AQHA Competition Classes

Learn more about the different classes you can show in with your American Quarter Horse.

Those who love the American Quarter Horse know that “Excellence That Shows” is not some empty phrase – it’s a fact. Perhaps nowhere else is the breed’s versatility, heritage and work ethic more apparent than in the show arena. Nor is it more apparent why America’s Horse is favored worldwide. AQHA-approved shows offer something for everyone.

Show events or classes are divided into three basic categories: Western, English and Halter. Western and English classes feature performance competition: a wide variety of athletic contests ranging from jumping to western pleasure and pleasure driving to team roping. Halter classes provide competition for horses based on conformation which reward excellence in balance, structural correctness, breed and sex characteristics and degree of muscling. 

For more thorough rules and descriptions on AQHA classes, be sure to refer to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.

Western

Western Pleasure

One of the most popular AQHA show events is western pleasure. Contestants compete simultaneously, traveling the perimeter of the arena, and at the discretion of the judge, are asked to walk, jog, lope and reverse the direction of the horse. Horses are evaluated on quality of movement while staying quiet and calm, traveling on a loose rein.

Western Riding

Judges the abilities of the American Quarter Horse to change leads precisely, easily and simultaneously, using both hind and front legs. Following one of four patterns consisting of a log and a series of pylons, the horse and rider must change gaits – from a walk to a jog or a lope – throughout the course. Reward is given to the horse that changes fluidly and precisely between the middle of the pylons within the pattern.

Horsemanship

Designed to test the horsemanship abilities of youth and amateur riders using western tack. Divided into two sections, riders first follow a prescribed pattern of maneuvers at a walk, trot or lope. Finalists ride as a group around the perimeter of the arena. Judging focuses on the rider’s body position, seat in the saddle and ability to control the horse.

Trail

The trail class tests the maneuverability of an American Quarter Horse through an obstacle course. Mandatory obstacles include one in which the rider will open, pass through and close a gate. Scoring is based on the horse’s willingness, ease and grace in negotiating the course. The other two mandatory obstacles are riding over at least four logs or poles and one backing obstacle.

Reining

Judges the horse on movements, mastery of a prescribed maneuver and attitude as he is guided through one of 15 AQHA patterns. The horse is required to perform a number of stops, spins, rollbacks, lead changes and circles at a lope. The horse should be willing to be guided with little or no resistance.

Ranch Riding (formerly known as Ranch Horse Pleasure)

The ranch riding horse should simulate a horse riding outside the confines of an arena and reflect the versatility, attitude and movement of a working horse. The class is judged on the horse's ability to work at a forward, working speed while performing the required and optional maneuvers. The required maneuvers are the walk, jog and lope (both directions), the extended trot and extended lope at least one direction as well as stops, back and one change of direction. The optional maneuvers are sidepass; turns of 360 degrees or more; change of lead (simple or flying); walk, jog or lope over poles or other reasonable maneuvers a ranch horse could perform. Scoring is on a 0-100 point scale with 70 denoting an average performance.

Cutting

Puts an American Quarter Horse against a cow in a battle of wills. Horse and rider must move quietly into a herd of cattle, cut one cow from the herd, drive it to the center of the arena and “hold” it away from the herd. The horse is scored on its ability to keep the cow from returning to the herd, cow sense, attentiveness and courage. There is a 2-1/2 minute time limit.

Working Cow Horse

Combines reining ability and cow sense. This event tests the American Quarter Horse’s skills that are applicable to ranch work. The competition consists of two parts: prescribed reined work and actual cow work. Judging is based on good manners, smoothness, cow sense and ease of reining. During the cow working part, one cow is turned into the arena. The horse is required to hold the cow on the end of the arena, make at least one turn each direction along the fence, and circle the cow both directions.

Boxing

Boxing is for youth, amateur and Select exhibitors who have never been a finalist in working cow horse at any AQHA world championship show or down the fence at a National Reined Cow Horse Association major event, and if they have earned less than 10 points in working cow horse. The class consists of a reining pattern and single cow work (boxing) on the end of the arena. Each contestant, upon receiving a cow in the arena, shall hold that cow on the prescribed end of the arena for 50 seconds, demonstrating the ability of the horse and rider to control the cow. Time shall begin when the gate closes behind the cow after being let into the arena. The announcer or judge will signal the completion of the 50 seconds with a whistle or horn.

Tie-Down Roping
Tests a horse’s ability to follow a calf at great speed, giving the rider the best opportunity to catch the calf. The horse is judged on how quietly he waits for the calf to be released; how well he runs to the calf; how he rates his speed and position so that the rider can rope the calf; and how well the horse stops and works the end of the rope, keeping the slack out but not dragging the calf. There is a one minute time limit for all roping events.

