The Importance Of Understanding Judging Criteria At Horse Shows

Horse shows are a chance for riders to show off their hard work and dedication. In addition to being fun and exciting, horse shows are also an opportunity for riders to make new friends, learn more about their horses, or even win prizes. 

However, before you head off to your first competition—or even if you’re just learning how to judge yourself—it’s important that you understand the judging criteria.

Horse Judging Basics
Key Takeaways
– Understanding the judging criteria is essential for success in horse shows.
– Proper preparation and knowledge of the rules and regulations can give you a competitive edge.
– Knowing the judges’ preferences and biases can help you tailor your performance to their preferences.
– Etiquette and sportsmanship are crucial components of horse shows.
– Continuously improving your horsemanship skills is key to success in competitions.


Attitude is the most important thing to consider when judging your horse. It can be hard to see, but it’s there. 

Think about how much time you spend with your horse and what they do together. Do they enjoy being around each other? Are they playful or timid? Do they like going out on trail rides together or would they rather just stay in the barn all day?

Attitude shows up in many ways:

How well does your horse listen to you when asked to do something new or difficult? A good attitude means that he will try his best even if the task seems challenging at first. 

He’ll look at you with trust and confidence as he works through whatever obstacle lies ahead of him–and if his mind wanders from time-to-time (as minds are wont), then so be it! 

Your encouragement will keep him focused until he masters whatever skill was asked of him; then everyone wins!

Etiquette is an important aspect of horse shows, and not following the proper rules can lead to major problems. If you want to get it right, check out our guide on The Do’s and Don’ts of Horse Show Etiquette, and make sure you’re prepared for your next competition.


The discipline of a horse is the ability to listen and follow instructions. It’s the foundation for all other aspects of the sport, from riding to jumping. 

The best horses are able to perform under pressure and in front of large crowds, but they also know how to respond when their rider speaks softly or gives them subtle cues with their body language. 

Horses that lack discipline may need constant reminders from their riders about what behaviors are expected of them, which can lead to frustration for both parties (and potentially dangerous situations).

Discipline is a fundamental aspect of horse riding and is essential for success in all disciplines of the sport. Here is a table summarizing the common horse disciplines and their characteristics:

DressageExtremely technical and precise riding with emphasis on form and self-carriage
JumpingFast-paced and thrilling competition over jumps of various heights and lengths
EventingCombined competition involving dressage, cross-country jumping, and stadium jumping
Western RidingFocus on ranch work and traditional Western riding techniques such as reining and barrel racing
EnduranceLong-distance riding at various gaits, often in natural settings such as trails and mountains

Understanding the unique characteristics and techniques for each discipline can help you to train and compete your horse more effectively. By identifying your horse’s strengths and weaknesses, you can tailor your training to suit their needs and improve your performance in competitions.


Balance is the ability of the horse to be balanced in all directions. This includes the forehand, hindquarters and quarters. The horse must also be able to balance on the move forward and backward as well as sideways.

The judge will look for a straight line from their shoulder through their hip or thigh down to their hoof. 

If there are any deviations in this line it could indicate that your horse is out of balance which will affect his performance in other parts of his test such as jumping or dressage

Winning a horse show takes more than just talent and skill – it also requires careful preparation and forethought. To learn the secrets of successful competitors, read our guide on 10 Secrets to Winning Your Next Horse Show and gain the upper hand.


Impulsion is the ability to go forward from the walk or trot. It’s also known as “spring,” and it’s a quality that is very important in dressage.

The horse must have good impulsion for both gaits, but the rider should be able to tell if he has trouble going forward from his trot because he’ll often gather up on his haunches, which will change his balance and make it difficult for him to go forward properly.


The horse should be calm and relaxed. It should walk calmly and easily, with head up, eyes bright and attentive. A relaxed horse will respond to the rider’s aids in a smooth manner, without any hesitation or resistance.

The horse should not be frightened or nervous when it enters the ring, but rather look around at its surroundings with curiosity instead of fearfulness or anxiety.

Horse shows can be intimidating, but with the right mindset and preparation, you can avoid common mistakes that many competitors make. Check out our guide on The Top Mistakes Horse Show Competitors Make and How to Avoid Them and be ready for anything at your next event.

Way Of Going

Judges look at a horse’s way of going as a whole. They look for how the horse moves forward, whether he maintains a steady rhythm, tempo and pace.

The most important part of this category is how well the horse can maintain balance in all gaits. The judge will also be looking for:

  • A smooth and relaxed manner of going with good impulsion from behind (meaning they’re not just stepping along but actually picking up their feet)
  • A rhythmic stride pattern that has equal time between each footfall so that there aren’t any long or short strides thrown in randomly


Rideability is a measure of how well a horse will carry a rider. It’s a combination of the horse’s temperament and willingness to work, as well as its ability to perform a task with the least possible interference from the rider.

