Showing – In the show ring

Appearing in the show ring is the culmination of all the hard work and preparation that has gone on beforehand. Even if you are a first-time newcomer to showing, there for the day out and the experience, you will want to show your horse and/or vehicle to best advantage.

If you are an experienced exhibitor, out to win, you will be looking for legitimate ways of attracting the judge’s attention and gaining an ‘edge’ over your rivals. Of course, the main ways of catching the judge’s eye are to have an outstanding horse, or a beautiful turnout, expertly driven, but the details of presentation are also important, and this is where ringcraft comes in.

For the novice, ringcraft will operate at the basic level of knowing what is required of you and carrying it out competently and safely, showing courtesy and respect to other exhibitors and the judge. With experience, these skills will be refined to the level of clockwork: an almost telepathic response to the steward’s instructions; smooth, instantaneous changes of gait; the ability to hide imperfections in a horse’s movement; a magical ability to make enough room to be seen, and to have one’s horse or turnout going at its best when passing the judge.

While some aspects of ringcraft can be garnered by watching experienced exhibitors, the key is a full understanding of what the judge is looking for; the idea is to show him what he wants to see. For this reason, exhibitors should study the previous chapter carefully, since they, and the judges, are two sides of the same coin.

Showing In-hand

Having attended to all aspects of the horse’s preparation, be sure that you, too, are neat, clean and properly attired before entering the ring. Common sense, personal pride, and self-interest, rather than rigid rules govern this situation. However, as guidance, a suit, or a good jacket and trousers, with a tie for gentleman, is acceptable wear. In wet weather, a smart topcoat or waxed jacket may be worn. Stout, waterproof walking shoes or similar, with a sole that affords some grip, will assist when running up in-hand. A show stick completes the ensemble.

On entering the ring, the usual course is to walk round in a clockwise direction. However, Clydesdales in the north are often shown anti-clockwise, and it is imperative for the new exhibitor, or anyone exhibiting out of their usual area, to ascertain what is expected beforehand. You do not want to meet the others head-on halfway round!

As we will see shortly, another local variation concerns the way in which horses are turned during the individual run-out. Inquiry in respect of these details can be made in advance to the collecting ring steward, or judge’s steward, as appropriate. Such queries should not be addressed directly to the judge.

When showing in-hand, alertness is essential. This applies to both horse and handler, for a groom walking in a slipshod fashion is very often accompanies by a drooping horse. Such sloppiness is at odds with the blend of economy and efficiency of movement that is sought-after in the draft horse. These qualities are evident in a long stride, covering some ground. Plenty of ‘snap’ in the action, with joints that flex so that each foot is lifted cleanly off the ground, indicates a willingness to work. The feet should hit the ground with the frog and not the toe or heel taking the impact. Movement should be straight, with hocks reasonably close – very close in the case of Clydesdales – or they may spread when pulling a serious load.

Therefore, walk smartly, pay attention to the job in hand, do not wave at or chat with friends in the crowd which, to the keen exhibitor, should be a mere blur. Above all, do not smoke!

The ability to walk at a reasonable speed is, to some extent, governed by the horses in front. Therefore, try to avoid getting behind a horse, or group of horses, that is dawdling. On the other hand, if yours tends to walk idly, getting behind a horse that is walking out smartly may help to sharpen it up. In all cases, however, try to keep two or three horse’s lengths between yours and the one in front. There are two reasons for this; first, safety and second, to enable the judge to see your horse properly. If you find that you are gaining on the one in front, move outwards; never cut in. In the tense show ring atmosphere, especially when championships are at stake, it seems natural for exhibitors, perhaps unconsciously, to continually edge in towards the top position.

The aspiring exhibitor will have noted how experienced grooms handle their horses in the ring, and will have practised the routine at home. Leading the horse in-hand, running it up, and teaching it to stand correctly will also have been practised, as an extension of teaching basic good manners. Even so, a youngster may forget its lessons when confronted by the electric atmosphere and strange sights, sounds and smells of the show ring, and ‘play up’ to some extent.

