat: These beautiful jackets are typically neutral colors, such as gray, navy, black, or green, and are worn in the dressage and hunter/jumper rings. Dressage competitions are now starting to allow more colors!
Stock Tie: This doesn’t look like your typical tie. The stock tie is a strip of cloth worn tied around the neck at dressage horse shows. It must be knotted in a specific style and can be bought pre-tied.
Stock Pin: Usually small and dainty, this pin is used to secure your stock tie. More common in the dressage arena, stock ties are occasionally worn in the hunter ring, although now embroidery at the collar of the show shirt is more popular.
Tall Boots: Compared to paddock boots, these riding boots are really quite tall. Usually black in color, these leather boots reach just below the knee and zip up the back.
Garter Strap: Worn only by very young riders, garter straps are strips of leather that wrap
around just below the knee and use velcro or buckles to close.
Show Bows: These bows are only acceptable when worn with garter straps and paddock boots in the hunter/jumper ring. Usually brightly-colored and large, these bows are used to secure two braided pigtails.
Show Shirt: The only acceptable shirt in the show ring, these garments have a high, stiff collar that snaps shut at the throat. Available in long sleeves or short sleeves for summer events.
Skull Cap: A helmet that is usually only worn when riding cross country, skull caps do not have a stiff brim and often have a nylon cover in bright colors.
Cross Country Vest: This safety vest protects the rider in the event of a fall. There are several different types, including Co2-powered ones that inflate as soon as the rider detaches from the saddle.
Western horse shows aren’t all about cowboy hats and boots! In order to compete and win, it’s important that you understand what show ring attire is allowed and what’s frowned upon.
Helmet: While cowboy hats are allowed at most Western horse shows, Western-style helmets are becoming more and more popular. Learn more about up-and-coming trends in Western helmets on this blog.
Show Slinky: A slinky is a tight-fitting stretchy top that may be embellished with accents such as crystals or leather trim. This is typically worn underneath a Western show jacket.
Show Jacket: Western show jackets can really bring the bling. Featuring a high collar and an almost-hidden zipper up the front, these jackets are designed to be eye-catching.
Long-Sleeve Button Up: Many cowboys compete in long-sleeve button-up shirts, usually with pearl snaps.
Jeans or Show Pants: For the men, jeans are a perfectly acceptable choice to wear to many Western horse shows. But many women are required to wear bootcut show pants instead. Usually black or another dark color, show pants are stretchy and comfortable for the rider to move in.
Cowboy boots: Of course, you have to have a good pair of cowboy boots at your next Western horse show!
Before you can start to plan out your horse show season, it’s important to have an excellent grasp on the different levels of competition. You’d hate to wind up competing in a 4’ over fences class when you’ve only been training over 2’ fences at home! One of the most important parts of setting yourself up for success this show season is to compete in the right classes for you and your horse.
Short Stirrup: The Short Stirrup division is a class for beginner riders who have not competed over fences at a height over 2 feet. Usually the age limit for these classes is under 11 years old.
Walk/Trot/Canter: This division is only held on the flat and does not include an over fences portion. It’s also designed for beginner riders of a slightly older age range.
Adult Equitation: The Adult Equitation division at an English horse show is made up of 3 or 4 classes, typically two or three over fences and one flat class. The fence height ranges from 2’3” to 3’ tall.
Schooling Hunter: At most English horse shows, this division is only for horses who have more than one year of experience horse showing. Made up of both over fences and flat classes, the fence height is typically between 2’ and 2’9” tall.
Adult Hunter: The next step up from the Schooling Hunter division, competitors in this division are judged over fences and on the flat. Fences are between 2’6” and 3’ depending on the horse show.
Grand Prix: Now we’re talking big leagues! Grand Prix showjumping has the biggest prize winnings, the highest fences, and is reserved for only the best riders. This class is based solely off of speed and time faults.
