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Horse Shows: Preparation and Competition Tips

Updated on January 24, 2016

I like to think of a horse show as a stage on which a horse and rider team can display all the things they've learned, and have fun doing it. Whether you're trailering to your local horse park's Thursday morning dressage show or shipping horses across the country for national finals, if it isn't fun, find another hobby (or profession!).

That being said, there are so many different levels of competition, in so many different disciplines, that it's hard to decide where to start. I'll try to keep my advice general and simple, and link to tons of great resources for all aspects of riding and showing.

Always look your best

Like most things in life, getting a horse to sparkle takes time and effort. Daily grooming will keep a horse's coat shiny and smooth even in the dead of winter, and will make horse-show prep a lot easier. Here are some little secrets I've picked up for making your horse look his best:

  • My favorite bath for a horse is a handful of Orvus and a squirt of Betadine (scrub, not solution!) in a bucket of warm water. Sponge it all around, or work it into the coat with one of these, then rinse, rinse, rinse, and rinse again. Squeegee all the water off, and make sure no little soap bubbles rise to the surface of the hair. I like to bathe the night before a show, and do a touch-up grooming in the morning.
  • I never put cream-rinse conditioners in manes or tails - it makes them too slick to braid.
  • For detangling manes and tails, I like a simple solution of 1 part baby oil to 5 parts Listerine. It's cheap and easy to make, and can also soothe itchies.
  • To get socks and stockings extra-white, put a dash of bleach and a scoop of Ivory Snow detergent in a bucket of warm water, scrub it into the socks, and rinse thoroughly.
  • Do touch-up clipping on nose and ears one or two days before the show. If you don't know how to clip properly, have someone teach you, and practice on a horse that doesn't need to be out in public for a while!
  • If you need to do major make-over work like body clipping or mane-pulling, get it done at least a week in advance.

Depending on your discipline and the size of the show, your horse may need to be braided, banded, and decked out in a variety of ways. Your trainer will help you make that choice, or look into some of the books below. One lesson I learned the hard way - don't braid your own horse unless you know exactly what you're doing, and you're darn good at it.

Don't forget your own good looks! Check with your trainer or a book to find out what to wear and how to style your hair for your discipline, level, age, and gender. For local shows, neat, clean, and safe are the only requirements for attire. The bigger you go, the more effort (and money) you'll have to put into your look.


Grooming tips from Laurie Pitts

Boring, boring, safety first!

The first thought that popped into my mind when I read amy jane's request for this hub was this: Always show a level below what you can comfortably and safely do at home. If you have just learned to jump a cross-rail, enter into your first show in a walk-trot, or walk-trot-canter class. If you want to enter a trail class, make sure you and your horse are familiar with every obstacle. You can't shine in public or enjoy what you're doing unless you're confident performing what the class requires. If you want to move up a level, especially in rated, competitive shows where the pressure is on, make sure both you and your trainer agree that you're ready.

With proper practice at home, your riding and your partnership with your horse will be your best memories of a horse show, and that's how it should be!

The rule of law

The bigger the horse show, the bigger the rule book. Because so many people make a living in the horse show industry, rules are important and must always be followed. Your trainer will help you navigate the specific rules that apply to you. Things that might be regulated include attire, appearance of the horse, tack and equipment, level of competition (eligibility), soundness and health of the horse, pharmaceuticals, vet records, and vaccinations.

Many books about specific riding disciplines cover some of these rules, but the only way to make sure you're complying with the most up-to-date regulations is to study a current copy of the rule book for the organization that's in charge of your show. Organizations that rate shows include:

Get the show on the road

Most horse shows involve trailering you, your horse, and all your stuff to a new location. This is a lot of work, and requires proper planning, organization, and practice. Try to make your very first horse show a small, schooling show at your own lesson barn, or one that's very close by.

Jump in, boots first

A day at a horse show can be chaotic and confusing. Many of these books have great planning and organizational advice, but here are a few of my favorite tips:

  • Find the bathrooms. 'Nuff said.
  • Know when and where all of your classes are being held. Don't expect your trainer to babysit you, especially if you're not the only student showing.
  • Be on your horse at least a half an hour before your first class. You and your horse will both need a relaxing warm-up.
  • Don't try anything in the warm-up ring or the show ring that you don't do at home (see Boring, boring, safety first above).
  • Bring healthy snacks, to save money and post-fair-food heartburn.
  • Bring a horsey friend who isn't showing. They can be your "groom", making sure your boots are shiny and your horse's snot is whisked away. Just be sure to return the favor!
  • Ask a friend to videotape your ride. Most shows have a videographer, but that can get expensive.
  • Know your expenses. Communicate clearly with your trainer when you're planning a horse show. There will always be class entry fees, and you may need to add trailering, schooling, stabling, and membership fees. Your trainer may charge for taking you to the show, may expect you to pay their hotel bill, and may charge by the hour at the show for lessons and schooling. Your trainer isn't trying to fleece you, but to simply make a living.
  • Pad your budget. Horse showing is an expensive hobby, and you need to be prepared for unexpected costs like extra bedding, last-minute braiding, food or drinks, or even entering into an extra class if you're having the greatest day ever.
  • Watch your competition. Don't let their mistakes be your mistakes, too.
  • Thank the judge. Depending on your discipline, a nod to the judge is the right way to say "Thank you for sweating/freezing/getting wet/getting sunburned in your little box and watching me and my bouncy friends all day." Your trainer will tell you what is appropriate.
  • Thank your horse. He's the one carrying you around.
  • Have fun, have fun, HAVE FUN!


At the end of the day...

