How to Improve Your Score in the Show Ring

AQHA judge Holly Hover gives her opinion on how exhibitors can step up their game in showmanship, horsemanship and equitation.

Special to The American Quarter Horse Journal

“Exhibitors must understand that a good rider who prevents a misstep can beat the rider who does everything correctly,” says AQHA judge Holly Hover. (Credit: Journal)

Holly Hover’s opinion has long been sought when it comes to showing horses. The AQHA Professional Horsewoman has been training horses since 1980. In that time, Holly has produced 18 All American Quarter Horse Congress and AQHA world champions and reserve champions in various pattern events. She started judging 25 years ago, and most recently, she was named the 2014 AQHA Most Valuable Professional. 

Holly had this to say about her decision to get her judge’s card: “Judging absolutely changed my training program in that it sharpened my eye. I realized that correct execution in all classes is first and foremost followed by position, confidence and style.  As a judge that seems to be my thought process in scoring and it became my process as a trainer.” 

Holly’s approach is just one of the reasons exhibitors love to show to her. In addition to her ability to quickly and efficiently assess a rider, she is always happy – quick to get a laugh and unafraid to stand on her principles. 

Her popularity as a judge is evidenced by her resume – she has judged world championship shows for AQHA and the American Paint Horse and National Snaffle Bit associations, as well as the Congress numerous times, plus every other major show in the U.S. and abroad. It’s no wonder everyone wants to know what’s on Holly’s mind when she steps into the pen. 

With all of her experience, you might expect Holly to have a laundry list of likes and dislikes, pet peeves or tricks of the trade. On the contrary, her views on judging and showing horses are straight forward and matter of fact. She believes the fundamental principle of riding – being connected with your horse or riding with feel – is the single most important aspect of showing horses. 

“Many riders today simply do not ride the horse underneath them; they ride without having a full understanding of their aids,” Holly says. She considers this to be one of the biggest mistakes she sees in the show arena. “It is as though they understand the reason but their actions do not match the horse.”

Holly also finds that many riders outsmart the pattern and do not use the arena effectively. Their decision-making is poor. A rider may make lopsided circles, ride past their stop or miss a transition. Because the rider is out of position, the horse is out of position and not correctly set up for the next maneuver. 

Holly feels that riders today are short on time, ride less and have less practical experience in the saddle. 

“Kids sit on the fence and watch the trainer prepare the horse, then jump on before going in the pen. Trainers cannot ride the patterns for their students and will have a different sense of timing than the rider. The exhibitor must spend time to develop the feel and timing required for proper execution of maneuvers. To show effectively requires an established partnership between the horse and rider,” Holly says.

“We have outstanding horses and outstanding trainers, yet riders have a poor understanding of underlying fundamentals,” Holly adds. She suggests that to be a good rider, you must understand where the horse begins. Holly often has her riders ride a green horse, then asks the rider to teach the horse. In this way, her riders learn to break down each element and understand where the horse needs to be to correctly perform the required task. 

This goes along with Holly’s philosophy that each element must first be correct. Holly believes “correctness is difficult to achieve. If you are correct, you are doing well by the horse.” She is certain “riders must first produce a correct pattern before considering riding with speed.” At the same time, Holly expects “better riders to attack the pattern, to be gutsy. But never should a rider sacrifice correctness for speed or fanciness.”

Degree of Difficulty and Accuracy 

The highest scores are reserved for the rider who is both daring – attacking the pattern – yet correct. Holly looks for a rider that can “take a 70’s horse and make him a 90’s horse through the use of their aids.” Exhibitors can be effective in their aids, have a fault with the horse’s footwork and still have positive maneuver score. 

Holly does not plus the rider whose horse makes a mistake, but she does plus the rider who prevents the mistake from happening. She says, “If I start thinking ‘you better collect your horse before the corner’ and the rider does not, that rider is going to get a minus for that portion of their pattern.” At the same time, if the rider responds by gathering, collecting and executing the maneuver correctly, she credits the rider. 

“Many patterns today are slanted toward the highly trained horse. You can’t allow the pattern to beat the rider,” Holly says. “A nice broke horse that is just learning and gets the footwork correct but is not fancy should not be prohibited from earning high marks. Riders who can teach their horse while showing are doing uncommon good work and should be rewarded.”

For instance, Rider A comes out of a square corner on the left lead and does not ride a straight line in preparation for the upcoming lead change. Rider A’s horse remains incorrectly arced for the lead change but because the horse is so well trained, the horse gives the rider a quality lead change even though the horse is clearly out of position. 

Rider B helps the horse but the horse’s footwork was not nearly so perfected. Rider B clearly guides the horse, makes decisions and produces a lead change albeit without the fancy footwork of Rider A’s horse. Rider B created a maneuver by using their skill on top of a horse versus Rider A’s very broke horse that changed leads without help from Rider A. In this case, Rider B should be given more credit than Rider A, who did not make an attempt to get the horse in the correct position.

“Exhibitors must understand that a good rider who prevents a misstep can beat the rider who does everything correctly,” Holly says. She also reminds people that she is just one judge – one opinion – and that other judges may have a different opinion. 

Holly indicated that exhibitors “are surprised that we (judges) are not looking for the bad – we are looking for the good. Judges look for the good but must assess and report the faults.”  Holly tries to acknowledge what riders do well but still has to record what they do wrong. “It is hard to describe positive feedback based on the patterns, time and score sheets.”


Holly’s positive approach to judging is the reason she is so popular in the center of the pen. She truly enjoys judging, assessing riders and their horses. The fact that her work helps riders achieve a greater understanding of riding through her assessment is proof that Holly Hover has achieved “uncommon good” as a judge and as a AQHA Professional Horsewoman.     

Coaches Corner – Holly Hover: If a rider has a winning score and is winning it all, Holly recommends the rider show conservatively to ensure correctness. If the rider is close she coaches her students “to go for it – to be correct but knock it out.”

Stephanie Lynn is a special contributor to The American Quarter Horse Journal. The AQHA Professional Horsewoman, judge and steward from Fall Creek, Wisconsin, serves on the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission, is the chairperson of the AQHA Show Council and was named the 2014 Professional's Choice Professional Horsewoman of the Year. To learn more, visit www.stephanielynn.net or www.stephanielynnsblog.com.