I went to a horse show recently and quickly realized that not everyone understood the unwritten rules of horse show etiquette. They weren’t doing it on purpose (I hope), but there were some things that could turn dangerous quickly. 

This show had some more experienced riders and several who were less experienced with horse show etiquette. I have 30 years of horse show experience ranging from local schooling shows to collegiate competitions to rated shows. I have experience. A lot of horse show etiquette is learned at the shows by watching more seasoned riders. 

Horse Show Etiquette Rule #1- Ride Left Shoulder to Left Shoulder

The first issue I saw was in the warm-up ring.

In general, you should travel in the same direction as the crowd. If a majority of riders are tracking right on the rail, that’s the direction you should go. However, horse show etiquette says it’s acceptable to go against the flow of traffic, as long as you ride left shoulder to left shoulder with every other rider. Now this can be difficult if you’re the only rider tracking left and all others are riding to the right. You’d be the one rider on the rail expecting everyone else to keep to the inside track. That’s a little unreasonable to expect everyone to do. In this case, you could ride in a smaller circle in the middle of the arena, but it’s your responsibility to not be a “wrong-way driver.” Eventually, others will change direction and you can move to the rail. 

horse show etiquette

At this show, I had people ride directly at me and they had no intention of riding on my left side. I had a woman pass and turn in front of me so close that Sonny threw his head up and to the side as she almost ran into him. I was flabbergasted at the lack of etiquette shown by the other riders. 

You should occasionally turn your head and use your peripheral vision to scan what’s going on behind you as well. More than once, I had riders riding up WAY too close to my horse. Although my geldings are incredibly patient, don’t rattle easily, and don’t kick they get flustered when another horse gets too close. It’s dangerous. Like really dangerous. Most horses aren’t as patient as my unicorns.

*Please keep in mind that you need to be scanning ahead and behind you in the actual show ring, during your class, as well. I promise that judges will notice you being proactive. Plus it could help you avoid a disaster even if it’s caused by another rider. My head is always on a swivel in the ring. 

I’ve seen many horses have ribbons in their tails. Different colors mean different things. One of the most important is RED. A red ribbon in a horse’s tail means THEY WILL KICK IF YOU GET TOO CLOSE. Not only will this injure your horse, perhaps seriously, it could injure you, or even their rider who doesn’t see you coming. Here is a great article clarifying the different ribbon colors and meanings. There are at least 6 you need to be aware of. How many did you know? 

Horse Show Etiquette Rule #2- Allow Enough Space

This rule goes hand in hand with Rule #1. In the warm-up ring, and the show ring, you need to allow enough space between you and the other horses. This is non-negotiable. You should never get less than one horse length in any direction from another horse. 

Since I started showing, there have always been people who got WAY too close to me. In fact, there was one man who mostly showed his stallion in halter and western classes. He decided to ride in the english classes as well so he could go for the all-around year end award. He ALWAYS rode up too close behind my mare, passed with only about 12 inches between his foot and mine, and always cut me off on the rail. Every. Single. Class. It was so irritating.

horse show etiquette

One day, I even heard him say, “I just let him (his horse) go around the rail and pass horses when he’s ready.”

WHAT?!? That’s not ok! Especially with a stallion. Luckily I was on the least mare-ish mare ever, but what if she was in season?? We both could have been seriously hurt if that stallion let his hormones get in the way of his brain.

You need to keep your eyes up and be scanning well ahead of your horse. Watch the other riders. What are they going to do? Where are they going to ride? Are they going to the rail or are they going with the inside track? Are they going to throw in a circle right in front of you? You need to watch the riders in front of you so you can avoid a collision well before it happens. 

I make sure I always allow ample space around me, even if that means I have to be the one who makes it. Tibantos is a large Dutch Warmblood and has a huge stride. He covers a lot of ground and can easily overtake a smaller horse going down the rail.

Most people are taught to throw in a circle to make more space between them and the horse ahead of them. The problem with a circle is you’re still behind the slower horse. In my case, I’ll be in the same position soon and I’ll just draw the judges eye, in a bad way, when we’re doing circle after circle after circle down the rail.

In this situation, it’s best to scan the arena, and if you can safely cut across then do it. The best way to do this is at the corner. You would just cut the corner and pass the horse ahead of you, giving yourself a much better placement on the rail. Remember to pass with PLENTY of space between you and the horse ahead of you, and make sure you have more than enough space in front of that horse before you move back to the rail in front of them. 

