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How to Watch a Horse Show: Tips for Understanding and Enjoying

If you have a horse-crazy loved one in your life, then chances are you have been invited to watch them ride in a horse show. This means finding a way to make the rest of the horse show interesting and fun to watch as well.

Growing up I competed in horse shows often, and I always had family there to cheer me on. My parents would come every time, sometimes grandparents or a cousin. There was so much going on that I needed to do that at the time I didn’t think much about what they were doing to pass the time in between my rides.

A horse in a horse show.

Basic Types of Classes

There are a lot of different types of classes at horse shows. A lot of horse shows will have each horse and rider perform one at a time. This would include jumping, dressage, and reining, just to name a few. In these types of classes, they are on a course or performing a pattern, and having multiple horses in the arena at once would cause them to be in each other’s way. 

Then there are some horse shows where all of the entrants in a class are in the arena together. These would be the classes where the horses and riders all ride around the edge of the arena, and are given instructions by an announcer. For example, they would be told to trot, then after a minute or so the announcer would tell them to canter, etc.

How are Classes Judged?

This depends a lot on what type of classes you are watching. For example, in jumping, the horse and rider to knock down the fewest or no rails with the quickest time will be the winner. This is pretty easy to follow for people unfamiliar with the sport.

A class where all of the horses are riding together will be a little more difficult to follow because there will be a lot more going on at once. These types of classes are also judged on different things depending on the class. For example, an “equitation” class will be focused on the rider, and how well they ride their horse. Conversely, a “pleasure” class will focus on the horse and how well they respond to their rider. Then there are classes that judge both the horse and the rider together.

What the Judge is Looking For

The simplest explanation of what the judge is looking for is the horse and rider pair that makes the fewest mistakes and does a few things particularly well. Each individual judge may have preferences that they are specifically looking for. An example would be a rider that can instruct their horse to do something without any obvious cues, or a horse that doesn’t fidget or move when asked to stand still. Judges also want to see riders that look like they are having a good time. If a judge is torn between two horse and rider pairs, they may break the tie by choosing the rider that looked like they were enjoying riding their horse the most.

How to Make it More Interesting to Watch

When you attend a horse show, you will notice that there are a lot of classes your loved one is not in. You do have the option to wander around and see the stable area, but maybe you already saw everything you wanted to see. You may also risk losing your spot in the stands if there isn’t a lot of seating. This means finding a way to make the in-between classes a little more interesting.

Guess the Winner

My favorite thing to do when watching a horse show is to guess what order all of the horse and rider pairs will place in. Some classes give out ribbons for first place through fifth place. Others might go all the way to eighth, or less commonly, tenth. If you have never watched a horse show before, start by trying to pick out the winner in each class. The more you watch the more you will be able to pick up on what the judge is looking for. Then you can start trying to pick out first and second place, and so on. 

Pick Which Rider is Having the Most Fun

Another option is to pick out the rider who looks like they are having the most fun in each class. Horse shows, particularly at the lower levels, are about having fun while competing. The riders having the most fun will usually be smiling often, and rewarding their horse with lots of praise and pets. They will appear upbeat and positive whether they win or lose.


Horse shows have a lot of interesting things to see and do. There is bound to be a lot of downtime as you wait for specific classes, so finding ways to keep it interesting for you will be key. Learning about the classes, and playing guessing games on who will win or who is having the most fun can add to the enjoyment of your time at the show. You can also create your own games or challenges for yourself as you watch. You just may have to think outside the arena a little bit.

If you have any additional suggestions for ways spectators can pass the time at a horse show, leave them in the comments!

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