Horse Shows 101


A horse show is a judged exhibition of skill of horse and rider teams. Judges will either score based on percentages (the higher the better) or penalties (the lower the better). Classes and divisions are often organized by the experience level of horse or rider, difficulty of the test or the horse or rider’s age. It is one of the few sports where men and women compete equally with no particular gender advantage. Horse shows and competitions are held for a wide variety of disciplines. However, the disciplines of hunter, show jumper and equitation are explained in more detail below.

  • Tack: The equipment used in riding, including the saddle and bridle.
  • Course: Series of jumps, known as fences, set in a particular order as determined by the course designer.
  • Stride: A horse’s step, oftentimes used in reference to length, e.g., there are certain numbers of strides between the fences.
  • Junior: A rider who is not yet 18 years old.
  • Amateur: A rider who is over 18 years old, but not a professional.
  • Rail: The horizontal poles on a jump. Also often a term referred to when a horse knocks down a jump, e.g., “They had a rail.”
  • Schooling: Practice before the class, usually in an area designated for that purpose.
  • Standards: The upright supports on each end of the rails of a jump.
  • Order of Go or Jumping Order: The order in which horses and riders will enter the ring.

What is Show Jumping?

Skill, accuracy, speed and connection are some of the demands in the sport of show jumping. Horse and rider combinations must clear colorful obstacles set over a challenging course within a time allowed.

A “Classic” class is the highlight of every division. This class will present the most technical course and the highest jumps allowed for that division. A “Grand Prix” is the highest level of competition in show jumping with fences 1.40 meters or higher. Therefore, a “Grand Prix Classic” will be the most exciting class to watch!

Also known as jumpers, a rider and horse must follow the order of jumps as set by the course designer. Courses consist of a variety of jumps, and vary with each class and division. Riders are given a set time limit in which they must complete the course. Fence height is measured in meters and the difficulty of the class is largely determined by the height of the fences. The higher the fences, the more difficult the course designer will make the course, as it is expected that riders will have the skills to not only jump high but turn well and ride quickly. Show Jumping is judged objectively on execution and speed, on the basis of faults incurred, as follows:

  • Pole knockdown = 4 faults
  • Foot in water (open water jump) = 4 faults
  • First refusal to jump an obstacle = 4 faults
  • Second refusal = Elimination
  • Fall of horse or rider = Elimination
  • Time fault =faults accrue for every second over the time allowed

Horse and rider pairs go ‘clear’ or ‘clean’ if they finish a round with no faults. They then advance into the jump-off, which is a shortened course. In the case of more than one second clear round, often referred to as ‘double clean’, the fastest jump-off wins.

  • Course Designer: An officially licensed individual who determines where the jumps will be set, the specific distance in between jumps and the time allowed. The CD changes on a weekly basis.
  • Track: The line that a rider chooses to follow to complete the course.
  • Element: A part of a series of fences on a related line, often a double or triple combination of jumps in a row with less than 3 horse strides between the jumps. These jumps will have a letter following their number, i.e., “5b” is the second element of fence 5.
  • Clean, or Clear: When a horse and rider receive no penalties over the course.
  • Double Clean: When horse and rider complete the jump-off within the time allowed and do not have any rails.
  • Faults: Penalties for not going within the time allowed or lowering the height of a fence or multiple fences. Each jump lowered is 4 faults.
  • Rail: When a horse hits a rail of the fence and knocks it down, thereby lowering the height of the fence. Each knockdown is scored as 4 faults. If more than one rail falls at one jump, the score is still 4 faults.
  • Refusal: When a horse stops before a fence or ‘runs out’ beside it, refusing to jump it. Incurs 4 faults and often incurs time faults as the rider circles back to attempt the jump again. Two refusals results in elimination.

Divisions are defined by fence height and ability of horse or rider.

  • Speed Class: Faults are either converted into time and the fastest time wins. Or fastest and clean wins in the first round.
  • Children/Junior: Divisions for younger riders, under the age of 18.
  • Adult Amateur/Amateur Owner: Divisions for riders over the age of 18.
  • Under 25 (U25): This is a division inaugurated in 2015 to bridge the gap between the Junior/Young Rider category and the Seniors.
  • Open Division: Open to Juniors, Amateurs, and Professionals
  • Young Jumper: Competitions for horses age 5, 6 and 7 years old, with specific rules for height and width of jumps in each of the three age categories.


A horse must possess a fine jumping ability, fluid movement, pace, suitability and manners to make a good hunter. A hunter competes in an arena that simulates the stone walls, hedges and coops that are found in the fox hunting field. These jumps are arranged to form a course. All hunter classes are divided into a variety of divisions including rider’s age, horse’s size and riding experience. A judge or panel of judges score on 100 point scale based on the overall presentation of the horse and rider, how well the horse performed around the course and the above mentioned qualities. In certain highlight classes the scores are announced, otherwise at the judge/judges’ discretion, the winner and places 2nd through 8th are awarded at the end of the class.