*PRO TIP* When the announcer asks the class to change gait, walk to a canter for example, I glance behind me to see who and how many horses are coming up behind me (potentially too close). I also wait for the horse in front of me to make their transition. It helps me to keep an appropriate space between us. If I was the first to pick up the canter, I’ll be the one running up on them and I’d need to figure out how to improve our spacing- most likely by passing them. This goes beyond horse show etiquette and makes you really stand out in the class as a rider who knows what they’re doing.

Horse Show Etiquette Rule #3- Use Your Own Water Bucket

Story Time: I just finished a class on Sonny and we’re standing in line in the middle of the arena waiting for the placings to be announced. All the way across the show grounds, I can see our trailer and Tibantos is tied. I also see my 10 year old daughter, Emma, dragging our water bucket across the dusty parking lot towards him (this cart is on my list to make it easier to move the bucket back to the trailer). Three people, leading their horses, walk right up to my daughter and let their horses drink out of our water bucket! The nerve! She wasn’t filling and moving a community water! It was for our two horses. They literally let their horses drink and they walked away. I was shocked.

horse show etiquette

I immediately went over and we dumped that water, washed the bucket, and refilled it for my two geldings.

Don’t ever let your horse drink from a community water trough or share a bucket used by horses you don’t know. Especially don’t use someone else’s water bucket without asking! There are just too many diseases that can be spread from horse to horse through water. Many of these can be serious or even fatal. 

Also, on a side note, people do not water their horses often enough. I was shocked at how many people didn’t even have a water bucket with them! That’s not acceptable. These horses are working hard for their riders and they need to be offered water, and OFTEN. I’ll get off my soap box… for now.

Horse Show Etiquette Rule #4- Be Ready

horse show etiquette

This should go without saying, but here we are. Be ready to go before your class starts. I can’t tell you how many times an entire class has been kept waiting for one person who wasn’t ready to go. It’s a waste of time, and most horse shows seem to be bloody hot. It’s disrespectful to the show, the judge, and your fellow riders. I’m ready, why aren’t you? 

Here’s the exception: You’ve requested a tack change between classes. I’ve been there. I show both english and western and sometimes I have back to back classes. The proper way to handle this situation is to request a tack change from the horse show office. They’ll usually give a 10 minute break between classes to allow time for you to change tack/clothes and get to your next class. They’ll announce there’s a tack change and everyone will know they’ll get a quick break (hint, hint: this is the perfect time to go and offer your horse a drink of water)

Horse Show Etiquette Rule #5- Tie Your Horse Correctly

It happens, horses get loose from the trailer. Once, I went to register for my classes and Tibantos rubbed his halter completely off his head. I came back to the trailer to a halter hanging from the lead rope. Talk about a surge of adrenaline. Someone finally caught him on the other side of the show grounds and was walking him up and down the aisle of stalls to find where he belonged. That wasn’t a very successful show day. 

horse show etiquette

My childhood horse trainer, Diana, had a horse who could get a regular lead rope clip undone every show (Homie, I’m looking at you).  We had to use a bull snap for him. 

If your horse can unclip their lead rope, you need a new one. If they can untie themselves, learn a new knot, or if your horse ties well enough, you can use a trailer tie so they can’t untie it. I would suggest you use a quick release ring just in case they pull back. Even the best horses do. Even a loop of baling twine will break if they pull back (I learned this tip from Maggie and Sorbet), saving your horse from a disaster. 

A loose horse at a horse show is a hazard for everyone there. Your horse can get seriously injured, horses in the trailer/barn area can get hurt, people can get hurt, and horses in the arenas can, and will, be on high alert which could cause them to activate their flight response hurting themselves, their riders, or others. 

At this most recent show, there was a woman who had way too much slack in her lead rope when she tied her horse. At one point, he laid down and rolled, all the way over, while tied to the trailer. That’s not ok. Your horse should never be able to lay down while tied up. That horse could have gotten his legs caught up in his lead rope or the tires to the trailer, or the rope could have wrapped around his neck. This could have been a tragic disaster. Luckily, it wasn’t, and I even saw her laughing as she slowly walked over to her rolling horse. SMH. 

Horse Show Etiquette is Really Important.

It does matter. Following certain rules can keep you, your horse, and everyone at the show safe. Plus, it makes shows less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone. 

To take the stress out of getting ready for a horse show, here are 4 Horse Show Checklists You Need to Make Preparing a Breeze.

Of course, this isn’t an all-inclusive list. What are some other horse show etiquette tips you’d add? What crazy experiences have you had regarding etiquette, or lack of?

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