The Show Must Go On: What to Expect in Your First Riding Competition

December 01, 2021 8 min read

The Show Must Go On: What to Expect in Your First Riding Competition

As a horse lover, you have probably had your fair share of watching horse shows. Whether it was in-person or online, a horse show for an equestrian like you is a thrilling experience. Watching how a horse and rider seamlessly work together, following cues and clearing jumps as if they were both born to do so. Watching them, has it ever crossed your mind to join one?

The question isn’t “Why can’t I do that?”, but should be rather, “Why have I not tried to compete yet?”. All horse riders can compete, but some stop themselves from even getting the first hoof out of the stable because of fear of not doing well.

The fact is all the excellent riders that you love and try to emulate started somewhere. Through years of dedication and training, learning from their mistakes, and of course, entering competitions, both the rider and their equine partner grew to become forces to reckon with.

But here’s the secret: Not all competitive riders enter horse shows and competitions to achieve fame and fortune. Just like you, they entered their first horse show because they wanted to know how it felt like to ride for the purpose of winning or to show their skills to others. It all started because they love horse riding so much that they wanted to try it in all its forms.

A Race, Pageant, or Skill Test – What is a Horse Show?

Horse shows, at its most basic, is an exhibition where judges rate your riding and your equine’s performance. There are local and international shows that involve either or all these varied disciplines. Each show is made up of classes, which is a series of performances that are expected from you and your equine to do, should you choose to show at that level. When you choose a certain class, it’s under the impression that you and your riding partner can accomplish what all the other riders and horses in the same class will do.

However, how do you know which show, and which class, is right for you? TheInternational Federation for Equestrian Sports lists down ten international disciplines, but for a show beginner, it would be best to refer to the discipline that makes you excited. Do you love the thrill of jumping? Do you enjoy the discipline it takes to do Dressage?

Once you’ve pinpointed what discipline to focus on, watch a few horse shows as a spectator first, and do your research as to their requirements. Each show comes with a set of requirements per level. It’s a list of what is required of you and your horse to do, such as the height of the jumps, the length of the ring, which levels are included for qualifiers, and other details. Use these requirements as a jumping-off point for which show and class to choose, so that you, your instructor, and of course, your horse, will know the end goal of your training. Choosing a non-qualifying open horse show is best for beginners. Anopen horse show is one that allows all breeds and riders of all levels to compete.  

But here’s a word of advice from the seasoned pros that all first-timers must heed: the FEI suggests going a level lower than what you’ve been training for so that you won’t feel nervous about placing or doing everything correctly. There is no shame in entering at the lowest level in an open horse show. It is your first time after all, and all that pressure is lessened when you don’t have to overreach to achieve your goal.

Why Should I Join?

With all the requirements and hours of training, why should you bother and join a horse show? Some riders join out of curiosity, some want to see what all the fuss is about, while some take it as an opportunity to delve into a different aspect of horse riding. After all, when you do something that you love, you would want to know all about it, right?

Some simply have that competitive spirit in them, while others want to improve their riding abilities. But whatever the reason may be, the goal of your first horse show shouldn’t be to place or to win the prize money, but instead, just to have fun and enjoy the moment of doing what you love!

The First Step Towards Your First Show

Once you’ve settled into what kind of horse show you would want to join, likeshow jumping ordressage, then the first step you should take to successfully join a horse show is this:Get an instructor. 

A horse instructor, particularly someone who can train you and your equine partner in the discipline you want to show at, is crucial to your first show. They will be the person who will not just refine your skills through the entire process, but they will be your best resource when it comes to what horse show and class to sign up for, plus the readiness of your riding pal, as well as your readiness to compete.

The horse world is small, so it’s best to ask around for a trainer that will help you out. Your fellow horse lovers or your boarding barn will be the best places to start when asking around for a trainer.

