Show-Day Turnout Tips

The manager of a top hunter/jumper barn, who also is a judge and competitor, explains how to make sure you and your horse shine when you step into the show ring.
Carol “Hoffy” Hoffman and Avenue Blue, whom she shows in the Amateur-Owner division, are ready to step into the show ring. He has a gleaming coat, clean and well-fitting tack and saddle pad, and neat braids. Hoffy is dressed in clean, neat, well-fitting and conservative attire. This ensures that all of the judge’s focus is on the horse, where it should be. | Nancy Jaffer

Your horse is fit, your lessons have been right on point and your confidence level is high as you trot into the show ring. But did you forget something? Could that be dust on your boots? Is your saddle pad less than pristine? What about the gunk on your horse’s bit? 

Turnout—the way you and your horse look—may be the last thing you consider, but overlooking it is a mistake. “Turnout is what gives you the edge to be a winner. It’s about attention to detail,” says Carol “Hoffy” Hoffman, a U.S. Equestrian Federation R hunter and hunter seat equitation judge who also is a successful hunter exhibitor. “When I’m judging, I get an initial impression of the way the horse and rider are turned out, their attention to detail.

“I make a note of it, and it can be a tiebreaker. It’s the overall picture—a winner looks like a winner.” Good turnout demonstrates “respect for the sport, respect for the horse, respect for yourself and respect for the judge,” she adds, noting that both the horse and rider are athletes.

The manager of Market Street in Frenchtown, New Jersey, where she is a partner and co-founder with Olympic show-jumping medalist Anne Kursinski, Hoffy has officiated at many of the country’s biggest shows, including the National Horse Show and the Devon Horse Show. She previously worked with Patty Heuckeroth and Gene Cunningham, both members of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, and is respected for the meticulous way Market Street is run. 

“I think people can ride better when they’re turned out well because they feel better about themselves,” she says. “Riding is such a mental game anyway.”

There are many aspects to aesthetically pleasing, safe turnout: Avenue Blue’s martingale is adjusted properly and the strap between his legs is not dangerously looping. The saddle is sitting behind his withers so it doesn’t make them sore and limit his shoulders’ range of motion. The reins are over his head so Hoffy can hold the entire length of them and the stirrups are run up so they can’t get caught on anything. | Nancy Jaffer

Hoffy also contends that when a horse is turned out well, he performs better. Michael Matz always used to say that, too, she remarks.

While looks are important, good turnout goes beyond that. Hoffy explains point by point what to do to make sure tack fits and is adjusted properly, which ensures the safety of you and your horse. She also advises how to come up with an overall picture that is pleasing and correct for hunters and jumpers both at the show and in a clinic. Of course, first things first—always make sure your tack is in good repair, the leather supple, not cracked, and the stitching intact.

Before getting into turnout for specific disciplines, there are a few points that pertain to any horse-and-rider turnout, whether you are showing in hunters, equitation or jumpers:

  • Your horse’s coat needs to shine, which comes from good nutrition and lots of daily grooming. 
  • He should be trimmed, including his coronary bands, muzzle and ears so there are no stray hairs. If his coat is long, he should be clipped.
  • The tack needs to be clean and conditioned, the bit and your spurs should be polished and your attire should be clean and well-fitting.
  • Have an expert correctly fit the saddle and make sure to place it properly when you tack up. Nine times out of 10, the saddle is too far forward, creating sore withers and limiting your horse’s range of shoulder motion. It needs to be just behind the withers.
Avenue Blue’s neatly braided mane shows off his neck and makes him look elegant. The noseband sits just under his large cheek bone. The keepers are pinched so the cheekpieces won’t get loose. | Nancy Jaffer
Hoffy recommends keeping your horse’s braided tail neat with a bandage so he doesn’t rub out the braids between classes. | Nancy Jaffer
WRONG: The browband is crooked, the noseband is too low, the bit is too high and the keepers are not pinched down, leaving loose, distracting ends. The martingale strap is dangerously loose and the stirrup irons could get caught on something. | Nancy Jaffer
Before getting your horse ready for a jumper class, organize and lay out your tack, from saddle and belly guard to ear bonnet, boots and saddle pad. | Nancy Jaffer
Motto is a jumper and doesn’t have to be braided like a hunter, but his mane is neatly pulled and Hoffy is dressed as neatly and appropriately as when she rides in the hunter divisions. | Nancy Jaffer
Rectangular saddle pads are acceptable in the jumper ring. This one is adjusted so the saddle is sufficiently above the center of the pad and the cantle does not rest on the seam, which could make the horse’s back sore. | Nancy Jaffer

Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation

Hunters and equitation classes are judged subjectively so when riding in them, you want to make a good first impression.

