Making Sense of Horse Show Classes

horse show dad cleaning bootsIf you are new to the horse show world at first glance you would assume there are only 2 disciplines: Western and English. So you’ve chosen your discipline(s) and look at the class list and suddenly you are overwhelmed by the amount of classes all with different names.

Each class has their own purpose and nuances and without the background of what each class calls for your first show could be disappointing.

Show Moms & Dads, breathe we can get you through this!

All classes, regardless of discipline, are looking at a good communication between rider and animal, that the horse is well trained and willing, and that the youth can conduct themselves in a professional/safe manner.

Although this list is not exhaustive by any means and does not include other specialty classes such as cutting, saddle seat, and so on… this is a great place to start when choosing your classes for a first horse show.

Classes at a Glance
Class Name Judged on Horse or Rider? Description and Details Points for Success


Horse Judges the horse on resemblance to breed/type ideal. Balance, structural correctness, muscling, and movement. Typically divided by age and sex, and discipline. Train your horse to trot willingly, set up square, and stand quietly.
Showmanship Handler Hunter shown in plain leather halter or Bridle, Western in leather halter.

Focused on exhibitor’s ability to show the horse. This is a patterned class.

All equipment should fit the horse well. Exhibitor should present a presence of confidence and smile. Practice walking, trotting and backing in straight and curved lines as well as turns (western horses pivot), setting square and the 1/4 system. Remember to quarter appropriately even while in line-up and to stay focused on the judge.
Ground Handling Handler Used for Ranch or Speed divisions. Horses must use halter only. Halters and leads may be of rope, nylon, or plain leather (No silver). Lead ropes may not have chains.

Ground Handling exhibits a youth’s ability to work in partnership with their horse from the ground beyond showmanship.

Handler may be asked to work from both sides of the horse. Additional movements include lowering the horse’s head, moving hindquarters, backing horse while remaining stationary, or sending horse in circle.
Western Pleasure Horse Evaluate the horse’s ability to move and provide a pleasurable ride. Horses are judged on functional correctness, quality of movement, attitude, and consistency of gaits.

Martingales, tie-downs, nose bands, and draw reins are prohibited.

Rider must show horse on a reasonably loose reign and light contact. Rider must stay balanced and work horse with ease. The horse must appear relaxed and willing at all times. Refer to FL 4-H guide to bits regarding legal bits and methods of holding reins. Curb bits are required to be ridden one handed (neck rein) and split or romal reins are required (no closed reins). The extended jog should be ridden sitting.
Western Horsemanship Rider Pattern class. Judges rider’s ability to execute patterns while maintaining proper posture and use of aids.

Martingales, tie-downs, nose bands, and draw reins are prohibited.

Execute pattern as exactly as possible. Do not post the trot/jog. All patterns will be combinations of 13-15 various maneuvers. Practice these maneuvers at home in different orders to maximize success at the show.

The free hand should be held “up” in line with the Reining hand, with the rider’s heels down and shoulders back while in motion. Practice turns on the haunches, extended gaits and transitions to prepare for pattern work. The extended jog should be ridden sitting.

Western Riding Horse Pattern class judging horse on executing precise lead changes and transitions. The test is for AQHA Level 1.

Scoring is 0-100 points with maneuver scores adding or subtracting from 70. Maneuvers are scored anywhere from +1.5 to -1.5 with zero being average.

Credit is given for level of smoothness, even cadence of gaits, and lead changes. These are things you should practice at home.
Ranch Riding Both Ranch riding measures the horse’s ability to be pleasurable and functional to ride in a working setting. All Ranch horses should be well-broke, relaxed, quiet, soft, and cadenced. Patterned and individual class.

Scored similar to Western Riding.

Hoof polish, braided/banded manes, tail extensions, and trimmed ears are strongly discouraged. Carrying of rope on saddle is preferred. Horses should move with head in normal position, be alert, and ridden at natural speed.
Ranch Reining Both Reining judges the horse’s neatness, calmness, ease, and speed of executing a pattern. Riders should be able to control every movement of the horse with ease. Patterns contain many spins, circles, sliding stops, and backs.

Scored similar to Western Riding.

