Monday, Dec. 4, 2023

Throwback Thursday: Help For Horse Show Spectators



Bringing spectators to the sport is an ongoing challenge in the equestrian world. In our 2020 Legends & Traditions issue, Laura Lemon discusses how traditional classes, such as the puissance or gambler’s choice, have diminished due to the exhibitor-driven model (read her Commentary here: But this isn’t a new issue. In 1954, editor Alexander Mackay-Smith penned this editorial discussing some of the ways horse shows could better cater to the spectator in an exhibitor-favored society.

As the horse show season progresses and the total number of inches devoted to summaries and stories continues to mount, we are constantly impressed with the divergence of interest between exhibitors and spectators, particularly in the hunter divisions. As now constituted, most of our hunter classes are devised for the benefit of the exhibitors. We have green divisions, both conformation and working; we have maiden and young hunters; we have small uniform jumps and repetitious courses. These and many other class specifications make it possible for exhibitors to get a young horse made quickly so that with relatively little training, he can win a ribbon or find a new owner. In the case of conformation classes, whose shape counts from 40 to 60%, the training program can be cut correspondingly shorter. All this helps the dealer and the exhibitor, but makes an excessively dull program for the casual spectator who usually has very little idea of what is going on and even less opportunity for finding out.

Jumping classes are a little better for spectators. The courses are more varied; the jumps more testing. During the course of most classes there is little done by Horse Show Committees to enable the public to figure out what is going on, however, a condition common to both hunter and jumper classes. The AHSA Rulebook requires over two pages of small print to explain the scoring of hunters and over three pages to explain the scoring of jumpers. When, often at long last, the judges’ decisions are announced, the casual spectator usually is unable to follow their reasoning, either at that time or previously. The judging of equitation classes is an even more mysterious process as far as the general public is concerned.

If one goes to the big shows where there are many different divisions, one finds that the crowd has come to see, not hunters, jumpers and young riders, but saddle horses, walking horses, parade horses and harness horses. Whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that the cheers and yells come when the saddlers rack on and the roadster show bikes take the corners on two wheels, rather than when the best conformation hunter in the country performs sedately over eight moderate fences.


Alexander Mackay-Smith pointed out that often horse show classes are exhibitor-focused and not spectator friendly. Photo Courtesy Of Devon Horse Show

Part of the enthusiasm for the saddle and harness classes rests, of course, on the showiness of the animals, their performance and equipment. Another important factor, however, one often overlooked is that the public can easily understand what the horses are required to do and can start judging just as soon as they prance into the ring.


In the jumping division the brilliant exceptions are the international classes, particularly the Pennsylvania National (Harrisburg), the National (New York) and the Royal Winter Fair (Toronto). Military teams from foreign countries, spectacular jumps and constantly changing courses naturally appeal to the public, but also important are the announcements after every round giving the time and number of faults. Because everyone can follow the standings of the competitors throughout, everyone takes that much more interest.

We submit that with intelligent planning a horse show can be run for the benefit for both spectators and exhibitors. In the first place, give the spectator some basic information so that he can be at least as knowledgeable at a horse show as at a football or baseball game. Page 16 of the current ASHA Rulebook has a page headed “To The Spectator.” Why couldn’t this organization draw up some short paragraphs for each division, giving the spectators enough information so that they could follow intelligently the progress of these classes; these paragraphs could be printed at the head of each division in the program or in pamphlet form for separate distribution.

Secondly, let the announcer be supplied by the Horse Show Committee with information that will enable spectators to watch the proceedings intelligently, not just the numbers of the winners at the end, but the names of horses and riders and their scores throughout the class. To anyone who may say that this sort of information would influence the judges, we remark that, if so, they shouldn’t be judging anyway.

Thirdly, devote the main ring to spectator events. The hunter, breeding, equitation and green classes, designed particularly for exhibitors, can hold their preliminary phases in an adjoining ring, or early in the day and only the final phases, such as jump-offs and the six or eight horses picked for final consideration in the main ring. If we could add to these improvements in organization, the sort of international courses which make show jumping a major spectator sport in Europe, we could certainly arouse a degree of public interest which would solve many a financial problem and immeasurably help the game all round.



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