All You Need to Know About Attending a Horse Show

Going to a horse show isn’t just for equestrians; even non-horse people like to attend equine competitions for entertainment and aesthetics. There are many different types of horse shows, and each has their own ambiance, so it’s important to do your research beforehand. My favorite type of horse show to attend is the 3-day events, particularly the cross-country portion!

What are the different types of horse shows? The most popular horse shows for spectators include:

  • horse races
  • polo
  • show jumping
  • dressage
  • fox hunting
  • reining
  • cutting
  • barrel racing

Determining the attire you wear will largely depend on the level of the show. If you’re attending a local show at the county fair, you can wear jeans and a T-shirt. If you’re attending a show jumping grand prix, you’ll want to present yourself as business casual.

To be better prepared for your equestrian outing, keep reading to learn what to expect and what to wear!

Horse Shows: English Disciplines

Some of the most widely attended and televised equestrian events are of English disciplines, and all three Olympic horse shows are in this category. Listed below are a few of the most popular English horse shows.

What You Need to Know About Attending Horse Races

There are different types of horse races. The one that you may be most familiar with is the Thoroughbred race; this is a race performed by Thoroughbreds at the gallop, with a rider or “jockey.” Another type of horse race is the harness race. Standardbreds most commonly perform these races at the trot or pace while pulling a cart and driver. A horse race only lasts a few minutes at most, but there are multiple races throughout the day, so you go and watch for a few hours, or for the whole day!

There is a whole spectrum of horse races, from those performed at the county fair to the highly esteemed Triple Crown races. The activities available at these races will depend on the venue, as will your attire. At a county fair race, it is common to see patrons in shorts and T-shirts. At a more elite race, patrons will be most commonly seen in summer suits and dresses.

The most obvious entertainment of horse racing is the betting. Before the race, you’ll have a chance to view the horses and then place your bets on the one you think will win. You’ll go to the betting ring and tell the betting operator which horse you’re betting on to win and how much money you’d like to bet.

What You Need to Know About Attending Polo Matches

Other than horse racing, polo is perhaps the other equestrian event that is most attended by spectators. While other competitions have a spectrum of professionalism and dress, almost all polo matches expect spectators to be well-dressed. It’s common for women to wear sundresses and men to wear a dress shirt and slacks.

At a polo match, spectators sit on bleachers or on the lawn, the sidelines of the polo field. A polo match is very similar to a soccer game, where there are two teams that are trying to score points on the opposite ends of the field. These matches usually last around 2 hours, so they make for the perfect afternoon break time.

What You Need to Know About Attending Show Jumping Competitions

Multiple competitions feature show jumping, including stadium jumping, hunter jumper, and eventing. The venues, courses, and obstacles will vary depending on the type of show. Like all horse shows, there is a spectrum in complexity of show jumping, from the schooling competitions to the Olympics. At these shows, you’ll watch different riders compete one at a time over the same course to determine who can perform the best, whether that’s the fastest time or the most effortless.

What you wear and what you will do at the event, aside from watching the show, will depend on the venue and level of competition. While there is not as much emphasis on spectator attire as there is in horse races like the Kentucky Derby, the general rule is that the higher the level of competition, the nicer a spectator will dress. I do recommend a wide-brim hat or sunglasses if the event is held outdoors. 

Depending on the show, there may be vendor tents you can visit and shop through. I often enjoy visiting the vendors just as much as I do watching the competition! There are often many unique vendors both specific to the horse industry and more for the average non-equestrian person.

To learn more about show jumping, visit my article Show Jumping For Beginners: Everything You Need to Know.

What You Need to Know About Attending Dressage Competitions

Dressage is known as the “ballet of the horse world”. It is a competition in which the horse and rider are judged on their ability to move in unison and execute a series of complex moves with minimal cues. The range of dressage competition levels will begin at schooling events and go all the way to the Olympics. 

Dressage competitions are often held indoors, but both larger shows and smaller shows that do not have an available indoor arena will hold their shows outdoors. Therefore, consider the weather before deciding on your attire if attending an outdoor show. Attire will depend on the level of the show, similar to horse races and show jumping.

Similar to show jumping, dressage riders will compete one at a time, performing the same pattern to be judged. The horse and rider will be judged on movement, expression, rhythm, and balance. While I do see how dressage is a great spectator sport for non-equestrians, it’s much more fun and interesting to watch as a horse person!

To learn more about dressage, visit my article Dressage for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know.

What You Need to Know About Attending a Fox Hunt

Hounds, horses, and foxes…who doesn’t love fox hunting? As someone who grew up fox hunting, I can say that attending a hunt is one of the most interesting ways to spectate a horse event. Most hunt clubs will designate certain hunts to be open for the public to come and watch.