Typically, if the horse has a good basic temperament but is somewhat overwhelmed by the occasion, this may take the form of ‘jigging’ at the walk. The horse may walk perfectly at home, but the excitement of the crowds and the other horses unsettles it into this semi-prancing, and often crooked, movement between a walk and a trot. Hopefully, the horse may be snapped out of this behaviour immediately, by a jerk-and-release action on the halter shank, accompanied by a verbal reprimand. Following this by talking to the horse in soothing tones may have a calming effect, but if this does not resolve the problem, other remedies may have to be tried, since it is important that the horse does not learn that prancing about is acceptable behaviour in the ring. To this end, it is worth remembering that, when jigging about, a horse actually covers less ground than when walking properly, so a determined effort to get the horse really walking out strongly may have a settling effect. Other than this, it may be worth haulting him every time he jigs about, and then getting him to walk on again. If these corrective measures – especially the latter – are attempted, it is imperative to keep your eyes out for other exhibitors and avoid any action that might endanger or inconvenience them. In cases of extreme difficulty, where behaviour crosses the line from excitable to unmanageable, you should heed the advice given in the American Draft Horse Journal:

Even with thorough preparation you can wind up with an unmanageable horse, usually with stallions or young horses on their first trip from home. There is only one thing to do, excuse yourself from the class and take the horse back to its stall. To present a horse that is out of control is unfair to the horse, yourself and every other competitor in the ring.

The point about excusing yourself relates to two basic pieces of show etiquette. First, if a competitor feels it necessary to leave the ring for any reason (whether personal illness, the horse’s lameness, or misbehaviour), the judge’s permission should be sought and second, that all communication with the judge should be through the steward. Leaving the arena without informing the judge is considered a serious misdemeanour. However, observing this protocol should not entail a protracted wrestling match with a fractious animal. Any steward worth his salt will soon spot an exhibitor in difficulties and a raised hat or hand will quickly secure his, and the judge’s attention. Similar signals or nods then will convey permission to leave the ring, which should be done with dignity and without disturbance to other exhibitors.

Assuming that no such traumas arise, in normal circumstances, you should walk at the horse’s side, level with its front legs, a position that should be maintained both in preliminary circling and individual showing. The right arm should be extended in such a manner as to keep the horse’s head well up at all times. Not only does this look smarter, but a horse that is constantly jerking its head down may well pull out the mane plaits.

The halter shank should be rolled up so that the horse can be shown with one hand only, but the shank must never be wrapped tightly round the hand. One man who neglected this precaution lost a finger. At the walk, the right hand holds the shank close to the horse’s mouth, but at the trot the animal is given more freedom by lowering the grip on the shank by some nine inches to a foot (22-30cm). However, with a difficult or headstrong horse this may not apply; common sense must be used throughout.

The judge begins his duties by standing near the centre of the ring. He can then see every horse side on. He should then move outside the circle so that he can see the exhibits from the other side. During this procedure, the handler’s aim is to keep the horse calm and straight.

After this comes the pulling-in stage, for which there are different practices. The English and Welsh fashion is usually for the horses to circle, and then be drawn into provisional order before being examined at close quarters. In Scotland and Ireland the exhibits are usually lined up in the order of their appearance in the ring. The steward does the calling in under the judge’s instructions, so keep at least half an eye on the steward throughout these preliminaries.

When coming into line, remember that you are putting your animal alongside horses that are strangers to it. Don’t crowd your neighbours. If you must move your horse while in line, back it all the way out so as not to knock against horses next to it. This need to allow plenty of space is especially important in classes for stallions, or for mares with foals.

