horse show tips from the pros

12 Costly Mistakes Experienced Competitors Make at Horse Shows

Last Updated on September 1, 2020

I am sure you will agree with me, there is a lot of work and preparation that goes into each and every horse show you enter.

Whether you are a western pleasure rider, compete in dressage, or you focus primarily on reining, you have no doubt spent countless hours training and preparing for show day.

And it is incredibly disappointing to dedicate hours to training your horse only to fall short of your performance goals once you get in the show arena.

But, with the right focus and adjustments, you can maximize the training you and your horse have already completed. Which will in turn lead to better results in the ring.

One of the best ways to do this is to gain insights about the mistakes you make in the show ring from your trainer or other experienced competitors.

There is nothing more powerful than the guidance of an experienced mentor. Through thoughtful teaching, both you and your horse’s performance will dramatically improve.

With this in mind we asked expert competitors and judges from multiple disciplines what the most common mistake they see riders making on show day.

In the following answers, you will find game changing wisdom that will help you take your performances to the next level.

Take Your Performance from Disappointing to Awesome

Melissa Dukes


Melissa is an AQHA Professional Horseman located in Weatherford, Texas, who has coached more than 25 world, reserve world and All American Quarter Horse Congress champions. Melissa has won 18 Congress titles and five world championships. She is on the AQHA Board of Directors, and is an AQHA, NSBA & APHA judge. Melissa is the Western Head Coach for the Texas Christian University Women’s Equestrian team.

“The most common mistake I see even experienced riders make is letting their nerves get the best of them.

Getting nervous is not all bad if you learn to channel that energy in a positive, determined way.

In order to do this, I have my riders mentally prepare for the class.

For example, in the pattern classes like showmanship, horsemanship & equitation, I have them practice their pattern in their head and sometimes on foot.

We are all creatures of habit.

By practicing the pattern in our head and on foot before they do it on their horse, seems to help prepare them better.

Showing is such a mental game and the more prepared you can be the better the outcome.”

Cyndi Brown

Cyndi holds judging cards with NRHA, AQHA, APHA, NSBA, NRCHA, ASHA, ARHA and USEF. She is a professional horseman and has been training horses for over 30 years. Cyndi specializes in training all-around horses and reining horses of many breeds and currently trains young horses for ranch and stock horse events. She enjoys coaching youth and amateurs for horsemanship, equitation, reining and ranch riding events. She is very passionate and positive about all her judging assignments in the USA and abroad. Cyndi has judged The American Quarter Horse Congress, The American Paint Horse Association World Show, AQHA Championships in Germany, Australia and Ireland. She also enjoys putting on Horsemanship Clinics here in the USA, Australia and Ireland.

“The most common mistake I see is actual pattern placement and gait movement while exhibiting in reining, ranch riding or other pattern classes.

Not so much among the open experienced competitors, but in the amateur or non-pro divisions.

Most pattern descriptions give exact placement for maneuvers and the execution of these maneuvers and some patterns have cone placement for markers.

A great example is in the reining classes.

There are three cones on each side of the arena and pattern descriptions in the rule book tell you where the maneuvers should occur.

As a judge I am required to score your maneuvers according to the pattern description and placement.

The more exact you show to this required pattern placement, with proper gait movement, the better your maneuver scores will be.

To improve your score and placing in the pattern class it will help if you look up to plan where you want to be in the arena and not at your horses’ head or down at the ground.

Looking up gives the impression of confidence to the judge observing and scoring your maneuvers.

Looking up will help you plan better for the next maneuver and give you more time to plan for cueing your horse through out the pattern execution.

As a judge I look for a confident, poised exhibitor, executing a pattern with proper placement in the arena and proper gait movement according to descriptions in the rule book pertaining to a particular class and breed.”

Dr. Clay Cavinder

Dr. Cavinder received a PhD from Texas A&M University in the area of reproductive physiology.  From 2006-2014, Clay was on faculty at Texas A&M University, where he taught and conducted research on how exercise and nutrition effect reproductive function of the mare and stallion.  He also coached numerous Champion and Reserve Champion judging teams at Texas A&M.  In 2015, Dr. Cavinder became the Extension Horse Specialist at Mississippi State University.  Additionally, Dr. Cavinder revamped the Horse Judging Program and in their first year of competing won Reserve Champion Team at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress.