Hunter Derby: If Grand Prix is considered the elite of the showjumping world, Hunter Derby is the elite of hunter/jumper competition. Horses are judged based on their demeanor and athletic capabilities. Exclusively over fences, the derby features natural jumps like stone walls, brush jumps, and coops.
Beginner Novice: The introductory level of eventing, beginner novice riders may be new to the sport. When on cross country, these riders follow a course that is numbered with black numbers on a yellow background.
Novice: Novice riders are beginning to gain confidence in the cross country field and are starting to master the basics of dressage and stadium jumping. These riders follow black numbers on a white background when riding on the cross country course.
Training: This is the last level of eventing where no qualifications are needed to move up the levels. It’s considered the last of the “lower” eventing levels. Training level riders follow white numbers on a black background when riding on the cross country course.
Preliminary: Now we’re really getting serious! Preliminary level eventing is considered to be the first of the upper levels. You have to qualify in order to compete in preliminary and all levels above it. Riders follow white numbers on a green background.
Intermediate: Not everyone has the horse or the training to ride intermediate level eventing. These courses require some serious bravery. Riders follow white numbers on a red background.
Advanced: This is the highest level of United States eventing. Horse and rider must qualify to compete at this level for their safety. Riders follow white numbers on a blue background on the cross country field.
Training: Similar to saying someone is a level 1 player in a video game, riders and horses are said to “go training” when they are competing following a pattern of movements designed for basic level riders. Tests are performed in the walk, trot, and canter, and horses should be willing and supple through the movements.
First: The next level up from training, first level riders expand on what they learned in training level and also perform new, more difficult movements.
Second: The level above first, riders competing at this level must show collection, as well as the counter-canter.
Third: Riders can move up to third level dressage from second. This level of competition at horse shows becomes much more intense. The judges set an even higher bar for riders and double bridles are now permitted for use.
Fourth: Definitely not meant for new riders, fourth level dressage tests require an experienced horse and rider combination. New movements added at this level include tempi changes and a 10-meter half-circle in counter-canter.
Prix St. Georges: This is the first level of international competition. Double bridles are required for this level and all above it.
Grand Prix: The very top level of equestrian sport, when you watch dressage at the Olympics, you’re watching Grand Prix-level dressage.
Age Divisions: Like English horse shows, Western horse shows also have various age divisions. This ensures that riders are able to compete against others of relatively the same experience. A 10 year old competing against a seasoned professional wouldn’t exactly be fair!
Divisional Format: Here’s an excellentexplanation by Cowgirl Hall of Famer, Sharon Camarillo: “The fastest time sets the time brackets, and wins the first division. The second division is won by a time half a second behind the overall fastest pace. The third division is won by a time a full second behind the fastest time, and the fourth is two seconds behind the fastest time.”
Jackpot: At a western horse show, these classes are run in the exact same format as divisional classes, however, they usually have a much larger payout.
Futurity: Just like reining classes, barrel racing futurities are limited to horses of a certain age group. Most futurity classes in barrel racing are limited to 4 and 5 year old horses.
Open Classes: True for all equestrian sports, any rider can compete in an open class regardless of their status as a professional, youth, or amateur rider.
Rookie and Entry-Level Classes: These classes are designated for those who are new to the sport of reining. Consider signing up for these classes if this is your first show season or you’re just discovering the sport.
Youth Riders: Classes that are designated for “Youth Riders” are only open to competitors who are under the age of 18 years old.
Novice Horses: Similar to entry-level classes, this level of competition is specifically set aside for horses that are brand new to reining or considered to be “green,” meaning inexperienced.
Aged Event (futurity, derby, and maturity) horses: These classes are designated for horses of a certain age group. For example, futurity classes are typically open to horses between 3 and 4 years of age.
Now that we understand the different levels of competition, it’s time to plan out which horse shows you’ll be attending this season. A successful show season relies on a good plan. Choose your show schedule carefully! When choosing which shows to attend, it’s important to be honest with yourself. Competing in classes that are too much of a challenge for you and your horse will just set you up for failure, but competing in classes that are too easy will prevent you from improving as much as you could.
