Tips For Showing With IHSA

Riding in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association shows while you are in college is a great way to hone your skills as a rider. It’s great for the riders with or without their own personal horse to get a chance to ride as many horses as possible. It is very demanding as the riders only get to watch their potential mounts warm up in the morning, and without any warmup themselves,  go in and show.

Their first time they get to pick up the reins is when they are walking into the arena for their flat or jump class and they are immediately getting judged.

The ability to figure out your horse quickly and keep your cool are important.  Along with effective riding you must make it look effortless. Here I have put together some tips for doing well in IHSA (and also Interscholastic Equestrian Association) shows.

Before the show:

Ride as many horses as you can.  If your barn only has a couple trusty steeds then reach out to bigger programs to see if they have space for to lesson. Ask the instructor to put you on a different horse each time. 

Ride as much as you can.  This is hard with all the other demands in college, but more time in the saddle pays off.

During your lessons practice position work. No stirrups, sitting trot, two point, ride with one hand, have a lunge lesson (no stirrups and no reins if possible on a trusty steed) are all great ways to improve your position. You can also ride over pole exercises, which help to establish a quality canter, pace, and your eye for jumping courses. Also, do gymnastic jumping for better position over fences.

Hit the gym. Second best thing to riding is good ol’ fashioned exercise. Get in a routine that includes strength training, cardio, and stretching.

Auditing lessons.  Watch other lessons, learn what to do and what not to do. Not much time? YouTube! Watch as many good YouTube videos on horses, riding, and teaching.

At the show:

Watch warmups and take notes. Watching warmups are not mandatory but you can glean a lot of information from them, your notes don’t have to be extensive.  Small things like simple lead changes instead of flying lead changes, on the forehand, hollow, drifts left, lazy, sensitive, spooky, jumps big, or runs into the canter are all very important things to know if you draw that horse.

Visualize your perfect ride. Unless you are the first to go, you should have time to burn. So take that time to visualize what you want to happen during your ride. If you are jumping, go over the course in your head as if you are on the perfect horse having the perfect ride. Visualize great transitions, distances, turns, position, etc.

Warm yourself up and stretch before you get on.  Your horse will be warmed up but you will have been sitting around.  After you draw your horse and before you get on take the time to warm your muscles up and then stretch a bit.  Half squats (hands forward that mimic two point), arm circles, and jumping jacks will get your blood pumping. Toe touches to stretch your legs and arm swings to open up your chest are all great things to do before you get on. If you know you are tight in a certain area, focus on that.

Finish your warmup on the horse. Once you are on and waiting for your turn take your feet out of your stirrups and draw circles with your toes – this will warm up your ankles. Then, bring one foot up at a time as if you are pedaling a bike, this will warmup your hip flexors.  Use this time to get yourself ready.

On the horse:

Have mental checklists. Mental checklists for your position and for your horse. 

For you, the rider start at your head and work down:

Eyes up

Head centered

Shoulders back

Flat back

Core engaged

Bend your elbow

Thumbs up

Soft knees

Heels down

Toes forward

Et cetera

….If you know you have one bad habit then revisit that one more often.

Then move on to the horse:

Even contact with the reins

Responding to the leg and seat

Responding to my half halts

Quality gaits




Et cetera

React. After your quick checklist assessment of your horse then react to what the horse needs.  Hopefully you have ridden a horse similar to the one you are on and can put some tools you have learned in your lessons to work. You are being judged two-fold – how effective of a rider you are and how good you look doing it.

Breathe.  Hum to yourself, have a mantra, count, something that centers you so the show nerves fall away and all that is left is you and your horse and the task at hand. Get in the arena, take a deep breath, let it out, and shine!

After the show:

Reflect and improve.  Have a teammate or parent record your round if possible. Not your coach, they will be trying to help you from the rail if possible. No matter how good or bad you felt the ride was, watch it later. Learn from it (you will find that it generally looks way better than it felt if you didn’t have a good round). At your next lesson sit down with your coach for a plan to improve for the next one.

Happy Riding!