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Horse Shows

Alissa M. Berry
young man showing horse

Horse shows are fun opportunities for riders to display their equestrian skills. No matter which discipline they choose, these events offer various levels for all competitors.

Types of Horse Shows

Horse shows may welcome all horses and competitors, only a specific breed or only certain riders.


Open horse shows can include all horse breeds and competitors of all ages and abilities. These include classes in conformation, English and Western events judged by a single judge who may have certification from a breed organization or significant experience with show horses. Judges rate horses by their breed standards.

Open horse shows award ribbons to class winners and have larger prizes such as saddles or horse blankets for the All-Around Champion and Reserve Champion.


Horsewoman and horse in competition

Breed shows are for horses and riders who are registered members of a breed organization. These shows are more competitive than open horse shows, with judges certified by the breed organization. A breed show may have a single judge or multiple judges. The classes and divisions are similar to those found at open shows, but may also include reining, cutting, saddleseat and pleasure driving. In each event, horses are judged by the breed's standard.

Winning horses accumulate points, which count toward lifetime awards. Although breed show awards do not include monetary awards, points increase a horse's values. Owners receive certificates, plaques and trophies, depending on the award's level.

Specialty Shows

Specialty shows are for specific types of riders. These shows may include both English and Western classes or may focus on a single riding discipline.

  • 4-H shows are for members of the 4-H organization.
  • Youth shows are for riders under 18 years old.
  • Select shows are for riders over age 50.
  • Novice shows are for riders of any age in their first year of showing.
  • Para-Equestrian are for riders with disabilities.

Horse Show Disciplines

Horse shows may include only one discipline, or may have classes in several disciplines. The show's organizers determine its structure and if the show is Open, Breed or Specialty.


Hunter/Jumper shows display a horse's abilities over fences in several classes.

Divisions include Pony, Junior, Amateur, Open and Green.

  • Pony - Horses must be under 14.2 hands and are usually, but not always, shown by children. The Pony division has three divisions within it for small, medium and large ponies. Small ponies are less than 12.2 hands, medium ponies are between 12.2 and 13.2 hands, and large ponies are between 13.3 and 14.2 hands. The height and distance between the jumps vary within these divisions, based on the pony's average stride length.
  • rider on bay horse jump over hurdle
    Junior - Children under 18 years of age.
  • Amateur - Adults over 18 years of age who are not equine professionals.
  • Open - For all competitors, including those who receive income from equine-related activities, such as trainers and riding instructors.
  • Green - Inexperienced horses, usually in their first or second year of showing. Fences are between three feet and three feet nine inches tall.

Within these divisions, riders compete in four classes - Hunter, Jumper, Equitation and Flat.

  • Hunter - Judges evaluate the horse's jumping styles in Hunter classes. A winning horse should smoothly complete the course with good manners, a comfortable pace, and an overall visually appealing appearance. Judges give faults for knocking down rails or refusing jumps. The horse with the fewest faults is the winner.
  • Jumper - Jumping classes are about speed rather than style. The winner completes the course in the fastest time with the fewest faults. Faults include knocking down rails, refusing jumps, or completing the course in more than the allotted time.
  • Equitation - Equitation classes judge the riders rather than the horses. These may be on the flat or over fences. Judges evaluate a rider's horsemanship skills. The ideal rider exhibits quiet control.
  • Flat - Flat classes assess a horse's movements on the flat. Horses walk, trot, extended trot, canter and gallop around the arena. The winner moves willingly and consistently at all gaits.

Each class within each division has a winner. These winners earn points based on the number of horses they competed against. At the end of the show, the judge names the Champion and Reserve Champion based on the number of points. Awards may be money, tack, trophies, or ribbons, depending on the level of competition.


Dressage displays a horse's obedience, balance and flexibility. Competitions have six levels - Training, First, Second, Third, Fourth and Grand Prix.

In dressage, riders perform tests, or a preset series of movements around the arena. Judges score each movement from zero to 10, with zero representing "not executed" and 10 for "excellent." Horses must demonstrate rhythm, relaxation, impulsion, straightness and collection through each movement. Horses and riders compete against test standards rather than against each other.

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) or the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) certifies judges.

Dressage shows may be small, local contests or prestigious international competitions. Small circuits give ribbons to winners and year-end larger prizes such as tack to top performers. International competitions award money. In 2017, the US Dressage Finals had over $200,000 in prize money.


In eventing, horses compete in dressage, cross-country and show jumping over three days.

Horses compete in dressage on the first day. This displays the horse's obedience, balance and flexibility. Riders perform tests of predetermined movements, and judges score each movement between 0 and 10. The horse with the highest score wins this portion.

Riding Horse Against Trees

The second day is for cross-country. Horses gallop through courses ranging from 2.75 to 4 miles, and jump 24 to 36 natural obstacles. This tests a horse's bravery and physical endurance. The first refusal or run-out at an obstacle earns 20 penalty points. The second at the same obstacle earns 40 additional penalty points, and a third occurrence results in elimination. Judges also penalize horses for completing the course in more than the allotted time. The horse with the fastest time and fewest penalties is the winner.

