The 4-H and Open Horse Show


By Mary Jo Zanolli

For many riders, the start of summer means the start of the horse show season. Most fairs offer a horse show as part of the fair activities. It can be a lot of fun to watch the riders compete for ribbons in various classes- but also confusing as to what exactly the judge is looking for in each class!  A typical horse show offers classes in showmanship, equitation, pleasure, command, trail, jumping, games, and even more. Riders spend months both in and out of the saddle preparing themselves and their horses for show season.  The end result of all that preparation is tested at the horse show where spectators can watch horse and rider at their best, competing for ribbons in various classes.

Long before the first horse show riders are thinking about show season. Kelsey, 16 years old and from the East Haddam Pawing Ponies Club, has a 9-year-old Haflinger cross named Pepsi. Kelsey prepares for show season by “riding almost every day and pushing myself to do better each time”. Kelsey plans to go to about 10 shows this summer, and ” is excited about the possibility of doing very well because my horse and I have been working very hard”.  Kelsey hopes to bring home some blue ribbons by the end of the show season, but says, “Mainly I just want my horse to have a good experience”.

Avery Eriksson, 15 years old and a member of the Rough Riders 4-H club, is showing her horse, Bar Room Legend, in the Junior Western Division this year. Avery’s show season preparation includes “riding and practicing showmanship. I check over and clean my tack and make any needed repairs.  I keep Legend clipped and his mane short. I get all the necessary paperwork together, like membership forms, Coggins, and rabies. I make sure all of my show clothes fit and are cleaned and pressed. To get the trailer ready, I clean and re-pack it with a spare halter, lead, bridle, buckets, rain gear, chairs, etc.”

Brooke, 17 years old and from Colonial Hill 4-H has been riding for 12 years but just got a new horse in March. Brooke is excited to see how she and her horse do together this show season and says she has either a weekend show or a Sunday day show planned for every day this summer. When asked about some of the challenges of showing, Brooke says, “It’s never good when my horse isn’t on that day or he’s acting up in the warm-up, I have learned not to fight with them, it’s just not worth it. You have to make the best of it and laugh off the things you can’t change. When you show and do well it’s a way to see how hard you have worked and that your work is really paying off”.

Most horse shows, especially 4-H horse shows, begin the day with a fitting and showmanship class. Fitting and showmanship isn’t a riding class. Instead, the horse is led into the class wearing a halter or bridle. The horse must be thoroughly groomed and clipped, and braided if appropriate.  Hoof dressing and special coat conditioners and sprays are usually applied right before the class to accentuate the hooves and coat. The horse must be presented in good overall health, with the horse’s muscle tone, weight, coat, and hooves showing the horse has been properly cared for in the months leading to the class. The exhibitor must also be dressed appropriately- attire varies depending on if the horse will be ridden in Western, Hunt Seat, or Saddle Seat classes later in the day.

Horses and handlers are also asked to individually perform a simple pattern in a fitting and showmanship class. The pattern usually includes walking on a straight line; one or two halts on a straight line, backing up several steps, a small turn, and a square halt. In the end, the horse’s grooming and conditioning, handler’s appearance, execution of the pattern, and general showmanship are all reflected in the final score. Mikalya, 9 years old, is particularly looking forward to showing her 7-year-old Quarter Horse, Tex, in Showmanship this year. When asked what she does the day before to prepare Tex for the showmanship class Mikalya says, “I help Mommy bathe and clip Tex – I am way too short to reach the top of him, even when he is a good boy.  Then we band him and put on his jammys – to keep him clean”.

Equitation class is generally right after the fitting and showmanship classes.  Simply put, equitation is the rider’s position and use of position to control the horse. Good equitation is the ability to remain in balance and correct position on the horse at all gaits, with subtle, almost invisible aids to control the horse. In equitation, English riders must be able to post the trot on the correct diagonal, while western riders are not allowed to post and must demonstrate a balanced, controlled jog instead of the trot. Correct leads are required in cantering or loping classes. Sometimes a judge may call for work without stirrups or ask the riders to perform simple patterns such as a serpentine or figure-8.  Nicole, 13 years old, is showing in the Junior English Division with her horse Digger. This will be Nicole’s first year showing in the walk trot canter division. Nicole’s favorite class is equitation, and is excited this year to “show at the canter”. Her biggest goal for this season is to place her in a walk/trot/canter class.

Pleasure classes follow the equitation classes. In pleasure, horses are judged on rideability, or being ” a pleasure to ride”.  Horse’s manners, gaits, and performance are considered when placing this class. The horse must generally be shown in pleasure class with a looser rein contact, and respond to soft aids.

Command class is run similar to the children’s game of Simon Says, with horse and rider expected to execute specific commands on the word “Now”. An example would be if all riders were in the arena and the announcer was to say “all riders trot or jog now” – the riders must trot or jog immediately or be called out. The last rider to be called out of the class is the winner. The command can be fun to watch, especially when the class is down to just several riders it can get a little competitive! Horses are sometimes asked tougher movements like cantering/loping on the incorrect lead or halting from a canter/lope.

Trail class is another class found at many shows. The trail is a class where the rider must steer the horse through a specific pattern with various obstacles, similar to situations that may be presented while riding out on the trail. Obstacles may include going over a bridge, steering around cones, backing through poles or cones, jumping a small jump or log, and opening or closing a gate.

A horse show class list usually finishes up with some jumping classes and/or some games classes. Jumping classes at the open and 4-H shows are usually judged from a hunter-style instead of a jumper style, with the judging focused primarily on the rider’s equitation and the horse’s style and way of going over the fences. Games classes can include (but certainly are not limited to); sit a buck, where the rider must ride without a saddle and keep a dollar bill in place under the upper thigh at all gaits, egg-in-spoon where the rider carries an egg on a spoon at all gaits, cloverleaf barrels where horse and rider are timed running a specific pattern around three barrels, and pole bending, where horse and rider are timed weaving in and out of a set of six poles.

So this summer when you head out to a local fair, be sure to stop at the horse show ring.  Whether you participate as a rider or spectator, trainer or proud parent, horse shows are an educational and exciting way to spend part of your day!  The rewards of showing are not just limited to ribbons. Says Angela, 13 years old and a member of the Windham County Mustangs 4-H club, ” My goals are just to do the best I can and have a fun time with my friends and my horse. The biggest reward when showing is being able to have fun with your horse and have a good time whether you bring home first place or not. A big reward in 4-H is friendship. I’ve made lots of friends since I joined 4-H”.  Avery agrees,  “Showing horses is a very fun and rewarding experience. I love the challenge of it, and working to obtain a goal. Both being in 4-H and showing horses have allowed me to become more confident. I have met so many great people and I have made lots of friends. I have learned many leadership skills that I know will help me later in life”.

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