The Art of Showing

The Art of Showing
Renee Swanepoel
SANEF Level 1, N Dip Equine Studies

“Is that it?” her mother asked. “All that effort, and that’s it. Ten minutes in the ring?” I smiled to myself. The playground of perfectionists. The sport field of show masters. Welcome to the world of showing…

Showing originally evolved as a chance for breeders to show off stock in their pursuit for near-perfect specimens of each individual breed. It has evolved into a very competitive craft, where the showman (or woman!) must produce an animal of high quality and substance with impeccable training. Horses and ponies are judged on conformation, soundness, type, quality, movement, turnout and of course training and manners. In some classes, horses are also judged on jumping ability and technique, as well as their boldness and uniqueness. The ideal show horse should also have that something extra – that bit of sparkle that says “Look at me!” and makes him stand out in the crowd.


There are several types of showing classes, depending not only on the breed of horse, but also the age of the handler. They include:

· Show Hack
The Show Hack is a delicate animal, like fine bone china, with exceptional movement and poise. The ideal Show Hack is of Thoroughbred type and should be capable of carrying an average adult. A Hack should be responsive, light and balanced to ride, with exceptional manners and elegance. When moving, there should be a pronounced pointing of the toe and all movement should be very smooth. Emphasis is also placed on correct conformation.

· Show Hunter
The Show Hunter is capable of carrying more weight, and is thus heavier, stronger and more powerfully built. There is much more depth of bone, movement is flatter than the Show Hack and the horse should have sound conformation with clean, well-defined joints. The horse is also judged on the quality of the gallop and obedience when coming back down to a slower pace. The Show Hunter should look as though he would be able to tackle a day out hunting across country, without fatigue or ill manners. He should have a big bold eye and muscular stance.

· Show Riding Horse
The Show Riding horse is something between the Show Hack and Hunter. Again, quality and substance are important, as are schooling and manners. Most emphasis is placed on the horse’s schooling, in fact. The Show Riding horse should have presence in the ring, superb movement and impeccable behavior. This horse should appeal to anyone watching as the type of horse one would love to get aboard. They look comfortable and easy to ride.

· Working Hunter
The Working Hunter has all the attributes of the Show Hunter, and is also required to jump a course of Hunting-Type fences. He should be bold, have excellent technique and be able to gallop easily with good wind and superb manners. Jumps are rustic in nature and the horse should jump them from a strong canter. Obstacles that may be encountered include: rustic rails over straw bales, gates, white or rustic stiles, walls of stone colour, rustic planks, bullfinches with spare filling, rustic rails, single oxers (brush with rail behind), double oxers (parallel rails with brush in centre), walls with rails behind, parallel rails over straw bales, rustic triple rails, banks, dykes and ditches. Water trays are often included, but not water jumps.

· Working Riding Horse
The Working Riding horse should show all of the attributes of the Show Riding horse, but should also be capable of tackling a course of obstacles built to test obedience and training. The course should be designed to demonstrate that the horse is obedient, well schooled, and able to jump, extend their paces, stand still and show a steady temperament. The types of obstacles often include drums, picking up objects, bending poles, trotting poles, a small jump, riding lanes, bridges, and so forth. Course designers can get very creative in their endeavor to test manners and courage.

Other classes include:

· Lead Rein Classes
These classes are generally used for novice pony riders. The rider and pony should be well suited to each other, and they are judged on performance as well as capability. Handlers must be over 14 years of age and should be neatly dressed. The lead rein attaches to the cavesson noseband. Lead rein Classes may take the form of a simple showing class to judge type, conformation and rider, or may take the form of a utility class (similar to working riding classes) where a number of obstacles must be negotiated to test obedience and skill.

· Showing In-Hand
In-Hand classes are used to judge horses purely on conformation and movement as well as breed type and soundness. Riders are required to lead their horses to and away from the judge in a set pattern and pace, so that they can be judged on these criteria. The usual method is to lead in a triangle – walk away from the judge, trot across and trot back and past the judge.

· Compleat Horse
This type of competition tests all aspects of the horse and riders ability. It is divided into six smaller tests, namely:

1. Conformation, Soundness and Turnout
2. Utility Test
3. Ride by the Judge
4. Dressage Test
5. Show Jumping (10 fences)
6. Free Test (top 4-7 competitors given 2 minutes to show off horse to its best advantage)


The preparation of the Show Horse is not something that just happens. Nor is it something that can be kept to the last minute and simply slapped on out of a jar. The real preparation happens months before the event and is a continuous process.

Not only must the horse look perfectly happy and healthy, but schooling should be up to high standards and manners perfect.

