Many a sleepless night starts with all those questions of “what happens if….” or “what do I do if…” So, instead of losing sleep, prepare yourself now for how to act when things go your way – or don’t go your way – at the show.

Horse shows are very fast-paced, and you need to be ready. The excuse “I didn’t know” won’t wash, so know all the rules before you go. Your coach will probably have quite a few other riders to help get ready, warmed up and into the ring, so as soon as you arrive:

  • Get registered! While you can register for horse shows online, you still need to pay, pick up your number (you can’t warm up without it) and find out the schedule in regards to your classes (this applies to Western and hunter/jumper shows. Dressage and event riders will have assigned start times made available online a couple of days prior to competition).
  • Get your horse settled. If you have rented a stall, arrange all your gear neatly near it. Be dressed in your riding breeches and show shirt, with a shirt over that to keep it clean. You can braid your horse the night before and put a mane protector over the braids to keep them fresh-looking if your horse tends to rub them. Your horse will need hay (that you have brought from home), and water (find out where the supply is and collect it with your own buckets).This is probably the most nerve-wracking part of any horse show, especially if there is jumping. I teach my students a little rhyme to help them remember one simple fact about warm-up: “When in doubt, shout it out.” Always call what jump you are taking, from what direction, and very, very, loudly. Riders are very focused; add to that the elements of noise such as spectators, announcements, cars, and the wind, and they may not hear you. Shout “HEADS UP VERTICAL RIGHT REIN!” and so forth, so it leaves no question as to what you are doing. If you are having any problems with control, shout that out, too. The more informed riders are around you, the safer for everyone.Watching is a great way to learn about how the course will ride, how judges are judging, where problem spots may be, and so forth. However, keep comments to yourself. We are all learning by observing and discussing with friends and coaches, but do not make negative comments about different styles of riding or problems a rider may be having. Positive comments are much nicer, and what if their family members are standing next to you? How embarrassed would you feel if someone commented poorly on you in the ring and your parents heard it? Sportsmanship is the most valuable thing you will gain from any competition.You’re finally in your show jacket, your hair is tucked in a hairnet, your helmet’s on and you are at the in-gate. But what happens if….Your horse is having a fit – rearing/bucking/bolting/refusing. Sometimes our horses just have a bad day. In a jumper class, if you have two refusals you are eliminated. Leave the ring graciously, and then discuss the problem with your coach and jump a few fences in the warm-up ring. If you are having speed or control issues and feel you can continue at a slower pace (i.e. trot fences) do so and use it as a schooling round. If you are in a dressage test, do the same thing — after all, you have paid your entry fee, and you are allowed to continue unless your horse is being extremely unsafe. Then you simply pull up, salute the judge and say, “I’m retiring, thank you” and leave the ring. This is also the case on cross-country, but when you pull up, make sure you tell a jump judge you are retiring and give them your number so they can radio back to the controller and announcer to let people know you have retired on course. Again, make sure you stay out of the way of the other riders as you make your way off the course.You fall off. We’ve all fallen off at a show, and the first thing you need to do is remember to stay still until you know you are okay. If it happens in the ring, someone will catch your horse for you, and your coach (and possibly a medic) will come and check you out. If you are on cross-country, someone will catch your horse, as it most likely will return to the trailering area to find its buddies. Jump judges have walkie-talkies to contact the controller and stop stewards to prevent riders from proceeding so a downed rider will not get injured, and they will call the medics if necessary. Do not feel bad about stopping a competition! If you are unhurt, take a moment, get up and leave the ring to huge applause, or walk back to your support crew (this is a good time to reflect on what went wrong, and how to fix it next time). You will be eliminated, but remember, it happens to the best of competitors. Horse shows are about having fun and enjoying the chance to show a judge how well you can ride, and how beautiful and talented your horse is. Some days, we freeze under pressure; mother days, we excel. No matter whether you come home with an armful of ribbons or just a tan (or some bruises), remember that what you have learned that day is priceless.
  • You’re in a flat class and your horse won’t stop. While screaming in terror might feel natural, the best thing to do is circle. If you feel scared and really can’t stop, shout out “Heads up, I’m out of control!” and the ring caller will have all the horses stop and move out of your way until you can get your horse under control. At this point, once your horse is under control, you will most likely be asked to leave the ring. Smile, thank the show officials and other competitors and leave with your head held high.
  • You forget the course/test? Whether during a dressage test, a reining pattern, a hunter course, or on cross-country, we all have lapses of memory. In dressage, they will ring a bell and the judge may tell you where you made your error, and you continue on; it’s only a minor deduction of your overall score. In the hunter ring, if you have to circle, it is just a technical refusal and you continue on. However, if you jump the wrong fence, you are eliminated from that class. Smile, nod, say “oops” and leave the ring. Then review where you made your error outside the ring. The same is true of reining, where if you go “off-pattern” you will receive a score of zero. In a jumper ring, as long as you don’t jump the wrong fence or cross your path, continue on; it’s simply time faults added. The same goes for cross-country; continue on once you figure out your way – but stay out of the way of the next rider coming up behind you. Just remember, in any of these situations, no one can help you find your way. If they do, you will be eliminated.
  • In the Ring
  • Sportsmanship
  • Warm-up