Your First Horse Show!

So you are going to your first horse show. Or maybe it’s just been many years since you’ve been in the show ring. Either way, it can be a nerve-wracking experience just getting there, not to mention the actual event, itself. I have seen the emotions of my students run the gamut from total nonchalance as the young competitors have fun with friends and seem more interested in just walking around with their horse, to one young student who was in the truck throwing up from nervousness. While your inherent temperment will have a lot to do with how big your butterflies are, I’ve found that advance preperation, or lack of it, will really make the entire event an enjoyable one or a disappointing one.

I’m not going to get into any training suggestions, since that should have been taken care of long before the show. What I hope to do is to help you get ready for the show as stress free as possible, be as organized as possible and have as much fun as you can while battling your butterflies.


If you are planning on doing any showing at all, a good thing to have is a copy of your association’s rule book and study it for the rules and requirements for your class. Know what equipment and tack is legal and not legal, and what clothes you are expected to wear. Understand what the judge is looking for during the class and what might be asked of you. All this is in the association’s rule books, and when you know what the judge is looking for in any given class, you are less likely to feel insecure and more likely to feel confident that, at the very least, you are not sticking out like a sore thumb. Two days before the show, spend the lesson, or your practice time, running through a mock class. Recruiting your friends is helpful, but not necessary. Enter the ring as if at the show, and in your head or out loud, call out the commands of the class. Work on getting good transitions, making smooth circles, and moving across the ring as if avoiding a slow group of horses, smiling the entire time. Do these things in all gaits. Practice coming into the center of the ring and lining up, working on as smooth and square a halt as possible. Practice just sitting there with the proper body and rein position with a smile for several minutes. You will be amazed how hard it is to keep a pleasant, smiling look on your face during this time.

The day before the show, don’t practice on what will be required in the show. Go for a trail ride instead. This will relax you and the horse, and will give the horse a much needed break from drilling. He will be less likely to be sour. Practicing the day before the show has a very real possibility of frustrating you and the horse, especially if you are nervous about the upcoming show. Of course you will want everything to be perfect, that’s human nature, and it won’t be, that’s equine nature, so don’t even go there. You will end up more nervous than before you started. If you can’t go out on a trail, then hand graze your horse. After your leisure activity, its time to bath the horse. I usually recommend bathing the horse the night before, unless you are sure you will have plenty of time in the morning. Generally, though, horse shows begin early, and you always have to factor in driving time. Since there is the danger of the horse getting dirty during the night, you will need to put a sheet on him. If you are going to braid or band the mane, then do that the night before also, putting a slinky on over the mane to keep it neat. Spend the evening cleaning your tack (don’t forget to shine the silver or any metal), setting out your show clothes, and packing the truck and trailer. Hay, buckets, first aid kit, tack; anything you don’t need to get dressed with in the morning should be packed the night before. Do as much as possible so that you aren’t rushed in the morning when you are trying to load your horse. I recommend NOT wearing your show clothes to the show, but rather change there after you have the horse unloaded and you’ve checked in. Plan on getting to the show grounds early enough to give yourself plenty of time to unload, check in, and then change before you need to warm up for your first class.

If you come to get him in the morning and he does have stains on him somewhere (most often the stains will be on any white areas), don’t panic. Have some terry-cloth towels ready and soak them with as hot as water as you can, or wet them and put them in the microwave for a minute. Use rubber gloves if you need to to handle them, and wring them out as much as possible, but the towel should be still very warm when you use it. Rub the soiled areas firmly with the towel, shifting to a clean spot on the towel frequently, until the dirt is gone. The moist warmth will lift out even poop stains.


Most walk/trot/canter classes will have the participants enter at a walk and walk on the rail until all those entered for that class are in the ring. At that point, the announcer will tell you something to the effect of “you are now being judged at the walk.” From that moment on, consider yourself in the spotlight. Plaster a smile on your face, relax and be as natural as possible. How long the walk, trot, and canter gaits will be maintained as each are called for will depend on the size of the class. So if there are few participants, expect that you will not be in each gait very long. In this case, you will need to make sure that your transitions are very crisp and clear; in a small class, all are very visible to the judge and a flubbed transition will be noticeable. Small things count, such as making sure that you begin posting on the horse’s first step of the correct diagonal. Make sure you sit back slightly for a balanced downward transition to ensure you don’t fall on the horse’s neck. Smile as naturally as possible and make eye contact with the judge when you can. In a small class, it’s easy to show off your horse’s big, flowing strides in the english divisions or his rythm and cadence in the western divisions without worrying as much about interference from other competitors. So if your horse has a big, free flowing trot, really push him out to show it off. Know your horse’s strong points and weak points. Display yourself in the areas that you know your horse shines, and move more into a group for the ones that your horse doesn’t do as well. In a larger class, the called-for gait will last longer, perhaps several laps of the ring, until the judge has had a chance to look at everyone. Since you don’t know when he will get to you, you must be “on display” the entire time. In a larger class, you must be very diligent about paying attention to the rest of the riders in the ring. Quickly pick out the trouble horses, the ones that seems spooky or overly excited and try to stay away from them. Also pick out the ones that move much slower than your horse, smaller ponies, ect. and be aware of how fast you are approaching them so as to leave yourself time and space to circle or go around or move to the other side of the ring smoothly and in an organized manner, calmly and smoothly avoiding any obstacles in the ring.

No matter the size of the class, a good competitor will be the person that knows his horse’s strong points and weak points. No person or horse is perfect, the trick to competing is to know when to be noticed and know when to be less noticable. Get out into the open if your horse has a great trot. Move closer to a group if you know your horse doesn’t pick up the right hand lead consistantly. A successful competitor knows when to display her horse and when to be “one of the crowd.”

