Preparing a Show Horse

The preparation of a show horse starts months before the date of the first show. Some say that a horse should be ready to show at any time. However, it is very costly to keep a horse “show-fit” at all times, and the best thing to do is to decide when you need your horse to be at “12 o’clock”. You should aim to get your horse ready gradually, as there will then be time to sort out any difficulties before the big day. Feeding is an important element. If this is correct, your horse will bloom when you need to have him ready, making the show day easy and enjoyable.

To show your horse to best advantage in front of the judge, you must have done your homework. It should be remembered that show conditions are totally different from working with your horse at home. Anything you can do at home to prepare your horse for this unusual occasion will help on the day. It is a good idea to get him used to sudden noise: if your horse can get used to loud voices and music on the radio, it will usually not flinch at anything.

Make sure your horse can walk and trot when asked and that he can move correctly. It is most helpful to invite someone with experience to your home to watch your horse and help you decide at which speed he goes best. Some perform best at a slower pace and others at a faster pace. The judge will ask to see your horse move at a walk and a trot: this is called the stand show. It is his chance to see how well your animal moves. As a general rule, if a horse cannot move correctly it will not stand a good chance of winning a class. It is also important to make sure your horse can back (go backwards) correctly.

The judge will be looking for straight movement, with feet picked up clearly, showing the sole of the feet when viewed from behind, with a well-flexed ankle and a length of stride. If judging a turnout he will be watching to see that the feet of one horse are not catching on its neighbour.

Generally good conformation, according to the different breed standards, is important. So is the carriage of the horse’s head. A horse which carries its head well from the moment it enters the ring will catch the judge’s eye.


Feeding the heavy horse for the show ring is a complex subject as each horse has different needs. Most important of all is the quality of the feed you use. Good quality hay is vital because the fibre will be more digestible and the feed value higher than poor quality hay. Hay actually has the potential to provide all a horse needs to keep it healthy.

Hay aside, your feeding regime will be dependent on a wide variety of different factors – the horse’s age, the amount of work it is to do, what work is expected of it, plus its own individual characteristics.

Horses that are stabled need a variation in their diet to prevent them getting bored. Hay should be fed “to appetite” but give less if the horse is wasting it. Chop (chopped hay) fed with bran, oats and/or pellets, cubes or course mix will reduce the amount of hay the horse will eat. Sugar beet pulp, steeped in water, should not be overfed. It makes feed palatable and moist but may increase grease in the legs, which needs to be avoided at all costs. A general mineral preparation made for horses should be fed to keep a nutritional balance. It is very important to worm your horse regularly.

It cannot be stressed enough that each horse is different. Feeding regimes are largely a matter of trial and error until you get to know how your horse behaves. The essential point to remember is not to feed your horse an over-abundance of any one type of feed.

Legs, Feet and Body

Long-term Preparation

The horse’s legs and feet should be oiled regularly with clear oil (pig oil or cooking oil is suitable) and sulphur powder. Weekly is about right, depending on the weather. This treatment keeps the hair growing and the legs free from grease. It also keeps the legs clean, and the white parts snow white. For care and preparation of the hooves see Farriery for the Working Horse. General regular grooming of the body is important to ensure a healthy-looking coat.

On the Show Day

On the day of the show, different breeds of draught horse are made ready for their classes in recognised different ways, but the beginning is the same – you must get your animal spotlessly clean. If this means shampooing it all over, then do so, making sure it is done in time to allow the body to dry properly.

It may be appropriate to wash him a week beforehand and again once or twice just before show day. This will depend on whether he is kept largely outdoors or indoors and on the other activities he may be involved in. Sometimes you may get away with just washing out the mane and tail, but always shampoo the legs. It is important to use good-quality soap as cheap washing-up liquid or soap flakes do not achieve the lather required to remove the dirt completely.

Make sure you wash well underneath the heel hair and get right into the roots, or your horse will not take on the bloom required to get noticed by the judge. After the soap has been rinsed out well it is always best to dry the legs with woodflour or white sawdust. The legs will stay cleaner if they are dried immediately before showing because if the horse is put into a stall, or even out in the field, he can pick up dye from the bedding or the grass if they are wet.

