​Understanding Horse Shows

Posted by Green Mountain Horse and Tack on 3rd Jun 2022

Competitions with your horse are great fun and a wonderful way to really learn who your horse is, build upon your relationship with him or her and improve your riding skills. A day at a horse show is a very full day, from getting your horse ready for the show, readying your clothes and gear, packing your trailer, settling your horse with all the new sounds, the crowd and the busy atmosphere will really strengthen the bond you have with your horse. It’s also a terrific way to build your confidence with your horse, meet new horse lovers like yourself and learn new skills. For the new rider or one that is new to the world of horse shows, they can certainly be overwhelming. This article will attempt to give you a well-rounded knowledge of different horse shows, from casual community-based shows to highly competitive rated shows, so you can start planning your show season.

Once you start looking into shows in your area, you’ll find that horse shows are everywhere and there are shows available for everyone; whether you just climbed onto your horse for the first time or have been riding for years, you’ll find a horse show and classes that fits your skill set. Let’s begin by identifying what types of show there are out there.

Schooling Shows
Schooling shows are great for riders just getting started as well as young horses that are just starting to learn what is expected of them. These are shows put on by boarding barns or training centers. If your current boarding barn hosts occasional shows, it’s an easy introduction to showing since you are in familiar settings with familiar riders and don’t necessarily need to transport the horse. The primary goal of a schooling show is to teach you the basics of how to show and the associated disciplines of different classes, getting ready for the show and, of course, having a great time with your horse. Mistakes and bad runs are commonplace, rules tend to be looser, and the judges are more forgiving, as many riders are in the same situation that you are – learning how to do this with your horse. It’s a great way to begin showing.

Unrated and 4-H Shows

These shows are quite like schooling shows but they are not tied to a specific boarding/training facility. Usually held at county fairgrounds and public and private facilities. The competitors will include plenty of beginners, young horses in training and weekend riders. The emphasis in these shows is on fun and learning so, while everyone is trying to do their best, there are minimal performance pressures and the competitive side of these shows is not as severe as rated shows.

Rated Shows
When you begin to take your skills to the next level with your horse, who is now experienced with shows and knows what is expected of him, you may feel the need to “get in the circuit” and explore rated shows. In rated shows, the competition really heats up, so if you’re a serious competitor by nature, and you and your horse are becoming finely tuned competitors, these show will feed your need to compete harder. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Shows are rated according to the amount of prize money given. A rated show will hold a certain number of classes per division and will often hold the show over several days. Strict rules by the USEF must be recognized in the show in order for it to be rated. Competition will be fierce, especially in the higher rated shows.

Shows are rated from AA – the highest rated show – to C at the lowest end of the scale. These rated competitions will offer divisions for novice riders up to experience competitors. Most of the shows in the US are B to AA rated shows.

B Rated Shows
B rated shows are a somewhat gentle step up from local 4-H shows. These shows will have divisions for novice riders and more experienced riders and classes are generally geared for juniors and adult amateur riders. People will travel quite a distance to participate in a rated show, so you’ll meet riders and trainers from well outside your area and you’ll find encouragement and support from these other riders. These riders are, like you, are there to have fun and learn with their horse. The B rated shows do not require the commitment of time and money that the A rated show do. But make no mistake, you and your horse must be on your game – there are no gifts from the judges here.

A Rated Shows
Being on the A-circuit is a very big deal. This is where the best of the best will compete against each other for big money. Six-figure horses and five-figure outfits are what you’ll see at the A-circuit. Because these shows are always several days long at locations across the country, junior riders must leave school and adult riders must take leave from their career, trailer their horse across the country, pay for meals and hotel for themselves and usually part of that for their trainer – and it’s not unusual for the trainer to have a groomer, assistant, and manager travel with them.

Once you’ve found the show that’s right for you and your horse, request more information such as classes offered, entry fees, entry forms, starting times and availability of parking and boarding facilities. Next, you’ll have to decide which classes to enter. If it’s an open show, all breeds will be allowed to enter. Closed shows are for specific breeds. Here is a list of primary classes you’ll come across and what will be expected in each class.

English Classes
English Pleasure
This show was originally developed for Morgan and Arabian breeds. In this class you and your horse will be judged on apparent ability for a good pleasure ride. The horse will be judged on manners, quality, performance, presence, and pleasure abilities.

Equitation Over Fences
Riders are evaluated in their effectiveness with the horse throughout the event. The rider’s seat, hands, and ability to control the horse while jumping over fences and establishing an even hunting pace

Hunter Seat Equitation

Riders will walk, trot, and canter in both directions, ending the competition standing quietly in a lineup. Riders may be asked to back up their horses in the lineup. It is the rider that is being judged in the class.

Hunter Hack
The horse is judged against the other competitors in the arena at a walk, trot, and canter as well as completion of a course of two fences.

Hunters Over Fences

Each competitor is judged performing alone over fences. The obstacles are meant to simulate those obstacles that are found in the hunting fields and can range in height from eighteen inches to up to thirty-nine inches. You’ll find a minimum of eight fences in the arena and there will be no rail work in the class. The horse must be forward and controlled, presenting an elegant arc of each jump with even forelegs snapped up in front.

Hunters Under Saddle

The rider and the horse will demonstrate the walk, trot, and canter in both directions with light contact from the rider’s hand. Judges will look for the ideal horse in confirmation and movement, manners, obedience, and responsiveness.

Western Classes

Western Pleasure
Western pleasure, when performed correctly, is a challenging class for the horse and rider. The horse will be judged at a four-beat walk, a free-moving, easy-riding, two-beat jog and at a three-beat lope, in both directions around the ring with proportional restraint. The rider is expected to give the horse subtle and imperceptible cues and the horse should be calm, consistent, and responsive.

This course will present to the horse challenges like that which he will have to negotiate while trail riding. The horse will be presented with a gate, carrying objects, riding through water, stepping over logs, simulations of brush, walking through a ditch, crossing a bridge, backing up through obstacles and mounting and dismounting from either side. The judges will be looking at how matter-of-factly the horse works through the course in a timely manner.


Horsemanship is a pattern class, requiring the horse and rider to perform a prescribed pattern in the arena; the pattern is posted on the day of the class, and it is up to the rider to note and adhere to the details of the pattern. The pattern may include circles, spins, and other movements to be judged. The judges are looking at the correctness of the rider’s seat, hands, and feet, the precision of the maneuvers under a specific time limit.

Western Riding
In this pattern class, the horse and rider will be asked to complete a series of lead changes at the lope around the pattern setup with cones in the arena with reasonable speed. Horses are judged on the quality of their gaits and flying lead changes. They will also observe the horse’s response to the rider, manners, and disposition over the course of the pattern.

This pattern class are focused on commands given through the horse’s lead. The handler works with the horse to execute a series of movements, including walking, jogging, stopping, backing up, turning, and setting up.

Halter classes are in-hand and specifically judge how well the horse is put together, namely conformation and movement at a trot. Horses are to be groomed impeccably groomed and in flawless condition to score high.

There is a horse show and classes for every horse and rider. They are a wonderful way to further the bond with your horse, enjoy your horse and meet other riders that will encourage you and expand your relationship with your horse.