A glossy coat, long tail and shiny mane are products of correct feeding and grooming technique. Oil supplementation is vital, as is vitamin, mineral and other supplementation to promote healthy hair and hoof growth. Correct shoeing and feet care are also important, as Show Horses must have correctly conformed hooves. The horse should be kept as injury –free as possible, to prevent scars and blemishes that will be detrimental in the ring. (Thus, if you want to show your horse seriously you might have to reconsider turning him out with the resident bully!)

Maintaining your horse by regularly trimming ears, whiskers and other hairy bits is a must, as it not only keeps him maintained but also keeps him used to the sound and feel of the clipper. The horse should stand quietly while being handled, as preparation before an event can take hours. Baths are a must and the horse should be comfortable with the process. Clipping is also required in the winter to improve looks in the show ring, as long, hairy coats can look dull and the horse will sweat easily which will in turn cause him not only to look bad, but excess sweating when working will cause him to lose condition. Bad clip jobs are usually as a result of poor equipment – dull blades, unserviced motors and poor technique.

Depending on the class being ridden, the horse should be well schooled, balanced and should be able to perform the following movement with ease:
§ Walk, trot and canter on both reins
§ Extension of the trot and canter
§ Halt square and stand still for an extended period
§ Rein back
§ Canter with a simple or flying change of lead
§ Gallop
§ Jump fences and negotiate obstacles with ease if required
Importantly, the horse should carry himself well, with the hindquarter well-engaged, the neck rounded out of a raised shoulder and the poll being the highest point. The mouth should remain soft and yielding to the rider and the jaw relaxed at all times. The hocks should be supple, flexing with each stride and weight should be carried by the rounded back and hindquarter. The rider should be very correct, quiet and ride in a way that his or her aids are barely noticed. The rider should sit proudly and look relaxed and show enjoyment!

To keep tails in top shape, it is recommended that they be ‘put up’. This is done by washing the tail thoroughly, applying conditioner to the tail (don’t rinse out) and plaiting the hair below the physical part of the tail to the very bottom. Then the tail is then folded up and sewn into an old sock, a tail bag or can even be plaited into strips of old sheets. This prevents breakage and if maintained, tails will often grow to reach the ground in a few months. The horse will still be able to use his tail normally to swat at flies, but the damage to the tail will be considerably reduced. The tail is undone, washed, conditioned and replaited every second week or so. Never comb or brush out a tail without applying conditioner first, as you will also cause breakage and thinning of the tail. Using your fingers is the best way to get tangles out.


Preparation before a show is a methodical, timeous process and should never be skimped on. Practise makes perfect, and if there is something you are not familiar with, try asking someone to show you or keep practicing until you get it right. Each horse is different, and what works well on one horse, may not work well on another. You will need to practice plaiting your horse before the event so that you know exactly what to expect.

When turning out a horse for Showing, I like to follow the following process:

1. The mane should be pulled neatly to a length of approximately 10cm. Be aware not to make the common mistake of pulling more hair out at the ends, and less in the middle, or your plaits will be uneven. If the horse objects to pulling, invest in a blade-type comb (like a ‘Solo Comb’) that cuts the hairs instead of pulling them out. It is a lot quicker and not at all uncomfortable for the horse, but the re-growth can be messy if not done right.

To pull the mane, take a small section of hair, back comb it until the longest pieces remain, wind those around the comb and pluck. The hair should come out rather easily and if you do it quickly, it is less painful.

2. Using a small, cordless clipper (I find human bikini trimmers to be absolutely perfect for this!) trim the inside of the ears as well as any fuzzy bits sticking out. Also trim the beard and hairs in the nostrils as well as those under the chin. If there is a bit of fuzzy hair in the throatlatch and neck, I trim those too. If your horse is clipped, then these areas would have been done already; you may just need to touch up. The muzzle can also be shaved with a razor blade to smooth it out even more; however, I would only recommend this on a horse that stands perfectly still! Clipping the upper eyelids makes the eyes appear bigger and can be also done. (if you know what you are doing!)

3. Next, the hairy heels and fetlock must be neatly trimmed (with a pair of scissors or your trusty bikini trimmer) as well as the hair growing over the hoof. Care should be taken when trimming the hair around the hoof, as a crooked line will make the feet appear skew and could count against the horse in the ring. (Conversely, crooked feet can be ‘fixed’ by some clever trimming of the hair!)

4. The horse is ready to be bathed. Pay special attention to the mane and tail, taking care to wash right down to the skin. Dirt and crusts have a tendency to work their way up into plaits, looking very bad. I always use colour enhancing shampoo when prepping for showing, as it really enhances the colour and brings up a fantastic shine. Look for a shampoo that actually will colour your skin, as some brands don’t really have much effect. Leave it on the coat for at least 15 minutes to have a full effect. I also apply conditioner to the entire coat and leave it in for 10 min before rinsing thoroughly.