An approved judge for AQHA, APHA, NSBA, NRHA, and ApHC, Clay has had the pleasure of judging horse shows all across the US and Canada, and has judged throughout Europe and Australia.  Some of the larger shows Clay has judged have included the AQHYA World Show, ApHC Open Nationals, ApHC Youth World, the Reichert Celebration, PHBA World Show, and the APHA World Show.

“I would say the most common mistake I see exhibitors make is not being as prepared and ready to show as they should be.

This includes a number of things that can factor into not being ready.

Obviously the most important aspect of creating a successful ride for yourself is knowing how long your horse needs to exercise and warm up prior to showing.

Many horses, and exhibitors, are jittery and overly excited and therefore need to be ridden a sufficient amount of time prior to competing.

Other things that must be done in order to maximize any performance is having a plan of when to be in the warm up pen, when to be close to the in-gate so you are not tardy when it’s your turn to go.

And even some things that seem minor such as: having your show clothes ready in time, making sure your horse is clean and saddled in plenty of time, and of course feeling very comfortable with your patterns in pattern classes.

Being able to think ahead and make sure all loose ends are taken care of prior to entering the pen will make for a smoother performance for both horse and rider.”

Clark Bradley

Clark is a member of the NRHA Hall of Fame and the All American Quarter Horse Congress Hall of Fame, Clark is also a two-time NRHA Futurity Champion and has won multiple championships at the Quarter Horse Congress in versatility, reining, pleasure, cutting and roping.  In 2001, he was voted by his peers as the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. Clark has served as President for NRHA and OQHA and has been chairman on several committees for both organizations. Currently, he is a National Director Emeritus for AQHA. Clark has been an instructor in the University of Findlay Western Equestrian Program for 23 years

“A common mistake competitors, from beginners to experienced, make on show day is trying to fix problems at the show.

Do not make changes or fix issues at a show.

Do the training at home.

A competitor needs to understand their horse and learn what it takes to have that horse ready to enter a class.

Each horse is an individual and may take different preparation to get ready for a class.

It may take several shows to discover what routine best prepares your horse.

A well trained horse will make the process much easier and using the method of training at home and preparing at a show will quickly improve the horse’s performance in the class.”

Merle Arbo

Merle is an accomplished trainer and exhibitor. He holds judges cards with the AQHA, NSBA, PHBA, PtHA, ABRA and IBHA.

After graduating from the University of Central Missouri with a degree in marketing in 1999, Merle started judging and training horses full time. He owns and operates Arbo Performance Horses in Kingsville, Missouri, where he specializes in all around horses.

“All the exhibitors try hard and want to win. Currently we have one of the most educated group of exhibitors that horse shows have ever had in the horse show industry.

They know the rules, the pattern and penalties for their classes.

However, one of the most common mistakes I see experienced exhibitors routinely make is over preparation.

It’s quite easy to tell the exhibitors who have over schooled the pattern or their horse when it’s time for their class.

Their horses lack expression or are pin eared, and are ahead of the exhibitors in executing the maneuvers.

Know your pattern, know your horse and have confidence in both.

Practice the transitions and maneuvers but don’t school to perfection.

Often times a seasoned exhibitor who over prepares their horse leaves the best run in the warm up pen and not the show ring.”


Delena Doyle

Delena has been judging for 32 years and holds cards with 9 affiliations. She lives on a ranch with her husband where they raise Angus Cattle.

“Experienced exhibitors seldom make mistakes.

They have prepared themselves and their horses for a high level of competition.

What frustrates myself and other judges is to see a talented horse and rider go off pattern.

This summer I judged a World Show where two top trainers went off pattern in Western Riding.

The judges groaned in unison.

Big mistakes also happen to amateurs.

They knock a pattern out of the park and eliminate the last maneuver.

Usually a back or trot out is the culprit nullifying a super run.

Judges are always rooting for great horse show teams. It makes our job easier.”

Chris Benedict

Chris has 35 years experience judging primarily with the NCHA, NRCHA, and AQHA. He has DLR Ranch.

