17 Horse Show Tips From a Judge

17 Horse Show Tips From a Judge

How well you do has little to do with your placings and everything to do with your desire to improve yourself as a horseman.

judging showmanship (Credit: AQHA Journal)

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By Larri Jo Starkey

Whether you’re just getting started showing horses or you’re a longtime horse show veteran, we all want to improve our next horse show. 

Since AQHA Professional Horsewoman April Devitt became a trainer and then a judge, she has seen exhibitors do well and she has seen exhibitors do poorly. Here she shares 17 horse show tips from a judge’s perspective. 

  1. Believe the judge is rooting for you. As judges, we’re here to encourage and make it the most enjoyable day you can have. We want to encourage you.
  2. Each class is a new class. You can’t change what happened in a previous class but you can improve on it. If a bad ride happens, let it go and move on.
  3. Practice like you play. Practice at home is the single most important way to prepare for a horse show.
  4. Prepare at home. Clean your tack. Make sure your show clothes are clean and that everything fits. Clean and shape your hat. Polish your boots. Remember, a horse show is like a job interview.
  5. Read your AQHA rulebook. Go over the discipline you’re going to show in. Know the maneuvers and make sure you know how you’re being scored and what mistakes get penalized and what those penalties are.
  6. Make a plan. Examine the show schedule. Get your entries in on time. Have your back number and safety pins at the ready. 
  7. Know your horse. How long does he need to be longed? Does he need to get in the arena for a certain amount of time to be comfortable? 
  8. Remember: You’re being watched. Before you go in and go out of the show pen, the judges can see what you’re doing. Don’t over-school.
  9. Never give up. If you go in an individual class and make a mistake in your pattern, keep showing because the mistake you think you made will not be nearly as bad as what you think it is.
  10. Don’t give your ride away. It’s an overall score. Keep your confidence, and show that you have practiced and prepared. If you make a mistake, make the next part better.
  11. Make your horse your friend. Show your bond with your horse. Your horse needs to be your partner and your teammate. You can’t show without him.
  12. Don’t forget your biggest competition: you. When you ride, tell yourself, “I’m not out to beat everybody. I just want to beat the rider I was yesterday.” 
  13. Make new friends. Horse showing doesn’t have to be about how much you win. You get lifelong friends by doing this.
  14. Avoid negativity. What you put out on social media or say at a horse show can hurt feelings. You need to be careful when you post. Remember, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
  15. Know your horse’s limitations. Don’t push him harder through a maneuver than he is capable of performing. It can still be correct and slow and be done to the best of your horse’s ability.
  16. Get help if you need it. If you don’t have your own trainer, it’s OK to ask other trainers questions. In particular, each show manager should have the name of an AQHA Professional Horseman who’s available for questions and concerns. I have found that most professionals want newcomers to succeed and most horse people are willing to help new people. If you need help, then go ahead and pay for a couple of lessons. 
  17. Be patient. Be patient with yourself, patient with your horse and patient with others, and all your horse shows will be good ones.