On the third day, show jumping displays a horse's ability to compete after two grueling days of competition. This event occurs in an arena, and horses jump between 12 and 15 obstacles of varying height and width. Horses earn faults for knocking down fences, refusals and using more than the allotted time to complete the course. The horse with the fewest faults and the fastest time wins this event.

The Overall Winner
At the end of the competition, judges combine each horse's scores from dressage, cross country and show jumping to determine the overall winner. Riders compete for money, and top competition levels have large purses. In 2017, the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event awarded over $420,000 in prize money and awards, such as a two-year lease on a Land Rover, for the winner of the cross country portion, and $130,000 for the overall first place horse and rider team.


Reining competitions are similar to dressage because horses perform a series of predetermined movements, and judges score each movement. This sport involves loping, galloping, spinning and sliding. The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) is the governing body in the United States.

NRHA has 17 divisions for Youth, Non-Pro and Open competitors. Any breed may compete, but registered American Quarter Horses are the most common. Riders progress through the divisions so they compete against riders and horses of similar experience. Prestigious events include the NRHA Futurity for three-year-old horses and the NRHA Derby for four, five and six-year-old horses.

Judges watch each maneuver and score it with -1.5, -1, -0.5, 0, +0.5, +1, or +1.5 A -1.5 score means extremely poor execution. A zero score means that the horse completed the movement without any degree of difficulty, and +1.5 is for extremely well-executed movements. The horse with the highest score wins the division.

Money Earnings
Reining competitions award money. The NRHA Futurity gives $150,000 in prize money, and the NRHA Derby has $600,000. NRHA determines end of the year standings based on the total amount of money each horse and rider team wins. The top horse in 2017 won over $45,000, and the second place horse won over $31,000. Open divisions offer more prize money than Youth and Non-Pro.


The National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) is the governing body of the sport.

In cutting competitions, horse and rider teams work two cattle out of a herd. Each run begins with the horse walking quietly into the herd and separating out one cow. The horse moves back and forth on a loose rein, preventing the cow from returning to the herd. When the cow gives up, the team cuts its second cow. At least one cut must be from the center, but the other may be from the edge.

Cutting has four divisions - Youth, Amateur, Non-Professional and Professional.

Each team begins with a score of 70. The judge adds and subtracts points based on performance. Teams lose points if the rider uses reins to control the horse, spurs the horse's shoulder, if the horse bites or kicks the cow, or if the cow returns to the herd. Teams gain points for handling a difficult cow, overall pleasing appearance, and working near the arena's center. The winner is the team with the highest score.

Prize Money
Cutting awards money to winners. The Professional divisions are the most competitive and pay out the highest purses. Top events include the Lucas Oil NCHA Super Stakes, Summer Cutting Spectacular and Great American Insurance Group NCHA World Champion Futurity. These events each award millions of dollars in cash and prizes.

Ranch Versatility

Ranch versatility competitions display horses' and riders' skills in working ranch-based classes in four divisions. Competitors compete in Open, Amateur, Cowboy, or Youth divisions. The National Versatility Ranch Horse Association (NRVHA) and the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) sponsor ranch versatility competitions. NVRHA shows are open to any horse breed, but AQHA shows are only for registered American Quarter Horses.

Ranch versatility has six classes - Ranch Riding, Trail, Reining, Cutting, Cow Work and Conformation.

  • Ranch Riding is like horsemanship classes in Open and Breed shows. Horses and riders perform predetermined patterns. Judges look for cadence, smooth transitions, yield to bridle contact and responsiveness to riders.
  • Ranch Trail has at least seven obstacles that horses navigate at a walk, trot and lope. These mimic obstacles that ranch horses experience in day-to-day work such as dragging logs, ground tying and going through gates. Judges look for well-mannered horses who correctly navigate the obstacles.
  • Ranch Reining displays the horses' willingness and responsiveness to their riders. The winning horse displays no resistance to his rider through the reining maneuvers. Some shows combine the reining portion of the competition with cutting.
  • Ranch Cutting displays cattle control. Each horse and rider team separates one cow from the herd and prevents it from returning. Lower divisions cut one cow while upper divisions cut two.
  • Cow Work gives the rider three minutes to box the cow, drive it down the fence line, box it at the far end of the arena, and finally rope the cow or circle it.
  • Conformation is equivalent to halter classes in Open and Breed shows. The winning horse is structurally correct, balanced and well-muscled. Competitors lead their horses in the arena at a walk and trot before lining up for inspections.

Small NRVHA shows award ribbons and points that count toward year-end awards that include trophies, spurs and belt buckles. Larger shows award jackpot cash prizes. AQHA competitions award points that qualify horses for the Zoetis AQHA Versatility Ranch Horse World Championship.

Appearance Is Important

No matter which type of horse show you choose, tack and equipment must be in good repair, show clothing should be well-tailored and spotless, and boots must be polished. Impeccable presentation in the show ring is essential for success.

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Horse Shows