Most shows will call for you to walk, then will ask for a trot/jog, then ask for a canter/lope. After then canter/lope, the announcer will generally ask for everyone to walk, then reverse directions. This is your opportunity to get clear of a pack, spread out and take a deep breath. The judge will be watching that the reverse is done in an organized manner, but do try to use it to spread out. You will, of course, do the same thing, in the same sequence in the new direction. When the judge is satisfied as to his/her placings, the announcer will ask you to come into the middle of the ring and line up. Pay attention to the instructions so you move smartly into place without a lot of wandering around. Again, keep in mind the fussy, nervous, agitated horses and try to stay away from them. At this point you are done and can relax, right? WRONG. While you are standing there, the judge may be making last minute adjustments to his placings. Halt your horse as square as possible, maintain good posture and position, keep the reins at the correct length and smile, until the first ribbon is called. At that point, you are finally able to relax some. If you don’t place, still smile and thank the judge if they are near, thank the ribbon person and the gate person on the way out. Congratulate those that have won a ribbon if you pass them.

If you are in a class with jumps, its helpful to not schedule a class right before your jumping class. This gives you time to go to the postings board and memorize the course and gives your horse a chance for a rest and a drink. You might want to grab a drink now, too. If it’s an option, ask the steward if you may go towards the middle or end of the class. Watching several competitors do the course will help you see any trouble spots in the course and help set the course firmly in your mind.

Be aware of how your classes are scheduled. Don’t do too many in a row, generally two to three flat classes in a row is enough. Both you and your horse will get tired and cranky without a break between classes. Plan a nice long break when you can untack, sponge or hose the horse down, undress youself as much as decently possible and get your horse and yourself something to eat and drink. If its a hot day, offer your horse water every 20-30 minutes, and you should be drinking water (not sodas) often, too.

After you classes are over, hopefully there will be some ribbons hanging on your truck. That is, after all, why you came, isn’t it? Whether or not there are any ribbons in your hand, it’s best to consider these first few shows as a learning experience. One needs to be familiar with all the little details that one learns to do during the show, one needs to be familiar with different judges and what their opinions for judging are, ect, to do well, and things like this simply take time spent at shows. It’s also a great opportunity to expose your horse to different sights and sounds and activities while you are on him, whether or not your horse is a seasoned campaigner, if you’ve never rode him at a show, it’s normal to be nervous and unsure about it. Think of these first few shows as simply another lesson for YOU, if not your horse, too. Use these shows to perfect your organizational skills, your concentration, your ability to think on your feet, all while riding your horse in an unfamiliar setting. You’ll be amazed how hard it is to pay attention to the details of your riding and to insist your horse performs your requests to the best of his ability when you are surrounded by unfamiliar distractions and everyone is staring at you. Looking at it in this perspective, simply getting through the day at the same level of perfomance you achieve at home is a herculean task. If you have some ribbons, that is great, however its far more important to come away from the show with an idea of some things you can improve upon, a sense of accomplishment that you made it through the day without fainting and actually had the courage to get up in front of everyone.

Most importantly in my opinion, I hope you come away from the show with the understanding that, whether you placed well or not, this is only one person’s opinion of how well you and your horse performed within a designated five minutes out of your life. Had it been a different five minutes, you may have done better, or worse. Had it been a different judge, you may have placed better or worse. This is true of all the other competitors, too. Remember that when the butterflies really start fluttering. Within the grand scheme of your life with your horse, that five minutes really isn’t that important. What’s important is that you and your horse develop the communication skills necessary to get to a show at all. What’s important is that you and your horse learn to trust each other to the point that your horse will go past the scary judges-booth monster at something less than the speed of light.

What’s important is that you and your horse had a good time and learned something.


In the table below I’ve included a very comprehensive check list to help you as you pack (not all of the items may be necessary in your situation, but this is a good list to work from):

101 Horsemanship and Equitation Patterns by Cherry Hill.

Original or photocopy of registration papers
Coggins test certification
Health exam certification
Proof of ownership
Amateur or Non-Pro card
Association membership card
Proof of age – youth
Show bill
Rule book
Paper and pencilsTACK
Pad or blanket
Girth or cinch
Lead rope
Protective boots
Tack trunk
Extra halter and lead rope

Iodine-based antiseptic solution
Triple antibiotic ointment
Non-stick gauze pads
Self-conforming gauze rolls
Stretch bandaging tape
Elastic adhesive tape
Cotton or disposable diaper
Chemical ice pack

Coat or vest
Tie or pin
Hat, show type
Hat, for sun protection
Hair net
Safety pins
Rain gear
Rubber shoes/boots
Nutritious snacks
Folding chairs

Grain and feed tub
Hay net
Water pail
Water, if necessary
Wintergreen, cider vinegar, Jell-O, or Kool-Aid, if needed to flavor water
Electrolyte paste or powder
Manure fork and bucket or basket
Barn broom
Bedding – shavings or straw
Barn lime
Horse blanket and hood
Sheet or fly net
Fly repellentTACK CARE
Saddle soap
Small bucket

Hoof pick
Rubber curry
Dandy brush
Body brush
Rubber mitts
Rub rags
Sweat scraper
Corn starch
Baby oil
Hoof sealer
Hoof black
Electric and battery operated clippers
Hair brush
Yarn and needle for hunter
Rubber Bands or tape
Extra tail wrap

Plastic bags
Extra cloths

Traveling blanket
Shipping leg wraps
Tail wrap
Halter and lead rope