Breakaway Roping

A timed competition, rather than a scored event, for amateur and youth contestants. In breakaway roping, the rope is attached to the saddle horn with a heavy string allowing it to break when a legal catch is made. All other calf roping rules apply.

Dally Team Roping

A judged (instead of a timed) competition where the heading and heeling horses are entered and judged individually. There is a one minute time limit with each roper being allowed two loops from one rope.

Dally Team Roping - Heading

The heading horse is judged on the rate of speed to the steer, ability to match the steer’s speed and favorably position the roper to catch. The horse also is judged on his ability to check, turn and set the steer in position for the heeler.

Dally Team Roping - Heeling

The heeling horse is judged on the ease with which he turns, rates to the steer, and positions the heeler to catch one or both heels. A run is complete when the heeler has dallied and the header and heeler have faced with the steer between the two.

Team Penning

A timed event in which a team of three riders must sort three specifically numbered head of cattle from a herd and pen them at the other end of the arena within 90 seconds. All cattle, except the ones being penned must be kept on one side of the starting line (often called the “cattle side”) until time is called.

Stake Race

An event for youth exhibitors only, the stake race is a timed competition consisting of markers set on either side of a center line. Contestants are given a running start to complete a figure eight pattern. They must cross the center line between upright markers, head to either the right or left of the first pole, make a 180 degree turn, head to the second pole, turn around it in the opposite direction and then to the center line to stop the clock.

Barrel Racing

An exciting race against the clock in which exhibitors follow a course consisting of three barrels in a triangular “cloverleaf” pattern. Riders choose to circle either the right or left barrel first, race to the opposite barrel and complete the course after circling the third barrel and racing down the center of the three barrels to stop the timer. Knocking over a barrel carries a five second penalty.

Pole Bending

A timed event in which the speed and agility of the horse are tested as horse and rider twice weave through a course of six poles spaced 21 feet apart, twice circling end poles before turning and racing to the finish line. The pattern must be followed exactly. A five-second penalty is added for each pole knocked down.

Versatility Ranch Horse

The Versatility Ranch Horse competition promotes the athletic ability and versatility of the horse and is demonstrated in six classes – ranch riding, ranch trail, ranch cutting, ranch reining, ranch cow work and ranch conformation. There are divisions for open, amateur, cowboy and youth. For complete rules and regulations, refer to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.

VRH Ranch Riding -- Horses show individually, and the class can be conducted inside or outside an arena. Judges are looking for relaxed, responsive horses with soft and cadenced gaits. The horse should make timely transitions in a smooth and cor- rect manner, plus the horse should be soft in the bridle and yield to contact.

VRH Ranch Trail -- Obstacles found in a ranch trail pattern are approximate to those found during the course of everyday work. Judges are looking for a well-broke, responsive and well-mannered horse that can correctly navigate and negotiate the course, and do so in a correct and efficient manner.

VRH Ranch Reining -- Ranch reining measures the ability of the stock horse to perform basic handling maneuvers. This class can be held with or separate from the ranch cow work class; if the two are held together, they are still scored and placed as individual classes. What the judges are looking for is: “To rein a horse is not only to guide him but also to control his every movement. The best reined horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely.”

VRH Ranch Cutting -- Similar to other cutting classes, ranch cutting is judged on the ability of the horse to work a cow by separating it from the herd and holding it. The objective is to cut one or two cows, based on the division. For open, cowboy and amateur division competition, there is a two-min- ute limit where each exhibitor must work two head, but has the option of working the full two minutes. In youth competition, on the other hand, there is a one- and-a-half-minute time limit where the exhibitor must work one cow but has the option of working the full minute and a half.

VRH Ranch Cow Work -- When it comes to the ranch cow work class, riders have the choice between ranch cow work or limited ranch cow work for youth and amateur exhibitors, where riders are al- lotted one minute and 45 seconds to complete the work. There are three parts to the limited ranch cow work: boxing the cow; setting up the cow and driving it down the fence to the opposite end of the arena; and boxing it at the opposite end of the arena. For ranch cow work, there are three parts to the class: boxing, fence work and roping or circling. The horse and rider must accomplish all three parts in three minutes.

VRH Ranch Conformation -- To be eligible to compete in this class, the horse must be shown in at least one other class the day of the show. Judges are looking for balanced, structurally correct horses with adequate muscling. You’ll need to show your horse in a good working halter – rope, braided, nylon or plain leather – exhibit your horse at a walk and trot, then line up for inspection by the judge.

