The cost of owning horses has risen steadily over the last few years, along with everything else. And this increase in costs includes horse shows.

A new breed of competition has entered the ring: the virtual horse show, inspired in part by COVID lockdowns. In our post-pandemic world the virtual horse show is here to stay. And why not? It’s a low-cost, low-stress way to show a judge your stuff, and it also gives you a chance to “ride” against a nationwide field.

Ashlea King is the show organizer for the Ontario Virtual Horse Show Series (OVHSS), which started in 2021. A lifelong horsewoman with a background in hunters and Quarter Horses, she helped launch the equestrian club while at the University of Guelph and competed in the USA with the hunter IHSA team the first year, and then managed the dressage (IDA) team for the next two years.

A woman on horseback with a baby in a stroller and a dog.

What started it all – Ashlea with Frankie. (photo courtesy Ashlea King)

Ashlea talked to about the OVHSS. The 2024 series show dates are July 8, August 12, and September 23.

HORSE CANADA: What inspired you to create the virtual horse show series?

Ashlea King: We had our son in December 2020, and between COVID and a new baby, I thought my showing days may be on a very long pause. Then I competed in 2021 at an Ontario virtual show series a friend was running. It became a family affair to get the videos recorded, with my husband recording (with my cell phone) and our son sitting in the stroller. In 2022, the barn I board at entered an international virtual series as a team, and it became a team effort to get videos recorded all summer.

After competing on those different virtual circuits, I was discussing with my coach one day about the need for more options to encourage more riders to try virtual showing. We agreed as a barn that we loved it, and I knew others would as well. So I designed jump courses and found three hunter/jumper judges and ran three hunter/jumper shows in the summer of 2022. And it has grown from there, and hopefully will continue to keep growing!

Tell us how it works to enter.

This year, I released my prize lists on our website.  All courses and tests can be found in the prize lists so you can start practicing now. I offer a discount in entry fees if you pay by April 1st; however, you can enter and pay right up until the show day. Then your videos need to be in our inbox no later than 6 p.m. on the show date. The judges get the videos the next day, and they will be marked and back to the riders by the following Sunday (barring any technology mishaps).

What variety of classes do you include, and to what levels or divisions?

For 2024, we have five disciplines being offered ‒ barrel racing, western pleasure/trail, hunter/jumper, combined training (eventing) and dressage (english and western). With western pleasure and trail, as well as hunter/jumper, we offer lower-level classes, as that was the majority of our entries in 2023. Combined training is a new discipline for this year, which will allow a rider to ride and place in a jumper course, a dressage test and in a combined-score class (so three ribbons!). For dressage, we allow English and western riders and have our own tests for this year that I feel many riders are going to thoroughly enjoy! Dressage was a new addition in 2023 and was our best-attended discipline.

There is scheduling flexibility, low stress, options for riding attire and turnout, significantly lower financial commitment, and it is a great schooling opportunity.

Can you explain how the judging works? Dressage is very different from barrel racing, for example.

We use EC judges that also understand these goals and values, and all of our judges are very excited for the opportunity. All videos get judged using a score card that is returned to the rider via email. The judge will give scores and either reasons for the scores or ways to increase the marks. Then there is usually a spot at the end for them to offer suggestions and encouragement for future tests. Very similar to a dressage test, but with more feedback than you would get at a regular show. Barrel racing is the exception. They ride a set pattern and show the stopwatch to the camera at the start and finish line. Fastest time wins and instead of ribbons there is prize money (90/10 payout).

What are the advantages of a virtual horse show series?

There are many advantages, depending on your situation. There is scheduling flexibility, low stress, options for riding attire and turnout, significantly lower financial commitment, and it is a great schooling opportunity. It preserves your show memories, creating a virtual scrapbook of your entire show experience. It allows you to build confidence as you gain show experience in your home environment. It also allows for a great team or family building experience. Anyone can be taught how to hold a cell phone and video someone’s round, so mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, etc., can be included in the fun “show” day.

What has been the response so far in the two years you’ve been doing it?

In 2021, there was just a Facebook page  to advertise, and each show had a slightly better turnout which encouraged me to run it again in 2022. We had a significant increase in entries last summer as more people had heard about us and we added an Instagram page. This year, I’ve hit the ground running, securing more sponsorships, I have my ribbon supplier picked out, judges booked, and have a website as well, ready for an influx of entries!

Where do you hope to take your virtual horse show series in the future?

The goal of the series is to offer an affordable option for those that may want to give showing a try, but may not have the time, finances, or experience to make it to an ‘in person’ show. We also want to encourage people to keep riding and help to keep the sport alive in Ontario and Canada as things continue to get more expensive for everyone. I am hopeful that we can grow the series to include a winter set of shows, and potentially a spring and fall set of shows as well.

The 2024 Ontario Virtual Horse Show Series has three show dates July 8, August 12, and September 23. The series is open to all Canadian riders.