Horse Riding Lessons Blog

When Are You Ready to Compete in Horse Shows?

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Learning horse riding, for beginners, is usually with the aim of either trail riding or competing at horse shows.

If you’re taking horseback riding instructions because you want to compete, you’re probably wondering when you can enter your first horse show.

The answer is: sooner than you think.

Available Levels of Show

You may imagine that competitions are only for professional riders: but this is simply not true. There are many more riding shows for lower level riders than top performers, because there are so many more ‘grass roots’ rather than advanced riders.

Which is good news for you: it means you’ll easily find a local show catering to your level of experience.

Where to Begin

If your eventual goal is to take part in jumping competitions, it makes sense to start with dressage shows. Horse riding for beginners teaches the basics of dressage which you need before you can jump, so use that expertise in the show ring.

As soon as you’ve mastered the basics of walk and trot, prepare for your first show. There are two dressage tests designed for the beginning competitor: USDF Introductory Level Test A and Test B. These tests require only walk and trot including twenty meter circles, and halt: your instructor or a more advanced friend who competes can help you learn to ride the sequence of movements correctly.

Watch Some Shows

Before you enter a show, go to a few as a spectator to get a feel for what goes on. Watch riders competing at the Introductory Level and look out for what they do well and where they need improvement. This will help you judge your own performance at home and how ready you and your horse are to compete.

Discuss Your Plans

Tell your instructor that you want to show at the Introductory Level and ask her to help you plan for a successful outing. In subsequent posts I’ll be giving you tips on how to prepare for a show.

If your long-term riding goal is to show, then the sooner you get out in public the better. You’ll learn to deal with stage fright early on in the game and quickly become a seasoned campaigner.

Can You Take an Older Horse to Competitions?

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Since the equine best suited to horse riding for beginners is an older one, you may wonder whether he’ll be able to take you to competitions once you’ve taken enough horseback riding instructions to enter a show. It should be possible as long as you take good care of him.

Here are several points to consider.

Horse’s Overall Health

This is a primary consideration for any horse, but especially the older animal. Pay attention to his diet and teeth to ensure he’s able to chew and digest his food properly. There are many good feeds available for older horses with all the nutrients they need in a form that is easier for their systems to absorb.

Keep him to a regular worming program: this is vital to keep parasites at bay. A worm-ridden horse cannot and should not be expected to work!

Hoof Health

You’ve heard the saying ‘no foot, no horse:’ if you don’t keep his hooves in order you’ll have no horse to ride. Keep his hooves trimmed and shod, if he wears shoes. Bear in mind that if you progress to competitions, your previously unshod horse may need to wear shoes, especially in front.

Talk to your farrier about this. Tell him what kind of competing you intend to do with your horse well ahead of time. If your horse will need shoes, don’t put on the first set the day before the competition, or he’ll go lame. He needs time to get used to them.


Horses, like humans, have a tendency to become arthritic as they age.

Here is where the saying ‘move it or lose it’ becomes very apt. Ride your horse regularly to keep his joints mobile, keeping your expectations of his performance appropriate.  But don’t ride him less because he’s older – you won’t be doing him a service.

If he seems a little stiff, talk to your vet about giving him supplements. Glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM are popular for an arthritic horse. Adding cider vinegar to his daily feed is also helpful.

My own horse was still competing in (and winning) one day events and First Level dressage competitions when twenty-six years old.  All it took was careful stable management and regular, sensible exercise.

If you keep your horse fit and healthy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take him to competitions.

The Difference Between Canter and Gallop

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In horse riding, for beginners the distinction between cantering and galloping is often thought of as being simply a matter of speed. In actual fact the two gaits are very different.

The Canter

In Riding the Canter: Some Basic Terms we saw that the canter is a three-beat pace. There are four distinct ‘types’ of canter.

The working canter is the pace you’ll learn when you’re given horseback riding instructions for cantering. It covers roughly one horse’s length in each stride.

In the medium canter the horse covers more ground in each stride than in the working canter, without changing his rhythm.

The extended canter is used in the highest levels of dressage. Again the horse should not break his rhythm but covers a huge amount of ground with every stride compared to the working canter.

The final pace is the collected canter in which the horse shortens his stride instead of lengthening it. This is also for more advanced horses: the hind quarters are lowered and they carry more weight resulting in a lighter forehand. This frees the horse’s shoulders to move easily with more fluency.

The Gallop

This is a fast, fluid four-time pace, which has a moment of suspension i.e. when all four legs are in the air. The horse moves with lightness and speed and each stride covers a large ground distance.

This is not to be confused with a four-beat canter, which is a faulty canter resulting from regulating the speed with the hands only, instead of keeping the impulsion with the leg and seat aids.

Interestingly the Germans, who are masters of dressage and have a word for canter, usually call it the ‘Galopp.’

So next someone confuses the two English terms ‘canter’ and ‘gallop’ you can educate them on the differences!