Horse Shows 101

Terminology + Tips

Attending a horse show can feel like stepping into a whole new world. We’ve put together a guide to some of the sights, sounds, and terms you might come across at equestrian events so that you can get the most out of your experience at the June Benefit Horse Show.

For those who don’t have an equestrian background, navigating the list of classes here at the Fairfield County Hunt Club June Horse Show can be pretty confusing. 

The first key is understanding the distinction between hunters, jumpers and equitation. In jumper classes, riders and their horses must complete a course of jumps in a certain time allowed. They receive “faults,” or points off their score, if they go over the time allowed or knock down rails during a jump. After the first round, riders who go “clear” are invited back for a “jump-off.”

Hunter classes, by contrast, are not timed but are judged based on the style and ability of the horse. Hunter jumps are meant to look like natural obstacles that could be found in the hunt field. The way the horse moves and jumps is judged, and judges are looking for horses that are quiet and well-mannered. Horses with good hunter form jump with their front legs tucked neatly underneath them. 

In equitation classes, the rider is in the spotlight and needs to display both good form and control of the horse. Equitation courses generally feature tighter turns and combinations of two or three jumps in quick succession. Equitation classes also often feature “tests,” where certain riders are invited back after the first round and then judged over a course featuring fewer jumps, where they showcase their ability in other elements, such as riding over a jump without their feet in the stirrups, or asking the horse to perform other more complicated skills, such as halting shortly after a jump, a counter-canter, or a hand-gallop.

Within the different divisions, classes are divided according to the age of the riders, age and experience level of the horse, and size of the horse or pony. Any hunter classes with the word “green” in the title refers to the experience level of the horse. The progression from “pre-green” to first- or second-year green simply refers to the years a horse has shown competitively in the hunter division. 

In conformation classes, the riders, on foot, must bring their horse or pony into the ring, without a saddle, and lead the horse around for the judges to see. There are also distinctions for the age and experience level of riders. 

Any riders who are 18 or under can compete in the children’s and junior divisions. They begin in the short stirrup division and progress to pre-children’s, children’s and juniors. The distinction has to do with the height of the jumps, with the junior division jumps being higher. 

Any rider above the age of 18 who is not paid to ride is considered an adult amateur. In the amateur-owner division, the jumps are higher and the horse that is being ridden must either belong to the rider or a member of that rider’s family.

Other frequently used terms include:

Combination: Two or three jumps set up so they must be taken in quick succession, separated by only one or two strides. A combination is considered to be a single obstacle. If a horse stops or runs out at any element of the combination (elements are lettered A, B, C), the entire obstacle must be re-jumped.

Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI): The international sanctioning body of equestrian sports.

Oxer: A brush or hedge fence with a pole placed on the takeoff side. Oxers are wider than a vertical.

Pony: A horse that measures 14.2 hands (58 inches) tall, measured from the ground to the top of its withers (shoulders). Many pony classes are separated by size of the pony, with small ponies measuring 12.2 hands or lower, medium ponies measuring more than 12.2 hands but no more than 13.2 hands, and large ponies measuring from above 13.2 hands to 14.2 hands. 

Schooling: The warm-up session prior to each rider’s round, in which they jump practice fences in the schooling area.

Standards: The various types of supports that hold up the rails of a jump.

Stride: The amount of ground covered by a horse in one “step” at the canter. The average horse’s stride is 12 feet. Distances between fences are set by the course designer.

Tack: The equipment worn by the horse, depending on the needs of the animal. The saddle and bridle are the staples. Other equipment may be added such as a martingale, which attaches to the saddle and bridle to keep the horse’s head from raising too high. Horses may also wear boots or bandages on their legs for support or protection.

United States Equestrian Federation (USEF): The sanctioning body which governs equestrian sport competition in the United States.

Vertical: A fence with no spread to it, which forces a horse to make a steep arc in his effort to jump.

Walking The Course: Riders and horses may not practice on a course prior to actual competition, but they are permitted to walk out the route, pacing off the number of strides between jumps and examining the obstacles closely. It is a course designer’s job to set up problems that will challenge the ability of exhibitors. Riders and trainers must determine what and where these are in a course and develop strategies accordingly.

Warmblood: Type of sport horse resulting from crossing heavier draft-horse breeds with lighter thoroughbred-types. European warmblood breeds have been imported extensively into the United States over the past decade. Various breeds of warmbloods make up the majority of horses competing in all divisions at the Hampton Classic and most equestrian show-jumping events.