HORSE SHOW RING ETIQUETTE - Ernie Ray Dowell
with Mona Prater

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Showing horses, even in rail classes, can be a lot of fun, but it’s most fun when everyone gets along. Have you ever been in a show and have someone cut you off or run into you? That was probably not an enjoyable experience. In many associations people get caught up in the competition and focus on winning, forgetting about the fun and camaraderie aspect of the sport. They ignore the needs of people around them and cause problems in the show ring. That has traditionally not been the culture at ARHA horse shows, but there are often novice exhibitors who do not yet have a lot of show ring experience or savvy.

We asked experienced horseman, and ARHA Judge, Ernie Ray Dowell, what he thinks exhibitors need to know when in the show ring, and the things that he thinks judges look for, particularly in rail classes, such as the Ranch Riding. Here are the results of that interview:

Tell us about yourself and what your horse show and judging experience has been:
Well I’ve been involved in the horse industry for about 59 years. I started as a young child riding and showing saddle horses, but got involved in the quarter horse world in the Army in the 1970’s. I started training and showing in western pleasure, halter, and reining. I started judging horse shows in 1984 at the community and national levels. I judged my first ARHA show in 2004, and have been involved and loved the ARHA ever since. I really enjoy judging horse shows and being involved in such an innovative and positive association.

We are focusing on helping exhibitors understand what is needed to do well in rail classes, such as Ranch Riding. What do you like to see?
I like to see exhibitors come into the arena aware of their surroundings, with a confidence, and “ring” awareness. You can spot an exhibitor who knows where they are in relation to those in front of and behind them. Exhibitors should learn to develop a plan about how to not only ride their horse, but how plan ahead in case they need to go around another horse, or allow a horse to pass them. They have a sense of awareness. Of course, you can also spot those who are so well prepared. It is important to come into the arena looking like you are ready to show.

I hope that exhibitors have a plan walking into the pen. Watch those around you and pay attention. I also advise students to pay attention to the judge. For instance in all classes, look at what the judge is wearing, know each judge, and be prepared to change your approach depending on what they like.

In rail classes at lot of new exhibitors believe they need to stay on the rail. Being off the rail is not unacceptable when if it benefits how you show your horse. Particularly at Ranch shows passing another horse is not offensive, but your horse should be under control. I will admit that it is annoying to see an exhibitor trying to pass between horses. This is not only bad etiquette, it is potentially dangerous. It is “not a sin” to pass another horse, but go to the inside, and look like you can slow your horse, or speed him up if necessary, to maintain control and again, show your horse in a way that benefits his performance.

If a horse ends up in a difficult situation, what do you like to see an exhibitor do? Does a horse get credit in the judge’s mind for riding through a “crowd” or past another horse acting up?
I think exhibitors need to learn to be aware and see a problem coming. They should be able to guide their horse out of trouble. If an exhibitor needs to pick up on his horse, and the horse does as asked, that can be a credit earning maneuver. I like to see a horse that is broke enough to do as asked. If you need to avoid someone else’s problem, and you can guide your horse around it calmly, that is an indication that you’re riding a broke horse.

What do you think is “too close” as far as exhibitor’s proximity to those around them?
I like to see at least a horse length between exhibitors. If I see a horse “tail gating” I believe that this is the result of inexperience of the horse, the exhibitor, or both. The result is that your horse looks bad. I like to see horse that can use the inside corners of the arena where appropriate, or that can adjust their speed – up or down – to give themselves the best shot at a good appearance or performance.

What is the most important thing a novice exhibitor should know to show their horse effectively?
They need to learn to keep the situation safe. Novices often are unable to recognize that a “wreck” is about to happen. If they get into a bad situation they need to know that it okay to go around and pass. They also need to know that they should not run over the person in front on them (or the judge for that matter). Make sure there is plenty of room around you as you go down the rail – in front, back, and on each side.

What are the biggest mistakes you see folks make in rail classes?
For me, I hate to see a horse trotting too slow. This often creates an appearance where the horse does not look their best. Exhibitors should not over-emphasize speed. A horse should travel at a pace that looks like it has somewhere to go, but at a medium speed. Again, this is a situation where you should know your judge – and your horse. Show him to his best advantage.

What do you think is different at Ranch shows – in how you exhibit your horse?
At ARHA shows we see a more natural horse – we are not punishing them for having forward motion. The judge is still assessing quality of movement in the horses, but we actually get to see these horses at their best. We also are able to witness exhibitors who know their mount, and show the horse like it’s a champion. I also think that we, as judges, respect the difference in horses. I like the atmosphere where we see exhibitors working toward becoming “showmen,” but are continuing to have fun. This really comes across at the ranch shows. I’m always rooting for the exhibitor who appears to be having fun. This combined with a good performance earns high placings.

Tell us one thing that you would like to see exhibitors do differently in rail classes?
I hate to see exhibitors circling their horses rather than passing someone in front of them. This disrupts the flow of the class for everyone – including the judges. Use your vision and your brain when you are out there in the show ring. This will carry you a long way.

What do you want people to take away from this discussion, and put into practice when exhibiting in ranch riding classes?
I would like to say that exhibitors need to continually develop their ring presence. Judges do look for a horse with cadence, rhythm and balance. When asked for an extended trot – give that. Do not just trot faster. But we want to see exhibitors who are progressing too.

Youth and amateurs should seek out others to talk to and learn from. Don’t come asking judges at a show for a clinic. Look for a professional to get help, either at the show or between shows. This is another aspect that makes ARHA unique – trainers and coaches will help you if you ask.

Do the work – this is an important aspect of becoming a better showman.

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