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The Unwritten Rules of Horse Show Etiquette – with Deanna Willis

Deanna Willis provides important reminders for navigating a horse show safely, respectfully and with proper etiquette.

The show season is in full swing and now is the perfect time for a refresher on horse show etiquette. Often times people become familiar with these “unwritten rules” by breaking them and paying the consequences. We want to spare you the embarrassment and lay them all out.

We spoke with multiple World and Congress Champion non-pro competitor Deanna Willis (who now can add “trainer’s wife” to the long list of her experiences in the industry) to get her advice on show etiquette rules that will ensure you navigate your classes withclass.

Avoiding Disaster in the Warm Up Pen
One of the most oft-joked about centers of chaos at shows is the infamous warm up pen. Here is the closest many present-day riders will get to participating in a jousting match. But, it doesn’t have to feel that way…if you follow Willis’ pearls of wisdom.


It is important to remember, when it comes to horses, “Left is best and right is…not right.” We mount on the left. We lead from the left. And the left is the most important side to remember in the warm up pen.

Specifically, if you need to pass a horse head-on, it is proper etiquette to pass left shoulder to left shoulder (knowing this should help you avoid an unwanted game of chicken). If you are needing to pass a horse going in the same direction as you, always try to pass the slower horse to their left. Never pass between a horse and the rail as that could set up a very dangerous situation – especially if the horse you are passing decides to kick out.

“Always look up and be attentive in the warm up pen,” Willis emphasizes. “No matter how focused you are on your upcoming class, you must always be mindful of your surroundings. Just because you may know the proper etiquette rules, doesn’t mean everyone else does.”


Round Pen Ground Rules
Round pens are another common area for heated exchanges. How long do you longe? Is turnout allowed when there is a long line? Don’t worry, we have the answers.

When it comes to longing, the rules can be a little grey. “Every horses preparation protocol is unique,” Willis reminds us. I don’t think it’s fair to say there is a maximum amount of time to longe per se. If you waited your turn in line, you are entitled to time in the round pen in order to properly prepare your horse.

“However, it is really important to be mindful of others and to use your good judgement.

If you anticipate your horse will need a lot of longing time, it may be best to warn those around you so they can make a better call about whether it is worth sticking around.

Turnout is often necessary for young horses that aren’t being ridden in order for them to get rid of excess energy. However, not every show ground has turnout areas – in some instances, all you have is a round pen. In these situations, it is imperative that you (1) never leave a horse unattended while turning them out, (2) always leave a halter on the gate, and (3) be mindful of the timing of your turnout – try to time it when round pens are less in demand.


Interactions with Judges
Most people are afraid to have any contact whatsoever with judges, fearing the appearance of impropriety. And this is a good thing.

“It is definitely not acceptable to talk to a judge while they are judging at a horse show you are competing at,” Willis says firmly.

However, if you are passing by, I do not think it’s inappropriate to say hello, otherwise it would seem rude to pass someone and ignore them. Common politeness should never be a problem – it is when the niceties extend to conversations that it becomes an issue. Generally, it is best to avoid speaking to judges during the competition – even when you know them personally.”

Don’t be a Sore Loser
The golden rule applies to horse shows – treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Everyone wants their moment in the sun and we are all trying to avoid failure – and everybody will experience both in their show career.

I definitely do not like being around ‘mean girls’ or being hateful to others in any situation, regardless of how frustrated one may be,” Willis explains.

We are all trying to do the same thing and we all know how much work goes into competing at a high level. It is important to keep that in mind and be kind to your fellow competitors. Kindness will get you farther and make you a more successful exhibitor.

Willis admits, “It is human nature to get frustrated from time-to-time in any sport. In these situations, try to stay quiet, calm down before reacting in the moment, and, once you’ve cooled off, talk with your trainer about how you can better yourself.

Nothing is more disappointing than someone who either thinks they can’t improve at all or who doesn’t take accountability for their mistakes. You are the only person who can make you better. Your trainers are amazing tools to help you, but if you don’t want it, they can’t want it for you. If you take accountability for your faults and making improvements, you will be on your way to success.”

Be the Barn-Mate You Want to Show With
Being a good barnmate is just being a good human,” Willis chuckles. Help someone when you can and pull your weight around the stalls. There is always something that can be done at the show. See how you can help each other and, if you don’t know what to do, ask. It never hurts to ask people if they need help.”

Often times, the best part of showing is spending time with beloved horses and friends. If you foster an environment around the stalls where people can feel included and enjoy their horse, chances are, your barn will be one where everyone enjoys showing.

Cheer on your teammates when you can, clean up after yourself, and offer your help to those in need. These small things often become big things when building relationships with barnmates.

Treat Your Horse with Kindness and Respect
While horses may understand the horse show environment, they don’t understand the money you spent, your desire to win, or the pressure you put on a pattern. They just know whether they feel safe, scared, frustrated, in pain etc. – they react to inthemoment feelings and needs.

Therefore, it is important to realize that they don’t understand their failures in the context that you do. It is imperative to not let your frustrations get the best of you by taking them out on your horse. After all, you couldn’t do any of this without them.

Willis also reminds us that horse showing is hard work for our horses.

Treat your horses like the athletes they are,” she advises. We all know how our bodies start to feel after being at a horse show for weeks at a time, just imagine how they are feeling.

I always take better care of my horses than I do myself. I utilize the salt water spa trailers, pulse machine providers, and our Sports Innovations blankets. I also like to poultice wrap my horses at night at the shows.

If they aren’t feeling their best, it’s hard for them to perform their best.”


In short, when at horse shows, a little respect goes a long way. Respect safety rules. Respect people’s time. Respect the judges’ roles. Respect your fellow competitors and barn mates. And most of all…respect your horse.

About the Author: Megan Rechberg is a World Champion pleasure horse enthusiast who works as a full-time mom, part-time litigation attorney, and owner/operator of Bred N Butter Equine Management – a company that focuses on social media management for stallions, consulting, and sales and breeding contracts. She currently shows her APHA filly SmoreThanAPrettyFace under the guidance of Double A Performance Horses.
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