Attire and Equipment for You and Your Equine Heading

With the different kinds of horse shows, each discipline needs certain pieces of attire or equipment. The guide of the horse show you are entering is the best resource to know what you and your riding partner will need. According to theInternational Federation for Equestrian Sports, these are the basic rules when it comes to attire:

  1. You and your horse must be clean, neat, and presentable.
  2. Have your safety gear in place: Have the proper boots in place, have a certified safety helmet that fits you well, and if you are eventing, you will need a body protector and a medical armband, if required.

Depending on the discipline that you will be showing in, your tack will need to be adjusted accordingly, with pieces added in. One thing’s for sure—a proper tack is not just to fit the requirements of the horse show, it is also for your safety, and for the safety and health of your equine partner.

Is Horse Showing expensive?

If we’re being completely honest, yes it is. Between the daily fees of a trainer, caring for your equine, stabling, membership fees, or application fees, plus your equipment, attire, your horse’s boarding barn, and more,entering competitions may get expensive.

For beginners, it’s better to join small, local, non-qualifying shows first, because the smaller the show, the more inexpensive it is.

The Day of Your First Horse Show: What to Do Before, During, and After the Show

After months of preparation, you are finally about to enter your first horse show. You will feel too nervous and excited to get a good night’s sleep, but rest, as well as these other tips, are important to have a good show! Here’s what to do:

Before the show

Pack what you need. If your first show requires you and your horse to travel far from home, you have to pack what you need ahead of time. Make sure to havewhat you need with you.

  1. Show day binder with the paperwork of the event and of your horse

There are specific pieces of tack that are needed per show, so it’s ideal to check the rulebook for the necessary tack for your class and event. Remember to bring extras just in case something breaks before the show—better safe than stressed out!

  1. Your horse’s equipment
  2. Your attire

The most basic of attire you will need for a show is your helmet, riding shirt and pants, and boots. For additional requirements per horse show, check your show’s rulebook and talk to your trainer.

  1. Cleaning and care supplies

Your riding partner’s grooming tote that includes their cleaning supplies is a must to make your equine look presentable and ready for their first show! Make sure to bring their care supplies, such as mucking equipment, first aid kit, and the like.

For an extensive list of what to pack,click here. 

  1. Do a run-through of the show with your trainer. You and your horse have to get dressed and pretend as if you are already in the horse show. Wear what you’ll be wearing on the day of the show, go through the cues, jumps, and other requirements, and go through the entire routine as if you were already being judged. Doing a run-through doesn’t mean that there won’t be any surprises, but it means that if ever you are taken off course, you know your routine by heart so that you can get back in the saddle quickly.
  1. Get a good night’s sleep. This goes for both you and your equine partner. Both of you have to be well-fed and well-rested the night before the show so that you can both be alert and in the best shape for the show.

On event grounds

  1. Get your riding partner ready. Going through the usual process of tacking them up and preparing them for their warm-up is important. If you rush through it, it may leave you or your equine frazzled and anxious—not a good way to start your first horse show!
  1. Familiarize yourself with the venue. Walk around and check where everything else is, from the secretariat’s table to where the judges will be located. Knowing where everything is before the show begins will lessen your stress and uncertainty over how the show will go.
  1. Go for your warm-up. Depending on the horse show, how many riding pals are participating, and the time you get to the venue, the warm-up ring may already have a few (or a lot of) equestrians with their equines trotting about. Remember yourwarm-up etiquette, like being mindful of other riders and their equine partners, passing left shoulder to left shoulder when traveling in opposite directions, don’t warm up for so long, walking horses must stay off the wall, and announce your jump before doing so for the other riders to clear out.  

 After the show

Wherever you placed, whether you got a ribbon or not, what matters is that you did it, you survived, and now you can decide whether to stop there or to keep on competing. We have a feeling you will continue on—the world of horse showing can get addictive!


Entering your first horse show will be a mixed bag of emotions, but the hope is that the emotion you will feel the most is excitement. It’s a milestone for every rider, their equine, and their instructor to join their first horse show, and just joining and getting through the competition alone is already a big deal—placing is just icing on the cake. Celebrate yourself, and give a big thanks to your trainer, and the biggest congratulations to your riding partner—you all deserve it!