  • Gait: The pace at which a horse travels, e.g., walk, trot, canter.
  • Under Saddle: Where horses compete ‘on the flat’ and are judged on their movement at the walk, trot and canter. No jumping in this class.
  • Green: An inexperienced, often young, horse or rider.
  • Disobedience: Whenever a horse refuses a jump, knocks down a rail, or generally does not follow cues given by the rider.
  • Distances: The point determined by the rider at which the horse leaves the ground to jump. A short distance is when a horse jumps too close to the jump and a long distance is when the horse jumps from too far away. A perfect distance is when the top point of the arch of a horse’s jump is centered above the rail of the fence.

The Hunter Derby is a new development in the hunter divisions. It comprises of two rounds; a Classic Hunter Round and a Handy Hunter Round. In a Classic Round horse and rider compete over a course and receive a score based on the overall picture, movement of horse and communication between horse and rider. In a Handy Round horse and rider compete over a more complex course that includes sharper turns, trotting fences and other challenges for a skilled derby horse.

Divisions are available for Child, Junior, Pony, Adult, Amateur, Amateur Owner and Professional riders. Height is determined by the type of class within the division.

  • Green classes: Open to any horse and rider, including professionals. Divisions include Pre-Green, 1st Year, 2nd Year and High Performance.
  • Pony: Ponies are horses not exceeding 14.2 hands. These classes are often divided into three divisions: Small Pony (less than 12.2 hands), Medium Pony (between 12.2 and 13.2 hands) and Large Pony (between 13.3 and 14.2 hands). Ponies are ridden by junior riders.
  • Adult and Amateur: For adults 18 years and over who are not professionals.
  • Junior and Children: Classes for riders under 18.
  • Small Junior Hunter: For riders 18 or under riding a horse under 16 hands.
  • Large Junior Hunter: For riders 18 or under riding a horse 16 hands or over.
For more information, go to: USEF: Hunters

What is Equitation?

Originally conceived as a training ground for riders to develop the skills necessary to advance to Jumpers, Equitation classes have become very popular in their own right in the U.S. and Canada.

With similar age divisions as the Hunters and Show Jumpers, many Equitation riders set their sights to compete in the Medals. Designed with a cumulative point structure that builds towards the opportunity for competitors to qualify for year-end finals. These classes are judged on the rider’s performance, aids, turnout and poise. The horse is not necessarily judged, but a poorly behaving mount will reflect the rider’s score. Judged by one and in year-end finals usually a panel of judges, riders receive scores on a 100 point scale.

  • Position: How the rider sits and looks on the horse’s back.
  • Turnout: How the rider and horse look based on their equipment, organization, and cleanliness.
  • Aids: How the rider uses their hands, legs, spurs and whip to communicate with their horse.
  • Flat: A class where riders compete at the walk, trot, canter and sometimes other ‘flat’ tests without jumping obstacles.
  • Over Fences: A class where riders and horses compete jumping over obstacles.

Medal Finals are the most exciting equitation classes. Competitors often have multiple rounds, usually over the span of a few days, with each day’s round comprising of a different test. The top scoring riders may also be asked to complete ‘tests’ at the judges’ discretion. For example: a series of tests that include jumping a fence from the walk or trot, riding without stirrups, halt and numerous other tests.

Often considered the most challenging Medal Final, the USEF Talent Search Finals West Coast are hosted by Blenheim EquiSports in the fall season.These Finals are made up of three phases: a strictly subscribed flat phase, a technically difficult gymnastics phase and a challenging jumping phase. The top four emerging from this competition will enter the Final Four, wherein each rider completes a shortened course on his or her own horse before swapping mounts with the other riders in the Final Four and completing the course on the new horse.

The majority of classes offered in equitation are for juniors or amateur adults, as professionals have already used equitation as a stepping stone into the Hunter and Jumper worlds.

  • Equitation Flat 14/15 & Over: Based on the age of the rider, horses and riders compete on the flat (no jumps).
  • Equitation Fences 14/15 & Over: Based on the age of the rider, horses and riders compete over a course of fences.
  • Limit Equitation Flat: Based on the horse’s show record (how many wins), horses and riders compete on the flat.
  • Limit Equitation Fences: Based on the horse’s show record (number of wins), horses and riders compete over fences.
  • Short/Long Stirrup Flat: Based on rider or horse experience, Short Stirrup is for riders 12 and under and Long Stirrup for riders 13 and over. There are further divisions within Short and Long Stirrup based on experience (Green and Novice).
For more information go to: USEF: Equitation