  • Braid your horse’s mane and tail neatly. Braiding started with a foxhunting tradition, designed so the horse’s mane and tail would not catch on brambles. In the ring, it gives neat look that shows off the horse’s conformation. For his mane, make sure there are enough braids so his neck looks elegant. If you can’t braid, hire a braider and learn how to do it properly. A bad braid job is a distracting eyesore.
  • Keep your horse’s braided tail neat with a bandage so he doesn’t rub out the braids between classes.
  • Make sure the cheekpieces on the bridle are properly pinched down so the keepers don’t slide. Pinch the ends between your thumb and forefinger so they stay in place. If they slip, the cheekpiece may begin flapping, a distraction for you, your horse and the judge.
  • Adjust the throatlatch so you are able to get four fingers between the leather and your horse’s throat. It shouldn’t be too tight, which is uncomfortable for the horse, or hanging too low, which can distract the judge.
  • Adjust the noseband so it lies just below the maxilla, which is the big bone on your horse’s cheek.
  • With the help of your trainer, properly adjust the standing martingale, which has one strap that is looped through the noseband under the horse’s jaw. Its placement is different for every horse. The martingale is on the long side if you can raise it with your hand and it touches your horse’s throat. At that length, it could flap around when he is jumping, which is distracting. 
  • Correctly adjust the two keepers at the end of the martingale or breastplate strap that runs between your horse’s legs. The first keeper on that strap should be slid forward, up against the buckle, while the second keeper is slid back against the girth. Be careful that strap stays flat against your horse’s skin and doesn’t loop because his shoe can get caught in it when he’s jumping. In the worst-case scenario, he will not be able to unfold his legs and could crash.
  • Use a well-fitting, white fleece saddle pad, appropriate for hunter and equitation classes, that just rims the saddle so only about 2 inches show. After putting the saddle on the pad, pull the pad up into the pommel so it clears the withers and doesn’t press on the horse’s back. 
  • Whenever you are leading or standing with your tacked-up horse, bring the reins over his head so you can hold the entire length of them and have more control. Don’t loop them over his neck as they are when you’re mounted. Also keep your stirrups run up, instead of down, until you are ready to mount. If the horse reaches back to go after a fly, the bit could get caught in stirrups if they’re down. 
When putting on jumper boots, start with them high on the cannon bone, then slide them down to where they fit comfortably over the horse’s fetlock. | Nancy Jaffer
WRONG: To lead a jumper wearing a running martingale, if you loop the shank through the bit and clip it back to the bottom ring of the chain… | Nancy Jaffer
…it creates an opening where the horse can put his leg. This also can happen if you run the shank through both sides of the bit and clip it to the bottom ring (inset). For safety, clip the lead to one side of the bit. | Nancy Jaffer

Jumpers and Jumping Seat Equitation 

Though jumpers are judged objectively, rather than subjectively, turnout is just as important for that discipline as well, Hoffy says. Proper turnout “raises the level. Look at the top riders—they present their horses and themselves perfectly.” Whether you’re trying for a spot on a Nations’ Cup squad or international team or just riding in a local show, people notice and admire a horse and rider who look sharp. Team selectors and “people who count notice attention to detail—the proper way of doing things—whether it’s how your tack fits or how your horse is turned out. It says a lot about you,” Hoffy points out.

  • If a horse isn’t braided, don’t let his mane flop to both sides, which looks messy. To train it, get elastic bands at a tack shop and with the mane wet, braid it on the right side and leave it in for two days only. Longer than two days could cause the hair to break off at the root.

    To maintain the horses’ manes at Market Street, they are brushed every day with wet rice-root brushes.

    Make sure the mane is short and tidy. If the mane is too long, it can get caught in the reins.