5. Once the horse is dry, the mane should be plaited and sewn in – no elastics showing. Match the colour thread to the mane and work tightly and neatly. Each horse differs in the amount of hair that should be plaited into each plait, however they should be very neat and uniform regardless. Plaits always lie to the right. (We used to always say right for the guys and left for the girls, but I do all my plaits to the right by default!) Use hair gel but be careful that it does not turn white when dry! I find that combing the hair with a nail or shoe brush gives a neater plait.

6. The tail may be plaited next. The plait is done like a French plait, and there are two types – under and over. By taking the strands under, a raised plait is created which looks very smart. The end of the tail is taken up and sewn into place. Again, use gel and comb the tail top with a nail brush. After plaiting, I always wrap the tail in a soft felt tail bandage (NEVER an elastic bandage - you will lose the tail!) and leave it for the show. The best ‘gel’ for hair is in fact, sugar-water – it works like a charm and will not budge. There is no specific amount of sugar to water – I use about ¼ cup of sugar to 1 cup of water and stir. It does attract flies though, so fly spray on the day is a must.

7. The hooves are next. Here I use a technique that I have adapted from one I learned when turning out Arabian horses in the US. It is a bit controversial; however I have used it for years and have never had any problems with feet! Firstly, the feet are sanded down well with a fine to medium grit sandpaper. In the States, we had a lovely machine that did it in half the time, but when doing it by hand, take your time. This evens out the hoof surface and prepares it for the varnish. Next, a coat of hoof varnish is applied carefully. When I have a horse with white hooves, I may varnish the hoof black or clear depending on the hoof. If the hoof is mixed, I will blacken the whole thing. It tends to look neater. If you are using shoe polish on a white hoof, the white will come through, so it is best to leave it clear. I prefer varnish, as it is thicker and covers the hoof well. Once the varnish is dry, apply a second coat, and even a third if desired. My next tip I am going to part with very unwillingly, as it means the end of any advantage I may hold when it comes to hooves! Inevitably, by the time the horses get into the arena, they have scuffed off some of the varnish or polish, and it is no longer shiny. To prevent this from happening, I spray the hoof with a layer of clear-lac. This seals the colour and gives it a lasting shine. All that needs doing before going into the ring is a quick wipe and hey presto. Two coats of clear-lac will do the trick. I also never use varnish remover after the show – it usually contains acetone, which dries out the feet terribly. It is best to leave them be, and the varnish is usually off in a week or two anyway.

8. At the show, quarter marks or shark’s teeth can be applied (best with sugar water – they stay in for days!), baby oil under the tail, in the ears and to the muzzle, Vaseline around the eyes, (some people use mascara on the eyes if the horse is a light bay colour) and a spray of coat shine to bring up the gloss. Once the rider is on, a quick wipe of the boots (be careful to clean under the boots as well!) and the bit and the rider is ready to go in!

9. As a last note, tack should be immaculate. I use liquid shoe polish with wax to bring up a shine. A numnuh should preferably not be used (and no, it will not hurt the horse!) or if you must use one, keep it the same colour as your saddle and as inconspicuous as possible. Bits should shine. The girth should match the colour of the horse and preferably be leather, unless the horse is a grey. Use coloured browbands for all classes except Hunter classes, where plain leather is always preferred. Always use leather gloves that match the colour of your tack. Tweed always looks smart and very traditional and can be bought in a shade to match any colour horse. Bowler hats look great on men.

So you are in the ring – now what? To become a master showman (or woman!) there are a number of techniques and nuances one should learn and practise. Ultimately, these can only be learned in the show ring, and a good rider will know how to show off his or her horse to its maximum potential. However, there are a few guidelines that may be followed to give you the best chance at success.

Try to do a quick assessment of the horses in the class as you enter. You will notice that some look better than others. Try to position yourself in a group of horses that you feel make yours look better. Beware of horses that misbehave though – they can make your horse excitable and ruin your class. There are riders who will deliberately try to use foul play to show you up or upset you or your horse. If you identify such a rider in the class, try to steer clear of that person. Do not resort to foul play yourself or make harsh retorts, as this gives you a poor name and taints the sport. If you find yourself boxed in, simply cut into the area and slot yourself in a better spot. Try not to do it in front of the judges!

Try to develop a sense of when the judges are looking at you and when not. In that way you can plan your ride in the group to your best advantage. When the judge is not looking, you can move your horse along, slow him down or make other corrections, so that when they are looking at you, your ride appears smooth and planned.

When doing an individual show, keep it neat and short. Make sure you know what you want to do and stick to your plan.

Always be polite to the judges and other competitors. Should a judge critisise you or make comments, take them to heart and make improvements for your next event. Also, if you are unsure of something, ask the judge for advice. They are mostly keen to be of help wherever possible. Be gracious in defeat and humble in success.

Observe the winners and try to see what they did differently to you that may have helped them win.

Above all enjoy yourself and be proud of your horse!

(For showing information, rules and regulations, visit )

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