A good rule of thumb is that you should be training just a little higher than you’re competing, particularly with very dangerous equestrian sports like eventing. For example, if you would like to show in a 3’0 over fences class, you should be comfortable jumping 3’3 when training at home. This ensures that you and your horse will be confident at your next horse show without selling yourself short and entering into a class that is too easy.
When evaluating your current skill set, ask yourself a few simple questions:
When was the last time you went to a horse show? If it’s been a while or you’re signing up for your very first show, you may want to set yourself up for success and take it easy. This will allow you to get the lay of the land and build your confidence while you’re still new to horse competitions.
- Is your horse young or green? Is this their first show season? Consider your horse’s mindset and skills just as carefully as your own. You may be a horse show veteran, but if it’s your horse’s first season, you’ll want to take it easy and make allowances for their first time competing.
- How has your training been going? Are you feeling confident and comfortable at home? If you’ve been struggling with your training at home, then maybe you want to take it down a level for horse shows. Pony shows and horse competitions add a lot of pressure. If you’re already feeling insecure about your riding, this is not the time to move up a level.
- Last but not least, are you having fun? Horseback riding is a hobby and passion that is supposed to make you happy. If you’re competing or training at a level that is too high for you, you’ll find that pretty soon all the fun has gone out of the experience. Prioritize fun at your horse shows for a good experience for both you and your horse.
Your trainer is an excellent resource when it comes to planning which horse competitions you’ll attend this season. Not only is your trainer a trusted resource with more experience than you, but they’re extremely familiar with your horse, your riding style, and your past experiences. They may have even been with you every step of the way! They’ll be able to provide you with an honest evaluation of you and your horse and advise you on what level you should be showing at this season.
It’s also a good idea to coordinate with your trainer for the show season. It’s much more convenient for you both to attend shows they’ll already be at. That way you can trailer together, enter together, and support each other on hectic show days. Depending on the trainer, it may even save you some money.
Nothing is more frustrating than putting all of your blood, sweat, and tears into preparing for a horse show and then getting eliminated because your horse was wearing the wrong tack! Set yourself up for a successful show season by understanding all of the tack do’s and don'ts for your riding discipline.
Do use a plain snaffle bridle for tests worn below Second Level, and when riding FEI tests for children, and FEI pony tests. These bridles must be in brown or black and use a browband, noseband, and bit. Common legal bits include loose ring, eggbutt, D-ring, upper cheek, full cheek, hanging cheek, and Fulmer cheek bits. While you can choose between using a dressage-specific saddle or a jumping-style saddle, most riders choose to ride in a black dressage saddle. Fly veils that match the horse’s natural color are allowed, even the noise-reducing versions.
Don’t ride into a dressage arena wearing a Western bridle! Unlike in Western dressage, bitless bridles are also not allowed. You won’t see any bit guards and mouthpieces with a diameter less than 10mm here either! Any bit with a joint that could trap or pinch any part of the horse’s mouth is strictly prohibited. Forget riding in an Australian, Baroque, Endurance, McClellan, Spanish, Stock, or Western saddle as these are all prohibited.
Pads must be conservative in color and you’ll typically see riders using a white or black saddle pad. Even though noise-reducing fly veils are allowed, ear plugs and ear muffs are not and could cause you to be eliminated. The same goes for boots! Any sort of leg protection is not allowed in the dressage ring.
The hunter/jumper ring may have fewer explicit rules and regulations than dressage competition, but there is significantly more pressure to conform to a certain look. If you don’t comply with peer pressure, you’re unlikely to place high in a class.
Do use sheepskin or fleece saddle pads that conform to the shape of the saddle, with as little sticking out behind the saddle as possible. Most competitors use a brown close contact saddle and compete in a plain snaffle bridle. Some of these have decorative stitching; but this is generally understated and almost invisible from far away. Unlike many other disciplines, you can use a standing or running martingale in all of the over fences or jumping classes.