Once the horse is halted in-line in its allocated place, the halter shank should be dropped to the ground, in perpendicular and tidy fashion. The horse is then ‘stood up’. It should be standing squarely on all four legs, not three, in the correct stance that has been taught at home. It is important to get the hocks together and the forelegs directly under the show stick, with pressure on the shoulder, the head, and the horse’s balance. Do not follow the lead of those handlers who kick at the pasterns to move the front feet. Once the horse looks as good as you can reasonably expect, you should stop fussing, but you must keep alert to ensure that the horse remains set up while the judge is walking up and down the line. ‘Many’s the time I never see what’s in the class against me, because I’ve always been watching my own horse’, said Ted Cumbor. ‘Keep your horse alert, even if you haven’t won the red ticket. This is your showcase, when potential customers look on. But use common sense – don’t be too strict all the time, or your horse will get fed up with it.’

This practical exhibitor’s advice modifies that often given in showing manuals to ‘always keep your animals at attention’ – advice which, followed to the letter in large classes, risks souring the horse. It is also a reminder of another function of showing: it is the exhibitor’s shop window, and a potential buyer may come to the ringside just to seek the very sort of horse you have on display.

Once they are in line, the judge goes round each entry in turn. On arriving at your horse he may say ‘Good morning’, to which the only response should be ‘Good morning, sir’. The judge may be an old family friend, but this is an occasion for a certain formal aloofness, not for chit-chat. The essential strict impartiality should be evident to spectators as well as to fellow competitors. Any questions about the horse’s age and so on should be answered fully and politely, but no further information should be volunteered. The only exception to this rule of not speaking unless spoken to concerns the horse’s behaviour. The judge may feel legs for ringbone or other faults, and he will expect the horse to be quiet. If it is not completely trustworthy, you should warn the judge accordingly if he has not already asked; this is simply having due regard for another’s safety. While telling the judge that your horse might kick may not advance your placing, not telling him, and having the horse lash out, can have more serious repercussions.

In general, be conscious of the judge, and when he is viewing your horse, move aside as appropriate to allow him to do so: make it easy for him to do his job.

Once they have been inspected in line, each horse then gives an individual display or ‘stand show’ in turn. On the judge’s command the exhibitor must walk his horse away in a straight line, turn, and head straight back to the judge. The display is then repeated at the trot.

Exhibitors are expected to know this basic procedure. There may be a steward to mark the end of the walk, or the handler may have to use his own judgement. In either case, the trot requires about double the distance of the walk to give a proper display, as the horse may be well down the track before settling into the correct action.

Turning at the ends brings a problem as breads spread into new geographical locations. In England and Wales, Shires, Percherons and Suffolks are turned clockwise or right-handed, so that the handler walks around the horse. In Scottish and north of England Clydesdale classes, the horses are turned anti-clockwise or left-handed, turning round the groom, who remains more or less stationary. When Clydesdales are shown in southern England, where the breed may be less common, local judges may frown if the traditional northern practice is followed, which is unfair on the competitor. However, as mentioned earlier, if you are unsure of the method required, try to find out in advance by inquiry through the steward.

During the individual display, the judge will be assessing the horse’s movement and action. The qualities desired in the walk have already been mentioned; in this respect, the judge will simply have the opportunity to examine each exhibit in greater detail than before. So far as the trot is concerned, the first point that will impress the judge is the horse moving promptly into an active trot in response to the command ‘Trot’, or ‘Trot On’. Further vocal encouragement is quite acceptable and, indeed, top handlers talk to their charges as much as possible throughout the show.

Good action at the trot is important in the potential draught horse. It is also more revealing than the walk, as deficiencies become more evident. Faults are:

  • Spraddling – Going too wide at the hocks
  • Interfering – Going too close
  • Paddling – Throwing the forefeet either in or out
  • Rolling – Excess shoulder movement through the legs being placed too wide

Most faulty movement stems from faults or conformation. For instance, horses that are toe in or toe out, stand wide at the hocks, or have short, stubby pasterns or straight hocks will show these faults when on the move. However, temperament also plays a part in movement: the lethargic horse will display an inactive, unimpressive trot, while an excitable temperament will tend to exaggerate faulty action.