When you have finished cleaning your horse decide what you need to do to improve the way he looks. All too often oil is applied to the legs, hoof-head hair is soaped up and so on, more because people feel it is expected than through real necessity. Stand back and look at your horse. Does it need its bones oiled? Does it need its hoof-heads soaped up? If you are unsure or need advice there are always experienced people at the show who will help you. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Plaiting Tails and Manes

Plaiting tails and manes is a traditional part of showing a heavy horse. It takes a little time to learn the skills involved and it is essential to have some help from someone already experienced if you want to produce a competently plaited horse. Methods vary from breed to breed and even within breeds.

Preparing for Turnout and Harness Classes

Presentation of a turnout (the name given to a horse harnessed to a vehicle) requires attention to detail, particularly to cleanliness. The horse, harness and vehicle must be as spotless as possible. The top turnouts exhibiting today all reach a very similar standard in this respect, and often the deciding factor is the way in which the horse or horses perform, so to be placed among the top teams in the country you must at least be equal to them in the inspection section of turnout judging. The stand show then becomes a very important element of the judging process.

Turnout harness must be immaculately clean, not just on the outer surface, but most importantly underneath, and this applies to metal work as well as to leather. Whether the metal is brass, nickel or chrome, it still needs to be properly cleaned. Start cleaning your harness as soon as it comes off the horse. This is the easiest time to remove sweat and grime. Then when you are ready to prepare it for a show, the cleaning process is easier. Everyone has their own way of cleaning leather, and you will know whether your finished result is good enough. Be honest with yourself. If it is not up to scratch, try different products or methods.

Harness must be black. If it has a silvery appearance, it needs to be dyed. The leather can be cleaned and fed with black saddle soap or glycerine and a sponge. A good quality black polish should be applied, but not so much as to come off on the horse, and then buffed up severely. Good quality brass cleaner or metal cleaner should be applied to the brass and chrome fittings. Brass tarnishes very easily and a good showman always touches up his brass just before going into the show ring.

Remember that the harness is made dirty by the horse. If the horse is clean, while you may still have sweat to wipe off, there will be no grime or grease on the harness at all.

Your vehicle, whether a farm waggon, an agricultural implement or a dray, needs to be scrupulously cleaned. Most of the work will have been done in advance of the show day, but there is always dust and dirt to wipe off after the journey to the showground. It is important to check that the moving parts are all well greased. Small bumps and marks, especially on the wheels, may have to be touched up between shows. When you dress a dray for the show ring, make sure that everything you hang, hook or clip on is securely attached. Do not give the judge a reason to drop you down a place or two. A dray will require a whip, safety belt and a seat cushion for the driver. You are also required to have a bucket and one nose bag per horse hanging on the back, and three lamps, two on the front of the vehicle and one on the back. If the lamps have wax candles in them, these should have been lit (so that, theoretically, they are easy to relight if necessary).

Types of Class

A wide variety of showing opportunities is available to the potential heavy horse showman, from local events to major agricultural shows lasting several days. A good starting point is your local show which is ideally suited to helping you find your feet. Here the in-hand classes may include ‘class for heavy horse, any breed’, and different types of turnouts may be merged into one class. The atmosphere will generally be one of friendliness and informality.

At a county show, especially those which have developed a reputation for heavy horse classes, it is a rather different world. Here you will be competing against some of the top breeders and top drivers in the country. You should not be daunted however. Everyone has to start somewhere! Generally you will find most of your competitors approachable and, if you demonstrate your willingness to learn, helpful. At these shows typical in-hand classes are held for geldings; mares; mares with foal at foot; barren (called yeld or gast in Scotland) mares; colts; fillies and stallions. Some of these will be sub-divided into different age groups.

There may also be harness and decorated classes for those who want to show their horses off wearing harness but without a vehicle. Harness classes require an immaculate set of harness, but without too much decoration. Decorated harness classes offer a similar opportunity to those who have built up a collection of horse brassos and who enjoy showing thoir skills at t’lorul or woollen decorations.

At some shows there may he ‘best foot’ classes, designed to reward good farriery practice; and classes for young handlers, designed to encourage young people to take an interest in showing heavy horses.

Then there are the turnout classes, divided into trade and agricultural. Trade includes single, pair, and team classes and at some shows the highly specialist unicorn or tandem classes. Agricultural classes are usually divided into single and pair, although some tandems are shown within the pair classes.