Rideability is important because it helps riders develop their skills and achieve success in competition. Riders who are able to make their mounts perform at their best consistently earn higher scores than those who struggle with their horses’ personalities or lack of cooperation.

Safety is paramount when it comes to horseback riding, and accidents can have serious consequences. To learn how to avoid common hazards, read our guide on Avoiding Accidents: The Do’s and Don’ts of Horseback Riding and ensure you stay safe on your next ride.

Self Carriage

Self Carriage is another important judging criteria. The horse should be able to hold its head and neck in a high, proud position. 

It should also be able to carry its tail high and proud. The horse’s back should be straight, level and carried under the body. 

The legs should hang under their body when standing still or moving at walk speed, not sticking out to either side of the animal.

Horse BreedHead/Neck Position in Self Carriage
ThoroughbredHigh head carriage, flexed neck
ArabianExtreme high head carriage, arched neck
Quarter HorseMedium head carriage, level topline
DressageModerate to high head carriage, supple neck and topline
JumpingRelatively low head carriage, stretched neck

Understanding the typical head and neck positions for each breed can help you to train your horse to perform at its best. By practicing and improving self-carriage, you can help ensure success in competitions and improve your overall horsemanship skills.

Fluency of the Paces

The judge will be looking for the horse to perform all of the paces with ease and elegance. They will want to see that the rider can move their horse in a smooth, collected way so that it looks like one fluid motion from beginning to end.

The judge also wants to make sure that you are able to perform each pace with a different rider on your horse. 

This is because if you need different riders for each competition, then this may not be an ideal sport for your particular horse or vice versa! 

If there is any hesitation at all in any of these movements, it could cost you points from judges who are looking closely at how well-trained your mount really is!

Another important factor when judging horses at shows is knowing how well they do under different weather conditions; especially since many events take place outdoors where there might be rain or shine (or even snow!).

Riding horses can be a lot of fun, but it’s important to remember that accidents can happen at any time. To minimize your risk and stay protected, make sure you have the right safety equipment. Check out our guide on The Top 15 Pieces of Safety Equipment Every Rider Needs and be ready for anything on your next ride.


Rhythm is the regularity of the horse’s stride. A horse with good rhythm has a steady, even gait with no jerking or stuttering in his movements. 

The stride length should be consistent as well, with each step covering roughly the same distance as the one before it.

Rhythm is an important part of a horse’s way of going, so it’s no surprise that this characteristic plays such a large role in judging horses at competitions like equine shows and rodeos.

Length of Stride

One of the most important aspects of horsemanship is understanding judging criteria. It’s important that you know what judges are looking for and how they measure it, so that you can make sure your horse is competing at his best.

The length of stride is one such aspect, with horses that have longer strides generally being favored by judges over those with shorter ones. When measuring a horse’s stride, there are two things to consider: its length in relation to the size of its body; and whether or not he has an efficient gait (meaning his legs move together in unison).

To measure the length of your own horse’s stride: stand directly behind him and place one hand on each side of his withers (the ridge between his shoulders). 

Have someone else measure from where your hand ends up when they’re fully extended outward–this will be your measurement! 

If this number isn’t within range according to what’s expected for their breed or type (for example, Thoroughbreds should have longer strides than Arabian ponies), there are several ways you can improve upon it:

The length of stride is an important aspect of a horse’s performance, and can have a significant impact on judging criteria at competitions. Here is a table summarizing the typical stride lengths for various horse gaits:

GaitTypical Stride Length (Feet)

Understanding the typical stride lengths for each gait can help you train your horse to perform at his best and improve your performance in competitions. By paying attention to your horse’s stride and making adjustments as necessary, you can maximize your chances of success in the show ring.


Understanding judging criteria is one of the most important things you can do to improve your horsemanship skills. 

The ability to judge your own performance, as well as that of others, will help you become a more confident rider and showman, as well as make better decisions about your training program.

Further Reading

Here are some additional resources to help you learn more about horse shows and judging:

Judging Horses in Conformation Classes: A comprehensive guide to judging horses based on their physical traits and characteristics.

Judging Horse Shows: A detailed overview of the horse show judging process and what judges look for in competitors.

Working the Horse Show: Scribing for the Judge: A guide to the role of a scribe in a horse show, and how to do it effectively.


What are horse shows?

Horse shows are competitions where horses and their riders compete in various events and disciplines, such as jumping, dressage, and trail riding.

What is conformation judging?

Conformation judging is a type of horse show where horses are judged based on their physical traits and characteristics, such as their body shape, posture, and movement.

How are horse shows judged?

Horse shows are typically judged by a panel of experts who evaluate each competitor based on various criteria, such as performance, style, and adherence to rules and regulations.

What is the role of a scribe in horse shows?

The role of a scribe in a horse show is to record the judge’s comments, scores, and other relevant information during the competition.

What are some common mistakes to avoid in horse shows?

Some common mistakes to avoid in horse shows include not following proper etiquette, being unprepared or underdressed, and not knowing the rules and regulations of the competition.