As mentioned earlier, part of ringcraft is showing your horse to best advantage, and this means being aware of its strengths and weaknesses and practising ways of showing off the former and concealing the latter. Know your horse, in other words. The American Draft Horse Journal, edited by Maurice Telleen, has this to say on the subject:

Some horses look better at a very collected trot, others at a more extended trot. A horse that wings [dishes, or throws its feet out] will generally accentuate this fault the faster it goes. Give your horse enough slack so that it can keep its head straight ahead, but not so much as to allow it to get the jump on you if something should startle it. When turning your horse, do so in a relatively small circle. Hold it back slightly as you make the turn. After making the turn, straighten the horse out at a walk, and get it balanced and settled down before putting into a trot. Always go straight away and straight back to the judge.

Another factor that can influence the way a horse moves in the run-out is the show stick or whip. For example, Shire exhibitors hold a whip in their left hand. By the time the horse is ready for the show ring, this should be purely decorative, and is certainly not there for regular use, or else a horse may come to fear it, and be watching for the whip when it should be walking or trotting straight ahead. A wavy run is often caused by a horse looking at the whip. A long driving whip is unsightly in In-hand classes, and should not be used. If the horse is the sort that needs touching up, this training should be done at home with a second groom following behind.

On returning after the trot, the judge may ask for the horse to be backed. Again, if this has been taught at home, it should not prove difficult. In fact past masters of the show ring could back a horse in such fashion that a slight unsoundness did not show.

After assessing the horses individually in the line-up, the judge will have the steward send them off round the ring while he makes his final decision. At this stage, it is important to have your horse walking out every bit as well as during the earlier stages. Although a good judge will, at this stage, make his decisions promptly, he just might be deliberating between your horse and another exhibit, and the better yours is going at this stage, the better your chances!

Showing Stallions

At this juncture we should give special consideration to showing stallions in-hand. This can bring you into a different ball game, since you are dealing with a stronger and probably more temperamental animal than a mare. At one time, professional grooms handled most of the show stallions, but amateurs are now more usually in charge.

Because showing a stallion makes extra demands of the handler, it is advisable to have plenty of experience of showing other animals before this is attempted. The other all-encompassing point to consider is that, since an excitable 18 hand stallion cannot be controlled by force, it is very important to build up a real rapport with the animal before venturing into a show environment. While rapport with any working or show animal is important, it must be considered an absolute necessity with a stallion but, once achieved, the bond can be very rewarding.

We have already noted several points about handling stallions in passing: the need to teach them to accept a bit and harness at home; the need to check that everything is in a good state of repair, and procedures for travelling, unloading and stabling on site. Following on from these precautions, assuming that the stallion is in a temporary stable, carry out your pre-class preparations there, not standing in the alleyway as a potential source of trouble. Even if you are not making use of showground stabling, the same principle applies; prepare in as secure a location as possible, do not stand in the open, with the lead rope tied to a bit of baling twine, trusting to luck.

On making for the ring, allow plenty of leeway in front of your stallion, and always keep well back if you are leading any horse behind a stallion; they hate other animals creeping up on them. So long as they are sensibly designed and located, the provision of horse walks to and from the ring is a definite improvement; there is less chance of a distracted mum with a pushchair crossing just in front of you, or a small child running up to hug a hairy leg.

When leading, whether in the ring or outside it, you should use a good long halter shank for a stallion, but in no circumstance should you wrap it around your wrist. This is worth repeating, since severe hand injuries have been caused to people who though it gave them more purchase. You are nothing like so strong as a stallion (or even a foal, for that matter) and wrapping the lead shank round your wrist will just reinforce, rather disprove, this point. A leather strap as a lead shank is preferable to a chain, but it must be in good condition. A half-chewed, saliva-drenched strap is asking for trouble.