“The thing that I see most is over schooling on show day.

No matter what the event is.

And it seems to cause a sense of tension when they walk into the show pen or on their way to the herd causing horses and riders to over react to something that is about to happen or they think is about to happen.

I was always taught that you don’t go to the show pen on OLD ADRENALINE because when you combine it with NEW ADRENALINE when its your turn to show you have an overload so to speak.

I like to warm up my horses before they show just as any athlete would warm up before they preform but not stress out or drill them on any one thing so as not to cause any over reaction to something I may do.

The only thing I can tell you is to trust your training and your horse to preform as its been trained to do and not get caught up in what everyone else is doing outside the show pen before they show.”

Bonnie Clay

Bonnie is an experienced judge for the AQHA,APHA,NRHA,NSBA, NRCHA

“The most common events I see in riders from youth, college, and experienced competitors when walking in the pen is Lack Of Confidence!!!

The first thing of course is to be well educated on what you’re showing in, then comes a lot of hard work and practice!

Then comes showing!!

I realize that we all gain friends and admirers that really want to help and give you advice before you walk in the pen!!!!

” do this” ” don’t forget this”

I see how much stress and pressure that this puts on an individual to excell to the best!

If this happens to you and you need to find out individually what alleviates you from this pressure is.

1) staying more alone before competition

2) blocking out words of others

3) using your love of event to not get stressed to be your best before you go in the pen!!(hard one).

One of the best to achieve is

4)CALM, UNITED souls will beat the best!!”

John Boxell

John is an AQHA , APHA & NSBA judge for many years who has judged all the major events. He resides in Auburn IL with his wife and daughter. He enjoys NASCAR in his spare time.  

“Poorly fitted halters in the showmanship class, and at the end of a longer circuit, not re-clipping those showmanship horses.”

Sissy Anderson

Sissy hails from Leitchfield, Kentucky and has been an AQHA and NSBA judge for 6 years. She judged the AQHA World Show in 2014 and 2017, the Quarter Horse Congress in 2013 and the NSBA World Show in 2013.  

“I would say that the thing that I realized the most when I started judging is the importance of a first impression.

I would tell all exhibitors that when they come through the gate they are being judged.

It is very important to have yourself and your horse organized and ready to show right away.

As a judge, you have such a small window, especially in larger classes, to evaluate each horse and it helps to be at your best each time a judge looks at you!”

Charlie Cole

Charlie is a 17 time AQHA World Champion and has trained over 150 World Champions . He is an AQHA, APHA and NSBA judge and has judged major shows all over the world.  

“I would say not knowing your pattern or not riding the pattern correctly.

Exhibitors should take the time to read and run through their pattern on foot and then on horseback.

If there are any uncertain parts of the pattern , get clarification from a Trainer or go to the office and ask.”

Margo Ball

Margo Ball, of Ball Quarter Horses, has judged over 800 horse shows and 21 World Championship shows for AQHA, APHA, IBHA and PHBA. In addition to AQHA, APHA, NRHA, PHBA, NRCHA, WCHA, NSBA she has a National Versatility Ranch Horse Association judges card and has judged their Finals.

“The biggest mistake exhibitors make on show day is changing their routine and time frame for the show.

If you warm your horse up with certain routine then stick with it and keep the amount of warm up for approximately the same amount of time.

You might extend the warm up time somewhat to account for the show conditions but this does not mean extending the time to extremes.

Also keep the horses on schedule as much as possible.

They are creatures of habit so if they are use to being fed at a certain time then keep them on schedule.

If you are suppose to show around 6:00 p.m. and that is your horse’s usual feeding time then give your horse at least a partial feeding prior to your class, show, then give your horse the rest of his feed after you are done showing.

It makes for a happier horse”

In Conclusion

Putting on a show stopping performance takes more than hours of training and a perfectly groomed horse.

It takes an attention to details that many fail to consider.

Follow the advice of the experts and you are certain to see big improvements at your next event.

And don’t forget to let me know how much better you and your horse perform at your next horse show in the comments!

If you enjoyed this post and the amazing insights given by the experts, please tell them thank you!

Iā€™d also be very thankful if you would help spread the article by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter, Pinterest, or Facebook.

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