English

Hunt Seat Equitation

Tests an amateur or youth’s ability to ride–not the performance of the horse. As in western horsemanship, contestants work a predetermined pattern consisting of maneuvers such as changing gaits; travel in a figure-8 pattern; backing up as well as posting on correct diagonal and counter-cantering. Top riders return to be judged as they travel the perimeter of the arena performing gait changes at the judge’s discretion. Emphasis is placed on ability to sit correctly, hold the correct riding posture and control the horse on a precise pattern.

Hunter Under Saddle

A preliminary class for English riding disciplines in which judges evaluate a hunter-type American Quarter Horse on the flat, at a walk, trot and canter. Emphasis is placed on smoothness of gait, free-flowing stride and willingness to perform. Exhibitors must wear traditional English attire.

Hunter Hack

A transitional English class between hunter under saddle and working hunter. Horses are required to jump two fences then put on the rail to walk, trot and canter both directions in the ring. Emphasis is on manner and way of going on the flat and style over fences.

Pleasure Driving

English rail class tests the horse’s ability to pull a two-wheeled cart and driver along the perimeter of the arena. The horse is exhibited at a walk and two speeds of trot called park gait and road gait. The horse is judged on straight and free movement, manners, and a bright expression while staying under the driver’s control at all times. Horses must not break into a canter at any time.

Green Working Hunter

An event designed for horses in their first year of showing over fences or those which have not earned more than 10 AQHA points in working hunter or jumping classes. Rules are the same as those in working hunter except the fences are not as demanding.

Working Hunter

An event which demonstrates the gracefulness of the American Quarter Horse as it maneuvers a course consisting of at least four obstacles but must jump a minimum of eight fences. Manners, style of jumping, flow of strides, balance and keeping an even hunter pace are factors in the judges’ scoring.

Jumping

Jumping is a true test of a horse’s athletic ability to perform over fences. Jumping consists of at least four obstacles and a minimum of eight jumps. Scores are based on time and penalty faults. Faults are assessed when a horse refuses to jump, knocks down an obstacle, or causes an obstacle to be knocked down. Horses completing the course without faults return to compete in a timed “jump-off” to determine final placings.

Equitation Over Fences

Designed for amateur and youth competitors, this event tests the rider’s seat, hands and ability to control and show an American Quarter Horse over fences. The course consists of at least four obstacles with a minimum of six jumps required. Jumping faults of the horse are not to be considered unless it is the result of the rider’s ability.

Halter

Halter

Evaluates conformation of the American Quarter Horse as a breed. Halter classes are divided by age and sex. Horses are shown with a leather halter and are traveled before judges so that lameness and quality of movement can be evaluated. Horses are judged on balance, structural correctness, breed and sex characteristics and degree of muscling. Of these, balance is the most important.

Performance Halter

Performance halter is a class offered to judge conformation and resemblance to the breed ideal. To be eligible to compete in performance halter, a horse must have earned a performance or racing Register of Merit in performance. Separate classes are held for mares, stallions and geldings.

Showmanship at Halter

A class for youth and amateur exhibitors only, it is designed to judge the showmanship skills of the exhibitors. Judges evaluate the grooming and fitting of the horse, and expertise of the exhibitor in presenting the horse. Each exhibitor is required to perform a pattern designed by the Judge with emphasis on preciseness of pattern and degree of confidence exhibited by the showman. 

Walk-Trot

If you’re just getting started in AQHA competition, walk-trot classes just might be the right place for you.

Show managers have the option to offer walk-trot classes for Level 1 youth and Level 1 amateur exhibitors in the following classes: western pleasure, horsemanship, trail, hunter under saddle and hunt seat equitation.

A few things to note about walk-trot classes: There is no year-end high-point for walk-trot, and there is not a world show class. Also, AQHA Incentive Fund money is not awarded for walk-trot points, and these points do not count for performance halter qualification.

Equestrians with Disabilities 

There are 20 classes: 

  • Showmanship – Walk Only; Showmanship- Walk, Jog/Trot; Showmanship; 
  • Supported Walk-Trot Classes are Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat; Hunter Under Saddle; Trail; Western Horsemanship; Western Pleasure
  • Independent Walk, Jog/Trot Classes are Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat; Hunter Under Saddle; Trail; Western Horsemanship; Western Pleasure; Para-Reining
  • Independent Walk, Jog/Trot, Lope/Canter Classes are Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat; Hunter Under Saddle; Trail; Western Horsemanship; Western Pleasure; Para-Reining

For more thorough rules and descriptions on AQHA classes, be sure to refer to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.