When you imagine yourself having fun and riding horses, what does that look like? Are you calmly exploring the mountainside horseback with some friends or are you showing your horse’s ability to fly over a jump flawlessly? This image should be your basis for choosing a discipline, a trainer, and a horse. As a disclaimer, I have only ever ridden western, so my expertise is limited on other disciplines and sub disciplines. Also, the videos posted are professionals doing that class/discipline. It will most likely not be that perfect or difficult in the novice classes.
This may seem basic but bear with me. Most people think of cattle drives and rodeos when they think of western riding but there’s a lot more to it than that. The typical western saddle is more relaxed in the legs than english and has a leather skirt and saddle horn which have various functions.
Trail riding is usually relaxed but requires a sound and reliable horse that is less likely to spook or refuse obstacles. Usually with a lightweight western saddle, you load yourself down with some water bottles, food, and any other item you may need in a 2-8 hour span. Some people even go camping horseback. These horses should take things in stride calmly and be agile enough to trot, lope/canter, go through water, go over bridges, or even go over logs when you ask them. If this is your idea of the perfect day on a horse, a good solid trail horse is what you need and they don’t need to be “performance level” horses. If looking for a good trail horse, look for sound legs, strong hooves (with or without shoes), and their reactions to things like flags, gates, and pool noodles. Lighter, breathable tack is ideal with some good saddle bags. Some shows have trail courses where horses go over obstacles at different speeds. Unfortunately these are usually tied into a bigger show so winning an overall champion probably won’t happen if you’re only doing the trail course. There has been a rise in obstacle challenges which would be the most similar to a trail show. These seem like a lot of fun and usually have a clinic associated with them so you and your horse can learn together.
An intense and high speed event usually at rodeos. The tack is usually light weight with a small and narrow saddle horn. The horses are fast and agile enough to turn on a dime around barrels in a clover leaf pattern. Barrel races are extremely popular and you can find them in your area with a quick facebook search. There are different levels of competition to fit your experience and your horse’s ability. To be competitive and move up quickly, you may need a “performance level” horse but luckily, they shouldn’t need specialty training. A common thing to look out for in barrel horses are fighting the bit and charging out of a gate into an arena. They’re trained to run so many of them thing they need to run when the see an alley way or with the slightest leg movement.
Another fun high speed event, also usually found at rodeos. The tack is quite a bit heavier since it needs to be able to stop a calf quickly. These horses are fast but don’t need to turn quite as hard as some of the other disciplines. Roping events are popular and usually easy to find on facebook as well. It’s also a useful skill for you and your horse to have and will help the universal value of your horse if you sell him/her later. These horses can also be performance grade but do not have to be. They’re usually stocky and big, with the ability to stop fast. This does require some training for your horse but it’ll be easy to find. You’ll need some training too in order to be competitive.
One of my favorites, reining exaggerates movements needed to work a cow. This includes sliding stops, spins on a point, and speed control at a lope/gallop. Form of the horse is important as well as good communication (usually leg movement) between horse and rider. The tack is medium weight but these movements usually require boots on the front and rear legs for protection. Most reining horses have “sliders” on their rear hooves, which are specialized shoes, wide with slick metal. To be competitive, you’ll need a performance level horse with a few months of specialized training. It’s recommended that you work with a trainer to so you can learn to cue your horse correctly. These shows are specialized reining shows so to find them, it’s best to google reining associations in your state.
Reined Cow Horse
Another one of my favorites, reined cow horse is a combination of reining and working cow horse. The horse learns reining maneuvers then applies them when moving a lone cow around an arena or cutting a cow from the herd. These shows usually have a reining class: where the horse and rider to a straight reining pattern without a cow, a herd class: cutting a cow from the herd, and a working cow class: where the horse and rider show off their ability to move a cow in a certain way. In a show, you’ll be judged on form, the horse’s attitude toward the cow, and your ability to move a cow. Medium weight tack is common with boots on the horse’s legs. This usually requires a performance level horse with both reining and cow training. A lot of these horses also have sliders on their rear hooves. These are another specialized show so googling a reined cow association in your state is the best way to find shows.
Another competitive discipline, these horses take a cow from the herd, and keep it away. Although it is not a speed event, it is high paced and requires a lot of athleticism from the horse. It also requires the horse to be a little more mentally engaged. The horse and rider are judged on form, bravery, and ability to keep the cow away from the herd. These horses are performance level with specialized training.
