Horse Classes

What You Need To Know When You Sign Up

Picking and choosing horse classes at a show is simple once you get the hang of it. Take the time to consider how your horse may perform in each class you are considering entering in if you are newer to the show scene.

Not quite sure if a particular class is right for you? Hang out and watch before deciding. You can learn a lot from more experienced riders including subtle riding tips that you can apply to your own riding.

horse-classes1For all of us involved in horse showing there has a to be a first time for everything. However you may not want to enter your horse in a trail class if he has never seen a ground pole or a bridge before, just a suggestion. I have seen many exhibitors "try it" with no success. If you walk onto a trail course with no prior experience or practice, make sure you remain respectful of the judges and those waiting in line by removing yourself from the class if you miss a couple portions of the course.

You also should probably not enter your horse in a class requiring jumping if he has never seen a jump before (no matter how small the jump is).

You could get hurt pretty badly if you put your own wants in front of the reality of what your horse is suitable for. Just a few common sense thoughts you should keep in mind when entering horse classes at a horse show.

Make sure your horse can physically meet the demands you will be placing on him for each class. There is such a thing as over-showing a horse which can lead to soreness, lameness, illness, and ring souring. Be respectful of your team mate in the ring and it will get you farther in the long run.

Here is some helpful information about the different classes you may encounter at a stock horse show.

Pleasure Classes

A favorite of horse classes among riders everywhere. The pleasure classes at the large stock horse shows (i.e. All American Quarter Horse Congress and the various national and world level shows) tend to draw in a large crowd of both exhibitors and spectators. Pleasure classes at a stock horse show are generally judged on the horse and its quality of movement.

horse-classes2 Western pleasure (the more favored of the two) involves a slower collection during all three gaits and, when done right, is actually one of the more challenging classes to show in for horse and rider. English pleasure or hunter under saddle requires slightly larger movements. By larger, I do not mean faster. Hunter horses typically move with longer, free and flowing strides.

In each type of pleasure class, exhibitors are asked to show their horse at all three gaits traveling in both directions. Any break in gait will result in a disqualification (DQ) from the class.

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Pattern Classes

Another fun set of horse classes you will find at a stock horse show are the pattern classes. There are both in-hand and under saddle varieties, allowing for a fun yet challenging addition to your horse show agenda.

horse-classes3 Showmanship is an in-hand pattern class in which the exhibitor works with the horse to execute a showmanship pattern specified by the judge(s). This class usually involves a series of walking, trotting, stopping, backing, turning, and setting up. As you can see the possibilities are endless when creating a pattern. Ground markers (typically traffic cones) are put in place to indicate transition points in the pattern.

Hunt Seat Equitation is an english, under saddle pattern class. Riders are judged on their equitation or body position while executing a specific pattern. Again traffic cones are used for markers and rail work (showing the horse on the rail at the walk, trot, and canter) may or may not be a part of the class. Patterns are also judged on how clean the horse and rider can complete each component of the class.

Horsemanship is a western, under saddle pattern class. Riders are also judged on their body position and how smooth the pattern is completed. Components in a western horsemanship pattern will typically include walking, jogging, loping, lead changes, stopping, backing, and turning. Rail work may or may not also be included.

Western riding is a pattern class, but is different than the horsemanship classes. In western riding, there are several standard patterns which can vary between shows. Each pattern requires a horse to complete a series of lead changes at the lope around several different cone set-ups. This is a more difficult class for horse and rider because of the careful timing and skill needed to execute the many lead changes throughout the pattern. It is also very impressive to watch this class when performed correctly.

Trail class can be classified as a pattern class, but it requires more complex maneuvers around obstacles. Ground poles, bridges, cones, and a gate are typical for most shows. Be prepared for the added big blue tarp or strange props meant to distract your mount. The higher level shows will require a highly trained and specialized trail horse. The higher you go in trail competition, the more complex and elaborate the course.

Performance Classes

Horses competing in performance horse classes have to meet a higher set of physical demands while showing.

A cutting horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate a calf from the herd for a certain amount of time. Top performing horses have a higher level of instinct to keep the calf from returning to the herd. You are not likely to see cutting combined with the pleasure and pattern horse classes unless you are showing at an upper level world or national show. There are separate cutting horse shows through the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) where the best cutting horses can be found.

A reining horse and rider are judged on their performance as they ride a pattern at the lope and gallop. The pattern also includes sliding stops, spins, lead changes and circles. Although it is a class judged on a pattern, there is a higher level of physical performance for both the horse and rider. Again you may or may not have reining classes combined with the pleasure/pattern classes at a show.

A working cow horse is judged on its ability to perform maneuvers around a single cow including circling and turning the cow. They are also judged on their completion of a reining pattern. Horses competing in these classes are also called reined cow horses.

A roping horse is found competing in a variety of timed classes based on real ranch work. Calf roping, team roping, and breakaway roping are a few examples of roping events.

Games Classes

Also known as speed horse classes, include a variety of timed events. Competing in horse games classes involves speed and timing. A few examples of speed events include barrel racing, pole bending, and keyhole racing. Not only does a games horse need to be fast, they also need to be relatively agile when winding around barrels or through a series of poles.

Over Fences Classes


Over fences includes various levels of horse jumping classes through a course of fences. Courses will vary in set-up and fence height based on the class. A hunter hack class usually has two smaller jumps, while a working hunter class has an entire course of jumps set up.

Conformation Classes

Halter horse classes are judged specifically on horse conformation and movement at a trot. Halter is another in-hand class but is solely judged on how well your horse is put together. Some varieties of halter classes take into account horse coloring. These horse classes are typically found at smaller open shows and at the larger color breed circuit shows.

As you can see there are many choices to be made when trying to figure out which horse classes are best suited for you and your horse. As I have said before, just use some common sense and you'll be fine. Have fun and get out there!

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