The Congress is the largest single breed horse show in the world, and just the mention of its name brings shivers of excitement to those who have experienced it. Photo © OQHA

A First Timer’s Guide to Congress

Ask anyone who has attended or shown at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, and they’ll tell you that there isn’t much that can beat being in Ohio in October. The Congress is the largest single breed horse show in the world, and just the mention of its name brings shivers of excitement to those who have experienced it. The first time you attend or show at the Congress can be a very overwhelming endeavor. Doing your research, being prepared, and having a plan will pay off, whether you are there to spectate or participate.

Just attending the Congress is an experience in itself. The smells, the sounds, and the energy pumping through the grounds is something magical. Most spectators are only able to attend for a long weekend or a few days. To make the most of your time, it is recommended to do some research ahead of time and determine what is really important for you to experience while you are there.

The Congress website is a great resource to look up vendor lists and maps, class schedules, special events, and demonstrations. Have a plan of when you want to go and what you’d like to see. Creating an itinerary, even down to where you want to shop and want to watch, will help you fit a lot into a small amount of time. The time goes by quickly so if there are classes or demonstrations that you really want to see, be sure and put those on your schedule first. You can fit the shopping in-between or on another day. Take advantage of the lectures and demonstrations. They often involve a Q&A session which allows you to ask direct questions to some of the industry’s best horsemen.

If shopping is your focus (and the shopping is plenty), the very beginning and the very end are great times to go. In the beginning, the vendors are freshly setup and have plenty to showcase and many people have yet to arrive, so the crowds are minimal. Toward the end of the show, many vendors offer discounts or bargains, so they don’t have to haul inventory home.

First Time Attendee Tips:
1. Walk through the barns and admire the stall decorations. Some of the barn setups are so incredible and go way beyond stall curtains.
2. Eat a cinnamon roll from the Sweet Shop. It is open 24 hours and is close to the Celeste.
3. Sit and watch the practice arenas, even if it is brief. You never know who you’ll see warming up, and you may even pick up a tip or two.


You’ve attended the Congress many times, but this is your first time showing. Envisioning standing at the cone in the Cooper arena or trotting in against the white walls in the Celeste brings on thoughts of nervousness mixed with anticipation and bliss. Showing at this prestigious horse show is overwhelming enough, but throw in the weather, the commotion and sheer size of the show, and it is easy to feel bewildered.

We asked some Congress regulars for their advice to first-timers. Accomplished youth exhibitor Hayley Riddle said, “The Congress has more people, more vendors, and a lot more horses than the average show and it will be easy to feel very small. Always remember that your horse doesn’t know it’s the Congress, they only know it is just another show with a lot of scary things to look at. Try not to get stressed.”

Having your horse properly prepared is one of the main concerns when showing at the Congress. The ever-changing weather, the limited areas of practice and the number of exhibitors and horses can make it challenging to prepare properly. Hayley agreed, “Every pen will be so packed with horses and riders, you’ll feel like you can’t get anything done because you’re too busy dodging everyone, but you’ll learn how to work around it. Just know that you can’t have your horse too worked down because either the noise from the surroundings or the weather will wake him back up. If you have to push them, then you’re winning.”

Staying focused on yourself and your horse and remembering that you’ve been preparing all year is also good to remember when showing at the Congress for the first time. Taking good care of your horse and yourself is another essential key to putting on your best performance when it is show time. Knowing when to rest can be difficult or seem unnecessary, but it is essential. AQHA Trainer Farley McLendon advises, “Sleep when you can. Late night preparations, showing jitters, shopping and the overall excitement will wear on a person. Also, rent a golf cart or bring a bike. Your feet will thank you.”

First Time Exhibitor Tips:
1. Bring a variety of clothing and prepare for any season of weather. It can be 40 degrees and rainy one day and 80 and sunny the next.
2. The Congress Crud is real. Stay healthy by resting and eating well as much as possible.
3. Stay patient and calm when practicing. You will probably have to wait in line to longe and likely be riding in the middle of the night. Keep your cool and keep your preparations positive.

No matter how long you go, why or what you do when you get there, the Congress has so much to offer. Make the most of it by sticking to your plan, being prepared and making great memories. And Farley reminds all first-timers, “Have fun and enjoy the ride.”


About the Author: Julie Hoefling was born and raised in Akron, Michigan but now resides in Cave Creek, Arizona with her husband, Jerry. She works at Kahala Brands as a Director of Marketing. Julie shows her horse, Shady Impulse, in the Novice Amateur Western All-Around events under the guidance of Ryan and Andrea Kail.