To enter classes you must obtain a schedule from the show organiser and there will usually be a small fee. It is important to abide by the closing date for entries. Nothing annoys a show organiser more than someone who expects to be included in a class after this date has passed.

Arrival at the Showground

On the night before the show make sure you have everything you need packed and ready to go. A check list is a good idea until you are well practised. The essentials for a horse and vehicle are: equipment for watering and feeding your horse; grooming kit; plaiting equipment; harness and spares; polishing equipment; spares for the vehicle and appropriate clothing for yourself and your groom in the show ring. Do not forget to consider anything you may need in the event of a horsebox breakdown and any paperwork relating to the show itself.

In the horsebox allow enough ventilation so that the horse does not break into a sweat, as you want him to be in tip-top condition for the show ring. Some people prefer to travel their horse diagonally, with his back facing the cab of the vehicle; others travel them forward facing or backward facing. This enables the horse to use his rump rather than his neck and front legs when the horsebox brakes. This is usually a matter of personal preference. It is not necessary to allow him access to a hay-net during the journey: he can be given some hay half way through a long journey. Again this is a matter of personal preference.

On arrival at the Showground you will usually be directed to a designated parking area. The first job is to get your horse out of the horsebox and give him a hay-net or a feed and take him for a short walk to get him used to the new environment. When he is settled, leaving someone at the horsebox with him, visit the steward on the horsebox lines or the secretary’s tent to collect your number ticket and discover the time of your class or classes. The ticket should be attached around your horse’s neck or at the base of the collar if he is wearing harness, or alternatively around your arm. On turnouts the ticket should be placed on the nearside of the seat or the vehicle itself.

You should allow two hours preparation time for an in-hand horse, and another hour for cleaning and preparing a vehicle. It may take you half an hour to finally buff up your harness and brasses.


It is important, no matter what type of horse you are showing, to be tidy and correctly dressed in the show ring. If you are not sure what to wear, speak to the secretary of your breed society, who will be able to tell you what is correct. Some breeds are not as strict as others. Whatever is acceptable to your breed, always be clean, neat and tidy. This definitely helps the overall picture you present when you walk into the show ring with your horse. In trade turnout classes personal livery depends on the type of vehicle you have. Long before you are ready to show, look at turnouts at other shows. It will be easy to see the correct apparel for your particular vehicle. The best time to change is after all your preparation work is over and before you hitch in.

Entering the ring

It is essential for the smooth running of the show and for your own peace of mind to find out in good time when you will be required in the ring and where you should go. At larger shows there will be a collecting ring in which you gather while awaiting your class and before the previous class has finished. Keep in touch with the timing of the show as the day proceeds. Sometimes the classes run late. You do not want to have your horses ready too early.

Alternatively, you may even find classes are running early! You do not want to have to face a last-minute rush. A calm entry into the ring will prevent the horse becoming unsettled at the vital moment.

For in-hand classes you are allowed a helper in the ring in the north of the country and in Scotland. In the south the handler only enters with the horse. In turnout showing the driver should be accompanied by a groom for each pair of horses. For a single horse one groom is expected.

Once you enter the ring, do as the ring steward asks you. It is always a good idea to watch someone who has been showing for a long time and then you will not go far wrong. Make sure you look closely at the procedure being followed in your class. This can vary from show to show and in different parts of the country.

During the Class

The judging of in-hand and turnout classes varies slightly between the north and south of Britain and sometimes varies according to the methods of different judges. But the essential elements are common to all classes.

The Inspection

In in-hand judging the judge will inspect the horse for good conformation according to breed standards paying special attention to the legs and feet. In harness and turnout classes he Will inspect the harness for cleanliness and neatness and in turnout classes he will inspect the vehicle for readiness and cleanliness. In harness and turnout classes the conformation of the animal is less important. In turnout judging if the competitors are very close in their standards the judge may take the appearance and presentation of the horse into greater consideration to assist him in the final decision.

The Stand Show

In in-hand classes each competitor will be expected to perform their individual stand Show. The horse is first walked and then trotted in a line away from the judge and then back. Usually he will also expect the horse to be backed a few paces. The horse and owner then return to their place in the line. The same procedure is followed for turnout classes. In harness classes the horses are not expected to trot or back.