One advantage of having a long halter shank is that it gives some leeway to both horse and handler if the animal goes up on its hind legs. A tug on too short a shank at a moment of imbalance can result in the horse going over backwards. Stallion harness is designed to prevent rearing, but it cannot be entirely ruled out with any animal, so always be prepared.

When showing stallions, it is especially important that safe distances between horses, and between handlers and horses, are observed at all times. A horse striking out with its hind legs does no harm if proper distances are observed, but could prove fatal if they are not. Striking out with the forelegs is perhaps less predictable, and it may arise from discomfort caused by ill-fitting or unaccustomed tack. This is another reason for plenty of practice and schooling at home.

The Grand Parade is a particularly trying time for stallion handlers. Judging is over, rosettes won, and concentration tends to diminish. Yet it is a time of bustle and hurry, with more animals trying to enter the ring than at any earlier time in the show. The circle of parading animals is so large that there is a natural temptation to tighten up, but the stallion handler must not succumb to it. Crowd applause is likely to be louder than for single classes, adding to the dangers. Concentration is the watchword until the safety of the box is regained.

Showing Foals

It stallions require special consideration so, too, do foals. There is no official stipulation about the youngest age for showing foals, but only in exceptional circumstances should foals be shown at less than one month old.

Foals require competent handling at all times, and this is especially so at a show. The home training will be an enormous help, but a foal enters a completely new world at the show ground, with flags flying, the crowds buzzing and lots of unfamiliar horses. When leading a foal in this environment, be either close up to it or at a safe distance. A foal is the sharpest creature alive, and every season someone is kicked by a foal in the ring, either because it is overwhelmed by its surroundings or loses sight of its dam, and instinctively tries to protect itself by lashing out.

If the foal has become accustomed to being parted from its dam at home, albeit for very brief periods at a short distance, this first vestige of independence should assist generally, and in particular when the mare is run out in-hand. There is no hard-and-fast rule here regarding the foal: there is no harm in it ‘coasting along’ at some light distance from the mare, provided that it does not interfere with the judge’s view, but this is rather different from the panicky foal that rushes after its dam, gets in the judge’s way and probably spoils the mare’s show through causing distraction. That said, it is a simple fact that foals vary enormously in the time they take to show themselves properly. Some are naturals, standing quietly in line at their first show, behaving impeccably, while others take a lot of time and patience. Whatever patience is required should be considered a sound investment, since all experienced horse people agree that showing a foal teaches it lessons that remain with it throughout life.

Turnout Classes

If the class you have entered has a pre-judging element, you should make every effort to ensure that all aspects of your turnout are immaculate, since the judge will examine them in minute detail. Indeed, it is often though minor faults coming to light in these inspections that the novice exhibitor improves, so any comments made by the judge should be welcomed and acted upon for the future.

You, the driver, should be smartly attired, comfortable and always wearing a hat. If the groom’s outfit matches the driver’s, so much the better. However, expense may be a limiting factor here, especially if more than one groom is involved, and no one should refrain from competing simply because he cannot afford matching uniforms. These things take time to acquire.

As a driver be sure that you are able to use your whip. It is a functional piece of equipment, and should really be carried all the time and not stuck in its holder. Indeed, some show schedules stipulate that exhibitors in driving classes are expected to carry the whip. In any event, to have put the whip in its holder because both hands are needed for the reins can cost you a place. However, if you feel you must put your whip down to have both hands free to control your horse or team, you should do so.

Shortly before the main part of the class is due to start, the steward or a tannoy announcement will give the word to make for the collective ring. Once there, you are under the ring steward’s control, and must move off as he directs. When you receive his signal, try to keep fifty yards or so behind the turnout in front, so that the judge has every chance to note your entry. If, however, your horse or horses show signs of edginess, or are not so reliable as you would like, get in close to the others!