  • As with hunters, make sure the regular noseband is beneath the maxilla, doubly important when using a flash noseband. If the regular noseband sits too low, the flash will be too low and cut off the horse’s air. 
  • A running martingale, which is used for jumpers and is less restrictive than a standing martingale, has two straps with rings on the end that slip through the reins. The length is personal preference, but you can figure out an acceptable length by holding up the straps when they are not attached to the reins to see if they reach the withers. You can, however, go shorter but be careful not to overdo it. 
  • When you use a running martingale while you’re standing with your horse, make sure the reins are over his head, which is the opposite of how you handle the reins when using a standing martingale or no martingale. Attach a lead shank with a chain that is polished, not dull or rusted.
  • Rein stops, which prevent the running martingale rings from sliding up to the horse’s mouth and perhaps getting caught on the bit, should be adjusted so they are 4 to 6 inches from the bit; the exact amount is a matter of personal preference.
  • Re-cover rubber reins when they are worn or sticky. These reins give you a better grip when the rubber is fresh, and if they are sticky, you can’t get a proper grip because they will stick to your gloves.
  • If you are using a rectangular saddle pad, which is acceptable in the jumper ring where it can bear a logo and carry a number, make sure its middle seam is centered under the pommel and gullet and that the saddle is sufficiently above the pad so the cantle does not rest on the seam, making the horse’s back sore.
  • Make sure your stirrups are polished, not dull or rusty. More important, they must be large enough to enable your foot to easily slip out of them if you fall off so you can get away from the horse and don’t risk being dragged.
  • Buy properly fitting bell boots that are just short of the ground when the horse is standing still. Don’t buy bell boots that are too big around the rim or too long. Some people prefer them that way because they’re easier to pull on, but there is a risk the horse will step on them. If it takes some effort to put them on, they will protect the bulbs of the heel properly and keep the horse from pulling a shoe. Pull-on bellboots have a better chance of staying on than those that fasten with Velcro®.
  • Make sure the bell boots are intact before you put them on. If they look like someone took a bite out of them, the appearance is seedy.
  • Properly fitting shin boots need to be low enough to protect the entire tendon and reach to the bottom of the fetlock. Often, however, they’re adjusted too low, interfering with flexion of the fetlocks. Start out by putting them high on the cannon bone, then move them down until they’re in the right place, comfortably over the fetlock, before fastening them.
  • An ear bonnet should be straight between the horse’s eyes and the ears should fit neatly. The bonnet should not be bunched under the crownpiece, and the ears should not be too big, so he looks like Eeyore, or so they fold over at the tips.
  • Attach the lead shank to only one side of the bit so it doesn’t loop. If you run it through both sides and then clip it to the bottom loop of the chain, it creates an opening into which a horse could put his leg should he drop his head to rub his nose on his cannon bone. 
Before entering the ring, have someone wipe the slobber from your horse’s mouth and dust your boots, including the soles. | Nancy Jaffer
By paying attention to all of these small details, you’ll impress the judge from the start with your horsemanship skills. | Nancy Jaffer

Tips for the Rider

  • Riding boots that aren’t high enough look hokey. When the leather at the ankle drops and wrinkles, the boots should just cover the bone on the outside of your knee. At the other extreme, boots that are too high can fold and look sloppy. Today, you don’t necessarily need custom boots to be well-dressed because there are many good off-the-rack boots to fit a variety of leg shapes, sizes and heights.
  • Trim spur straps if they are too long. You don’t want more than an inch of strap after you put it through the buckle. Turning spur straps under the buckle to shorten them doesn’t look good.
  • Jacket length can be about mid-fanny or go to the bottom of your derriere when you’re standing up. It’s your preference, but the jacket should not be so long that it gets caught on the cantle.
  • Make sure the jacket is big enough and doesn’t gap to reveal your shirt between the buttons.
  • If you’re showing informally or at a clinic, wear a neat polo shirt or other collared shirt tucked in to your breeches. If you can’t tuck in your shirt, make sure it’s short enough that it doesn’t get caught on the cantle.
  • Women should not wear anything low-cut that shows cleavage. 
  • Stay away from hooded sweatshirts—they flop around if the hood is down or cut off peripheral vision if the hood is up.

Before Entering the Ring

For a clinic, you want your horse to be clean and your tack to be tidy and well fitting. You should be dressed in conservative attire and wear a collared shirt that is tucked in. | Nancy Jaffer

Have a helper:

  • Check that the keepers are still secure.
  • Wipe off your horse’s mouth.
  • Dust off your boots, including the soles.

By paying attention to these details, you will let the judge know that you are a serious competitor who cares for her horse and has entered the ring prepared to show off her horsemanship skills.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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