In the north, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, competitors enter the show ring and either walk round several times and then line up in any order, or line up straight away. The judge watches as each handler carries out his stand show, at the walk and at the trot (14.8). Each animal is closely inspected at this time. After all have been shown and inspected, the judge usually takes a second look at each exhibit while they stand in line. It is at this time that he is making his final decision (14.9). The judge will then pick out the horses in descending order, and then walk them round. This gives him the chance to see them next to each other and compare them to see if his placements are correct. If he feels they are not, he will change the order at this time. The animals are then pulled into line and the places are awarded.

In the south, the exhibits enter the ring, walk round and are then pulled into line in provisional order. They are inspected individually while standing in the ring, before being pulled in or after each show. After they have completed their individual shows, the animals are walked round in a circle before being pulled into line in the final order.


In trade turnout classes the competitors enter and compete at a trot. In agricultural turnout classes competitors compete at a walk. When preparing to enter the ring, try to follow someone who goes at the same pace as yourself. Do not do anything you do not need to do thinking that you will impress the judge. More often than not, it can work in reverse. When the turnouts are going round the ring waiting to be pulled into line, make sure your groom watches for the steward’s nod. It may be your turn next. Never ever pass anyone; this is the height of bad manners. If the person in front is having difficulties, stop. You can always ask them if you can proceed. Safety must always take priority.

In both in-hand and turnout showing first impressions matter. You must be as ready when first entering the ring as you are when doing your stand show later in the class. Try to keep an eye on the judge and his movements and interest, and react accordingly. If you have turned out yourself, the horse, and if appropriate, the harness and the vehicle to the best of your ability, you can ask for no more. Remember, you are only as good as the next time you turn out, not the last time.

General Conventions and Etiquette

The traditional methods of showing are tried and tested over many years, and act as a standard to be followed by all those entering the world of showing heavy horses. For each breed there is a different set of conventions to follow and this can cause difficulties when judges are asked to judge different breeds of horse against each other and also when new practices (perhaps from abroad) are in the process of being introduced but are not widely accepted. For example, in the Clydesdale breed, most people turn the horse around themselves, i.e. to the left (this is most easily seen during the stand show). However, nowadays there are a growing number of Clydesdale owners turning the other way (as in the Shire, Suffolk and Percheron breeds), partly because this is the way it is done in the United States and Canada, where there are many Clydesdales. There are arguments for and against some maintain it is safer and easier to turn a horse to the left but generally the Clydesdale ‘rule’ is simply a matter of tradition. I would not condemn either way. It certainly makes no difference to the quality of the horse, and as such should not come into any decision about where a horse will be placed in a class. However, one should be aware that some judges might expect the traditional conventions to be followed and you should find out what the fixed requirements are in advance and practice at home.

I would like to see more shows recognizing the different breeds in all their variety, to avoid the conventions of one breed being mistakenly applied to others by judge. For example sometimes entrants are penalized for using the ‘wrong’ method of plaiting or for turning horses the ‘wrong’ way. There are also physical distinctions between the breeds which are often not taken into account. For example, Suffolks are often faulted for ‘daisy cutting’ or not lifting the feet high enough (mainly by Shire or Clydesdale enthusiasts) when in fact they are not expected to pick up their feet in the same way as a high-stepping Clydesdale or Shire would do. It is important for all those interested in the heavy breeds, in and out of the show ring, to take a close look at the qualities of each of the breeds and develop an understanding of the value of different characteristics.

At the end of the day the judge’s opinion is final, and how he arrives at that opinion does not come into question. However, do not be afraid to ask a judge where he faulted your horse, and how you could improve your own chances should you meet that judge again in the future.

Looking to the Future

Keep your eyes and ears open. Learn by what you see and hear. Ask around among experienced showmen to find out who would be willing to help you long before your arrival in the show ring. A good horse person is prepared to go on learning until the day they give up.



Preparing your heavy horse for showing.

Show Ring

Showing your heavy horse in the show ring.

Other Classes

Other heavy horse show classes & events.

Vehicle Types

Showing vehicle types & acquisition.

Obstacle Driving

Heavy horse obstacle driving events.

Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.