Give a ‘click’ to begin with, to set your horse or team up on their toes. Good harness horses should know exactly what is expected of them. With novices, however, remember that all horses act differently in the show ring from how they do at home, no matter how many times you may have practised. Apart from the different venue, there are flags, bunting and tannoys to contend with. The place is crowded with strange horses and even more unfamiliar people. If you are unfortunate in respect of the shows organisers, you might also have to content with display motorcyclists, forklift tractors, and planes that drop parachutists from the sky. Should you have the misfortune of your horse or team being seriously alarmed by any such apparitions, or if you feel a real ‘explosion’ is imminent for any other reason, you must endeavour to inform the judge of your intention to leave the ring, while putting safety first.

Leaving the ring without informing the judge is a serious misdemeanour, but it is also an exhibitor’s responsibility to leave the ring with as much control as possible, for the safety of all concerned.

Assuming that all is in order, the first thing to do is establish as impressive a trot as possible. This does not mean an unduly fast trot, but one that gives the impression of balanced power. It will be much easier for you to concentrate on showing off your turnout if you have an alert and efficient groom. In fact, your groom should be your second pair of eyes from the moment you enter the ring, watching for any other horses that approach dangerously close, and warning you accordingly. However, the groom’s priority is to keep an eagle eye on the steward, and be ready to tell you instantly when you are signalled into line. This is important. Some competitors will try to steal a march by cutting in before they are called, or moving up a place beyond the steward’s intention. Although the latter should redirect them, you will help your cause by being prompt in your own responses, without cutting up others in the process.

In brewery teams, grooms called ‘trouncers’ assist the driver. They should stand smartly to attention, one hand behind the back. The left hand should be behind the back if standing on the vehicle’s left or near side, and the right hand if on the off side. Their role is the same as for other grooms, to keep an eye out for other vehicles and to convey signals from judge or steward promptly yet discreetly to the driver.

A good Turnout judge will not require exhibitors to trot round the ring ad nauseum, but will call them into line quite promptly. If there has been no pre-judging, it is here that the detailed examination of horses, equipment and vehicles will take place. As with other classes, the basic rules of polite formality and not speaking to the judge unless spoken to hold sway. Following the inspection, turnouts will circle the ring once more, while the judge makes his final decision. At this point, even if there seems no chance of being placed, driver and groom should remain alert to the proximity of other vehicles and to the steward’s signals.

After the Class

After the class, always accept the verdict with good grace, whether you think your entry was correctly placed or not. In brief, do your best and then be a good sport. If you have a legitimate query on a point of detail, any judge worth his salt will be happy to answer it, provided it is broached at a time convenient for him to do so, and in a civil manner. An expert opinion may help you to achieve a better placing at your next show, so long as it is sought and acted upon in the right spirit.

The other mark of an equestrian sportsman is that, win or lose, his first concern after the class is the well-being of his charges. Although heavy horses generally do not have much need for rugs, shows – especially in extreme weather conditions – can be an exception. For example, a horse returning to its quarters after a long class in hot weather will need an anti-sweat or cooler rug until it cools down. Turnout horses will have undergone quite vigorous exertions, and need rugging as soon as they return from the class, possibly even before unharnessing on a cold or windy day. Stock people have long been aware of the ‘wind chill factor’, so beloved by modern weather forecasters, and act accordingly. They know that a wild, wet day is much more unpleasant and dangerous for any stock than a severe frost in still air.

For providing temporary protection before unharnessing, don’t decry the effectiveness of clean hessian sacks. These once common items may be obtained through builders’ yards and the like. A pair may be stitched together to give a double thickness and are then very handy just to sling over the horse’s quarters when it first returns from the ring, keeping the loins warm until the horse is unharnessed and a proper rug fitted.

Once they have been made comfortable after the class, if you are staying at the show, the horses should be bedded down in their temporary boxes and you will have some time to relax and enjoy the camaraderie. If you are travelling home, while it is perfectly acceptable to stay long enough for a beer and a much-needed bite to eat, do not loiter for hours, leaving weary horses standing in the horsebox.


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.