Don’t use a saddle or bridle with any type of bling! It could make you stand out like a sore thumb. Boots of any kind-- bell boots, tendon boots, dressage boots, brushing boots, etc.-- are explicitly not allowed. Certain nosebands are prohibited, including dropped, flash, and figure eight. Three ring, gag, and kimberwick bits are all illegal in the hunter/jumper ring. Martingales of any type are prohibited in the under saddle, hack, and tie-breaking classes.
The showjumping world has some of the least restrictive requirements when it comes to horse tack, so you can have a lot more fun with your choice of tack– especially when it comes to color.
Do use a jumping saddle to facilitate better performance. Saddle pads of all kinds and colors are also allowed, as well as any type of English bridlethe horse and rider prefer. For classes where the fences are higher than 1.30 meters, only running martingales used in the conventional manner are permitted.
Don’t use any type of curb with any style of leverage bit unless it is formed of loose links or joints and lies flat against the jaw of the horse. It must be free of twists, sharp objects, or anything designed to harm the horse. Showjumping also has a unique rule– you cannot use any sort of leg protection, including boots, bandages, or bell boots, that adds over 500 grams of weight per leg.
While other competitive disciplines have horse tack requirements based on appearance or quality of movement, the cross country field places an emphasis on safety, not looks.
Do make sure that all of your tack allows for an immediate and unrestricted separation of the rider from the horse in the event of a fall. For example, stirrup irons and leathers must hang outside the flap and be free from the bar of the saddle. Reins with loops and hand attachments are prohibited. They must connect directly to the bridle.
An English saddle and any bridle, including double bridles, snaffles, gags, or hackamores are allowed on the course. Running martingales, Irish martingales, bit guards, boots, bandages, fly shields, nose covers, and even seat covers are also allowed for the comfort of both the horse and rider.
Don’t use side reins, running reins, or chambons unless you are lunging an unmounted horse. Other gadgets such as balancing reins, blinkers, and most forms of martingales are strictly forbidden. Don’t use these unless you want to be disqualified! Don’t use spurs that have a shank of more than 4cm. The only spurs allowed must be of smooth metal and point only towards the rear and curve downward. Any spur that is capable of wounding a horse or drawing blood is absolutely forbidden. Don’t forget to drop that dressage whip before riding cross country! Whips may be no longer than 30 inches in length and cannot be weighted.
Before selecting your tack for your next Western horse show, be sure to go over the rules of the show with a trainer or experienced mentor. Make sure that all of your equipment follows the rules!
Do bring a quality Western saddle. When it comes to Western riding, bling is king. However, don’t worry if your saddle isn’t particularly “blinged out.” The USEF rulebook explicitly states that “silver equipment shall not count over a good working outfit.” Standard Western bits are expected and defined as having a maximum length shank of 8 and a half inches. The mouthpiece should be a metal bar between 5/16 inches and ¾ inches in diameter. The bars must be smooth or latex wrapped with no protrusions above or below the mouthpiece. A Western headstall with curb bit and split reins and a Western saddle blanket that matches the rider’s clothing should be used.
Don’t make the mistake of using a standard snaffle bit on a horse that is older than five years of age! The same goes for hackamores. These are also permitted in most classes, but the horse must be less than five years old. No English saddles or bridles here!
Get Excited for a Great Horse Show Season
It’s only February now, but horse show season is right around the corner! Soon, you’ll be putting your training to the test, horse showing with your friends, and bringing home ribbons. But most of all, horse shows are about having fun.
Whether you ride at English horse shows or Western horse shows, the key to having a successful show season is to be prepared. Before you head to your first horse show, you should be familiar with the terms and phrases you’ll hear, have a comprehensive plan for your show season, be enrolled in the right classes, and have show-legal tack and attire. It sounds like a lot, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll become second nature. Until then, check out our blog on Breeches.com for more show season tips and tricks to help you through your very first show season.
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