Spectators will follow the field as they pursue the chase. This is a leisurely activity that also includes tailgating. Spectators can eat warm food and drink warm drinks as they watch hounds and horses run by through the open fields.

The most important thing to note about fox hunting is that it’s a winter sport that is often done in the morning. If you’re attending a fox hunt, dress for warmth! While you’ll still want to be presentable, being cold can make this a not-so-fun event to attend.

Fox hunting is an event steeped in tradition, with its own terminology and dress code. To learn more, visit my article Fox Hunting for Beginners: Dress Code, Terminology, & Gear.

Horse Shows: Western Disciplines

The Western disciplines are significantly different from the English disciplines. Most of the Western shows are based on the tasks required of cowboys while ranching or on the range. Listed here are just a few of the popularly-attended Western shows. Dressing for a Western show is rather straightforward, as most spectators and riders wear traditional Western gear – jeans, a button-up and long-sleeved shirt, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. This dress code applies to both schooling shows and high-level competitions.

What You Need to Know About Attending Reining Competitions

Reining is a Western competition that can be compared to English dressage. Reining horses have perfected movement, balance, and rhythm. In these competitions, riders will compete one by one through the same pattern to determine who does it best. Some of the most impressive shows of Quarter Horse athleticism are displayed in a reining competition, which is an exciting sport to watch. 

What You Need to Know About Attending Cutting Shows

Both the rider and the horse are judged in a cutting competition. In the arena, a horse and rider are tasked with separating a single calf or heifer from the rest of the herd and must keep her separated for a specified amount of time. There are usually additional helpers in the arena, called “turnback riders” and “herd holders” who aid in bunching the remaining cattle together and keeping strays from entering the working area. Typically, two heads of cattle need to be removed from the herd, and one of the two needs to be taken from the middle of the bunch. 

What You Need to Know About Attending Barrel Racing Competitions

In this event, a horse and rider are timed in a cloverleaf pattern race around three preset barrels. The barrels are set in a triangular pattern with distances between each barrel approximately 100 feet. This requires incredible athleticism in the horse as it races around tight circles, and as is the case with most Western skill shows, the Quarter Horse is the breed that typically dominates. Barrel racing is mainly a women’s sport, though both boys and girls compete at the junior level.

Additional Horse Shows to Attend

There are many, many more horse shows aside from the English and Western sports mentioned above. Almost any discipline that is enjoyed in the arena can be attended at the competition level. This includes trail riding, endurance riding, eventing, gymkhana (which includes speed pattern racing and timed “games” in the saddle), hunt-seat, equitation, saddle-seat, and vaulting. 

There are also shows that don’t involve riders at all. Many competitions consist of horses shown “in hand” or “in halter”. In most of these shows, it is the horse’s conformation and/or breeding suitability that is being judged. There are also driving shows, in which a “driver” is in a cart that is being pulled by a single horse or a pair of horses. 

Open Horse Shows vs. Breed-Specific Horse Shows

Most of the sports listed above (aside from horse racing, which is mainly specific to Thoroughbreds) are considered open shows, where any breed of horse can compete. If you are not an enthusiast of a particular breed, open shows can be very enjoyable because you can often see horses of different styles and conformation competing together. There are also breed shows, however, which are horse shows where only horses of a particular breed can compete. The largest breed show in the United States is the All-American Quarter Horse Congress.

Are You Ready to Attend a Horse Show?

If you’re interested in attending a horse show but aren’t sure where to start or what is available in your area, try checking with your local county or state fairgrounds. My own county fairgrounds do not have any horse facilities or venues, but I’m fortunate enough to live near my state’s fairgrounds, which have horse tracks and facilities. When I look at their website’s calendar, I can see that they are currently hosting harness races through the Winter and will be hosting Thoroughbred racing in the Summer. There are also many large privately-owned arenas in my county that are used for local shows – most show arenas like these offer a calendar on their website that will highlight upcoming events.

Once you find a show that you are interested in attending, you may be able to look up the “show schedule” online to learn more about the itinerary and which competitions are offered each day of the event. You should be able to learn more information on reserving tickets, parking, and the optional food and drinks available for purchase.

You may also be able to view pictures of the event from previous years which should show you how spectators traditionally dress at the particular event. Feeling like you are prepared for a first-time event can make the show much more enjoyable for you, allowing you to relax and focus on having fun!

By attending any of these events, you can learn a lot about horses! To help you prepare, visit my article Horse Facts: 50 Fun Horse Facts You Haven’t Heard.

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