Ranch Versatility/ Stock Horse
Of all the classes above (with the exception of trail), in my opinion, this is the most beginner friendly discipline and does not require finished show horses to be competitive. It’s an all around type discipline where you exhibit the versatility of your horse. These shows have a ranch pleasure class, a ranch riding class, one or two cow work classes (single cow and/or herd work), a ranch trail class, and a reining class. The competitive horses are trained to perform basic reining maneuvers and show interest in cattle, the rest of the classes just require practice to get your horse comfortable and precise. The tack is not specialized, as long as it’s a functional western saddle, you’re good to go. Boots are usually put on the horses for the reining and cow classes but left off for the rest of the classes. This discipline is a great starting point for beginners and the community is great.Since there are reining maneuvers, several of these horses will have sliders on the back hooves but it’s not required. As a team, you’re not usually judged by how far you can slide in your stop or how fast your spins are, rather, you’re judged on correctness and functionality. To find these shows, a quick google for stock horse shows in your area, or ranch horse shows, will usually bring up your local association.
Mounted shooting has been gaining popularity and it looks like a blast. It is a timed event in which the horse and rider follow a pattern and shoot at balloons as you go. The guns are .22 with blanks (just gunpowder, no bullet) and the rider is usually close enough to the balloons that the force from the blanks is enough to pop the balloons. This event requires holsters and certain guns which I imagine count as specialized tack. As you can imagine, the horses need to be desensitized to gun shots and need to be quick. This is minimal specialized training but just like with barrel horses, be cautious of horses that like to bolt. These shows/events are usually by themselves and can be found by googling mounted shooting in your area. There are actually several area teams that you can join and learn from.
Usually a class in a big show, western pleasure exhibits how pleasurable a horse is to ride. Several horse and riders go into the show ring together and the gaits are announced and everyone changes to that gait. Smooth gait transitions, precision, and smoothness are key for this class. You’ll see that several western pleasure horses are trained to take gaits very slowly in order to exhibit smoothness and really exaggerate the difference between gaits and extended gaits. As an example a jog/trot will be smooth and slow (nearly a walk), without posting, and an extended trot will be faster, longer strides, with the rider usually posting. You can usually work with a horse to get smooth, slow gaits but having a trainer to help is nice.
Another class in a big show, along with western pleasure, this is a class where a rider exhibits their ability to communicate to their horse in a very simple pattern. This is a class where the rider is being judged on form and communication, although having a horse that pays attention well is a major plus.
Halter and Showmanship
Both of these classes go along with horsemanship and western pleasure. They are both classes where the horse is in a halter and lead rope with no other tack and the human is a handler. Communication with your horse on the ground is key. The horse’s head is at the handler’s right shoulder and needs to walk, trot, back, and pivot with minimal use of the lead rope and halter. There are good youtube tutorials on how to train your horse and yourself to do these two classes. The halter class judges the horse while the showmanship class judges the handler, both classes are patterned.
English riding is what most people think of when they imagine horse shows. Very lightweight tack with minimal leather, english tack is a little more specialized than western tack. As a disclaimer, I don’t ride or compete in the English discipline so my knowledge is limited.
Usually thought of as the boring class, in my mind, dressage is actually a very intriguing class. The horse and rider go through specialized movements/maneuvers in a particular pattern. Precision and correct form are key to this class and the maneuvers become more specialized and difficult as the team moves up in competitive levels. Dressage usually requires specialized training for both the horse and rider.
Hunter Jumping / Cross Country
Hunter jumping or fox hunting, this class takes place in an arena in which the horse and rider go over various jumps emulating jumps you would see on a fox hunt. In cross country, the horse and rider are on a trail and going over jumps. In both classes the horse is judged on willingness to go over jumps, speed, and form over the jumps. These horses and riders usually need some specialized training to stay safe over the jumps.
In this class, horse and rider jump over fences, in a pattern, and in an arena. This is a timed event but requires good communication and control of the horse to make sure they go over the fences properly. The horse and rider team are judged on form, willingness to go over jumps, and time taken to go through the course. As with hunter jumping, horse and rider need specialized training to ensure proper form and safety.
There are several other classes and disciplines that I did not go over but I felt like these were the big ones. I highly suggest watching videos and training videos to see what you think you’d like and whether or not you’ll need to put your horse in training (or at what training level you want to buy a horse). As I talk about in my starting from scratch post, find a trainer in the discipline of your choice and take some lessons to see if it’s a good fit.