Smoothness and finesse earns high quality marks.
Ranch Roping Both Showcase a horse/rider team’s ability to handle cattle. 2 minute timed class. Unlimited number of rope throws permitted. Cows are selected at random to be sorted from the herd and roped. Cattle should be handled calmly and as slowly as possible.

Failure to make a legal catch will result in a 25 point penalty, however riders will still be scored and placed according to performance but not above a rider with a catch.

Hunter Under Saddle Horse Judges horse’s way of going at w/t/c as suitability as hunter. This is a rail class. Posting required at the trot, hand gallop may be asked by the judge. Practice transitions and developing a consistent pace. Excessive slowness or speed in any gait is penalized.

Horses should have manes braided on the right side. Girls under the age of 11 should wear paddock boots with garters and can have braided hair/bows. Girls over the age of 11 should have tall black boots with their hair in a net.

Hunt Seat Equitation Rider Riders must work a pattern. Judged on rider’s on control, seat, position, use of the aids and harmony with the horse. Practice sitting trot, 2 point position, turns on the forehand and hand gallop. Pattern work may be required.
Hunter Hack Horse Small jumps (2) as preliminary then flat work for finalists.

To be judged on suitability as a hunter Over Fences. 70% on fence work, 30% on rail work. Refer to FL 4-H rule book for fence heights.

Standing martingales and protective boots are not allowed.
Handy Hunter Horse Series of obstacles with an in and out combination jump a trot fence and directional changes. To be judged on manners, handiness, response and way of going. This is not a timed class Practice trot jumps, halting on course, rollbacks and bending lines.
Equitation over fences Rider Rider’s seat, hands, and ability to control a horse over fences. Even hunting pace and riders influence over the horse. Boots confined to the cannon bone area is permitted in this class only.

Flying lead changes are required over courses at 2’3 or higher. Courses may include a roll back, halt or trot fence.

Dressage Both Dressage is judged on a horse’s collection, suppleness, impulsion, willingness, and precision. Dressage riders should follow the pattern exactly and gracefully.

Individual tests, legal tack/attire and arena lay out can be found through the USDF/WDAA websites. Legal Snaffles are REQUIRED in Dressage and may be used on any age horse in Western Dressage.

There are several tack/bit differences between Dressage, Western Dressage, and Hunter. Please refer to rule books per your show.

Aids should be subtly used for maximum credit. Tests may be read (called) with no penalty.

Speed Events Horse Pole bending, barrel race, keyhole, and stake race. Each run has a different pattern. These are timed events. Polo wraps are not permitted in any speed class, but can wear martingales, tie-downs, nosebands, and protective boots. Practice with your horse to improve times and memorize patterns. Horses must be responsive as well as fast.
Western Trail Horse Patterned class judging horse on performance executing maneuvers willingly.

6-15 obstacles will be in the pattern, with a gate being mandatory. Possible obstacles include: riding over logs, bridge, water box, carry or drag object, back through obstacles, raincoat, 360 degree within box, side pass, mailbox, or other.

Scoring is 0-infinity points with maneuver scores adding or subtracting from 70. Maneuvers are scored anywhere from +1.5 to -1.5 with zero being average.

Riders are asked to move on after 3 refusals at an obstacle. Set up practice obstacles with your club or at home to better expose your horse. Execute the pattern exactly. Even if your horse does all of the obstacles correctly, if they are off pattern they will be disqualified.
Ranch Trail Both Purpose and scoring similar to Western Trail but emphasis on simulating ranch-work obstacles. Additional mandatory maneuvers include working a hard gate, log drag, and stationary steer rope. Riders will lose 15 points if an obstacle is attempted but not completed. A rider can skip an obstacle, with a 20 point penalty.

Practice over ground poles and logs to help teach your horse to not tick obstacles when crossing. Each tick is -0.5 point so it’s worth mastering.

horse show ribbons

At the end of the day showing horses should be fun!

Horse shows can be expensive and stressful, but the memories and skills that come with it make every moment worth it.

If you have further questions, please contact your 4-H agent for more details.




Posted: March 27, 2019

Category: Clubs & Volunteers
Tags: 4-H, Horse, Horse Shows, Riding

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