... you and your horse should be tired, happy, and smarter than you were in the morning. Here are some ending tips to keep your horse in top form, and to make sure you keep having great horse show experiences.

  • No matter how tired you are, your horse deserves your attention! Make sure he's properly cleaned, un-braided, fed, watered, and put away for the night. And even if you didn't bring home the blue ribbon, your horse deserves an extra carrot.
  • After a show, rub your horse's legs with alcohol and wrap them in standing bandages (make sure your trainer teaches you how). Take off the wraps the next morning.
  • Thank the people who helped you. This includes your trainer, parents, and friends.
  • Make a special place to display your ribbons. No, winning isn't everything, but ribbons are pretty and should be celebrated. Don't leave them anywhere they'll get folded, squashed, or bleached by the sun.
  • Review footage or pictures of your show with your trainer, and plan how your ride can be even more fantastic at the next show!



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    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Philly Burbs

      We'd have to dig deep into the way back machine, but I'm glad the Hub is helpful! :)

    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 

      5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Great information! Some pictures would make this Hub perfect-- so you have any you could use? I bet your mother does!

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Grace, nerves are a good thing! Just plan for every possibility and HAVE FUN!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm real scared for this ODE coming up, it's my first and I've only been riding bout 7 months, I'm heaps scared but excited at the same time lol ?

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Philly Burbs

      I'm so glad this article helped, Anna. Good luck with your second show!

    • profile image

      Anna ;) 

      8 years ago

      Thankyou soooo much. I was really nervous about my 2nd show because I had my cousin helping me in my 1st one but this one is all me. You helped me so much, :P find the loo's ;)

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Thanks, I'm glad you liked the hub! It's a pet peeve of mine - riding into a ring looking less than 100% fantastic.

      Listerine and baby oil is the best combo ever! You also might want to try small measures of Vetrolin and bleach in water - gets green spots out in an instant. A friend of mine just turned me on to it, and it works great!

    • Anne Coyle profile image

      Anne Coyle 

      9 years ago from Bronxville, NY

      Thanks for sharing these great show tips! You're right -- proper horse grooming and horse clothing can really highlight a horse's true potential in the ring. And I love your special concoction for detangling manes and tails -- I would have never thought to use that combination!

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Yeay, Mina! I'm so glad this helped your confidence soar! Good luck on Saturday, and HAVE FUN!

    • profile image

      Mina J.  

      9 years ago

      January 11, 2009 Wow Anne!! that was killer advice!! I'm actullay doing my first horse show on Saturday January 17th, 2009!!! I feel much more confident in myself now! I'm particapating in the walk-trot class and the walk-trot crossrails. I'm very nervous but i feel my confidence boosting!

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Thanks for visiting, Donna! "Find the bathrooms" is always my mother's #1 piece of advice for a new place and a new job. Of course, for her, it's "find the bathrooms and the coffee maker"!

    • DonnaCSmith profile image

      Donna Campbell Smith 

      10 years ago from Central North Carolina

      Yes, find the bathrooms! Great advice and details. I enjoyed reading it.

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Philly Burbs

      cjcs, thanks for your comment. I'm glad the hub made sense to even non-horsey people!

      Lacy, that's what I was thinking of when I was writing this - what didn't I know when I was younger that would have kept me safer, saner, and happier showing?

    • lacyleathers profile image


      10 years ago from US

      Great advice...very informative.... I wish I had some of this advice when I was showing.

    • cjcs profile image


      10 years ago from Albuquerque, NM

      Great stuff. It's amazing how much of this applies to any other similar organized endeavor as well: track and field meets, Pinewood derby, etc. I don't get to spend a ton of time around horses, but I do pay attention both in and out of the stables. Your advice makes so much sense. Great hub for anyone wanting to show their horses.

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      10 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      "...after a lifetime of being a consumer in the industry, I'm figuring out my path to give back."

      That's my girl.

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Awww, MOM. I love you, and I don't care who knows it! Thank you so much for supporting my efforts in this, and in every little thing. I'm just happy that after a lifetime of being a consumer in the industry, I'm figuring out my path to give back.

      Your fan forever, indeed. I love you... MORE!

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Philly Burbs

      amy jane, I'm so glad this helped! I was definitely thinking of you when I found all the "horse show mom" links. Thank you for making the request, I really enjoyed writing this hub. I hope your daughter has a wonderful show season!

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      10 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      If I could give this hub a hundred thumbs up, I would.

      I have a special perspective here because I am your mother. So I hope my comments don't embarrass you.

      I have seen you go through riding, eventing, competitions, college, and graduate school, all to learn about the horse and rider. I see your incredibly challenging job today helping people with disabilities get a new lease on life through the horse, and I have seen how you motivate and manage not only a staff and a therapeutic program, but also an army of dedicated volunteers. I am proud of you.

      And I am so happy for those who will read this hub and gain confidence and experience not only in showing, but also in the special, deep relationship between human and horse. 

      A special thanks to amy jane for making this request.

      Your fan forever, ST.

    • amy jane profile image

      amy jane 

      10 years ago from Connecticut

      This is great advice! Thank you. I never understood before why you would show in one class down from what you are comfortable in. My daughter's trainer didn't explain that well, I guess. Wonderful information :)

    • annemaeve profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Trish and kerry, thanks so much for the kind words!

    • kerryg profile image


      10 years ago from USA

      Great advice! I hope some day it will come in handy for me again. :)

    • trish1048 profile image


      10 years ago

      Wow Anne, brilliant! excellent! You know I'm not a 'horse' type person (but I do love em) and this advice is priceless!

      Articulated beautifully, and very well done!



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