Written by: Donna Marie West

You’ve been training your horse for ages. You’ve even taken him to a show or two, only to come home empty-handed. Sure, participating is more important than winning, but you’d like to get a ribbon once in a while! One question runs over and over through your mind: what exactly is the judge looking for?

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Pam Mackenzie photo


Hunters are judged on their form over a course of natural looking fences, and on their manners and the quality of their gaits on the flat. The ideal hunter:
• walks or trots into the ring relaxed, on a light contact
• has a balanced, even-paced canter and covers the proper number of strides between fences easily, without rushing
• meets all jumps in stride and on the correct lead
• jumps clean and in good form, round through the back and neck, pushing from behind
• draws his knees up above the horizontal while keeping them perfectly level with each other.
• moves freely on the flat, with long, effortless strides, remains sane at the hand gallop, and stands quietly in the line-up


In equitation classes, the rider’s position and technique are judged (although of course your horse must perform properly if you hope to impress the judge). The winning equitation rider:
• has an excellent position (tight lower leg, supple ankle, toes approximately 15° angle to the horse’s sides, light seat, flat back, quiet hands that follow the horse’s movement)
• uses a short to medium crest release over fences
• correctly executes all technical aspects of the course (corners, flying lead changes, difficult options such as an inside turn or direct line when possible)
• on the flat, maintains enough contact with the horse’s mouth to keep him ‘on the bit,’ posts on the outside diagonal and canters on the inside lead
• in advanced classes, is able to perform required tests such as collecting or extending the stride, halting, reining back, counter-cantering or riding without stirrups


This is the first recognized level in dressage competition. Training level horses don’t need to be fancy, but they should demonstrate suppleness and free movement, as well as being obedient to the rider’s aids. The training level horse:
• has a rhythmic medium walk, working trot and working canter
• is attentive and confident and accepts contact with the bit
• shows some engagement of the hindquarters and moves forward without rushing, becoming tense or resisting his rider’s aids
• correctly performs the movements in the test (transitions between gaits, 20-metre circles, changes of rein on the diagonal, turn down the centre line), remaining straight on straight lines and showing bend through turns and circles
• halts squarely and remains immobile for four seconds

The training level rider:
• demonstrates a good position and seat, and ability to correctly use the aids
• executes the required figures with precision


Reining horses should show the athletic ability of a western horse, while precisely executing a predetermined pattern on a loose rein. At the end of the test, you must dismount and drop the bridle to show the judge your horse’s bit. The ideal reining horse:
• picks up a lope on the correct lead from the halt or walk
• lopes perfectly round small circles and gallops large circles in both directions
• executes clean flying lead changes
• performs a balanced sliding stop with little or no tension in the reins, his head low and his mouth closed
• performs a 180° rollback turn around his inside hind leg and immediately picks up the lope
• spins quickly and freely on the hind legs, his head down, his back up and his outside front leg crossing over in front of his inside front left. He must execute the prescribed number of 360° spins (usually 3 or 4 full turns).
• backs up at least 3 metres, quickly and in a straight line


As the name suggests, western pleasure horses should move well and appear to be a pleasure to ride.
The judge is looking for:
• a natural, flat-footed four-beat walk
• a smooth, slow jog and a markedly faster, yet controlled extended jog
• an easy, rhythmic three-beat lope, on the correct lead, at a speed keeping with your horse’s natural way of going. It’s not necessary or desirable to have the slowest horse in the class!
• a low, level neck (your horse’s poll in line with his withers)
• change of direction by turning to the inside (away from the rail) at the walk or jog, without breaking gait
• rein back in a straight line
• loose but not flapping reins

Turn-out is second to performance in all disciplines, but it’s still important. Your horse should be clean, his mane and tail trimmed (you’ll need to braid the mane for hunters or dressage). Tack should be clean and in good repair. You should be properly dressed according to your discipline. In western pleasure, you might think of colourcoordinating your clothes with your horse’s saddle pad.


In hunters and hunter seat equitation:
Your horse may wear a standing martingale in classes over fences, but you must remove it for flat classes. The exception is in medal classes where a jumping phase is followed by a flat phase. In this case, no change of tack is allowed.

In dressage:
Once the bell rings, you have 45 seconds to enter the ring to ride your test. You must pass a tack check before or after (usually after) your test. Failure to do this will result in your elimination, as will your forgetting to wear gloves – as yours truly once learned the hard way!

In western pleasure and reining:
Junior horses (five years old and younger as of Jan. 1 of the present year) may be shown in a snaffle bit and you may hold the reins in two hands. Senior horses (six years old and older as of Jan. 1) must be shown in a western curb bit and you must hold the reins in one hand. You may still be allowed to wear a western hat in your area, but more and more associations are making an approved helmet mandatory for riders under the age of 18. Make sure you’re up to date about this rule before heading to the show.

Consult Equine Canada’s rule book and your provincial/local equestrian association for more information on competition requirements, tack, and turnout.