Part 2: Show the Arabian Sport Horse Under Saddle

Photos by Morgan Moore

One of the fastest growing disciplines in the Arabian world right now is the sport horse arena. Sport horse classes were developed to evaluate and encourage the breeding of Arabian and Half-Arabian horses suitable for dressage, working hunter, eventing, jumper, combined driving, and competitive trail and endurance. Form to function will be emphasized over sheer brilliance of performance — these horses are “using” horses. The judges are carded for one of the sport horse divisions and are generally not Arabian/Half-Arabian judges, so you get a completely different perspective than you do in the main ring. Because of this, there are a few things that are judged and seen a bit differently than you may be used to if you show in the main ring performance disciplines. I hope this article will provide you a bit of insight on what they are looking for in the sport horse under saddle classes.

Hunter vs. Dressage Style

If you have the option of choosing either style and your horse can cross enter either way, then there are a few guidelines to help you choose your horse’s strong point. You can learn about the specific judge at the competition you are next attending and cater to that person’s chosen preference of style. If you are showing under multiple judges, perhaps one of each style, then you should present your horse in the discipline he best represents.


The Half-Arabian mare WC Jamaica Jamaal (Jake Jamaal JCA x WC Enya Dreams) showing proper frame.


Dressage judges will severely penalize horses who are behind the vertical and tight in the back.

Hunter judges are going to look for a low sweeping and balanced stride with a powerful hind end that stays nicely underneath the horse, and a long, ground-covering stride. Hunter-type horses will naturally carry a longer, more level looking frame, with a more relaxed headset. They should be steady on the bit but not necessarily at the vertical. These horses will be akin to the hunter under saddle horses you would see in the hunter/jumper shows, or what non-Arabian people think of as a hunter; a horse who is ready to go over a fence at any time.

Dressage judges will look for more suspension in the stride with a lot of overstep, some loft in the frame and knee action in the canter, and a more uphill, connected frame, generally on or slightly in front of the vertical. Dressage judges will place a lot of emphasis on the walk, looking for a rhythmic, relaxed and forward gait and will severely penalize horses who are behind the vertical and tight in the back. Generally this would be the ideal style for a “main ring” hunter pleasure horse to cross enter into as their higher-set neck, deeper flexion of the poll, and free, elastic movement tending toward an uphill balance will be what the dressage judge wants to see. Just be sure not to pull him in behind the vertical.

Another thing to consider is a dressage judge will generally base their opinion on the horse’s strength and overall quality of gaits, while a hunter judge may prefer a tight performance and plainer mover. Shows have the option of splitting the class into hunter-type and dressage-type, but generally they are combined and you have to choose which discipline will help your horse best stand out.

Tack and Equipment

It is recommended that you wear the attire to match the tack you are riding in. 

• Whips (of legal dressage length) are allowed, even at Regional and National competitions.

• ASTM approved headgear is not required. 

• Kimberwick bits and double bridles are forbidden. If using a Pelham, no converter is allowed and two reins are required. 

• Cavessons are required, flashes are permissible with snaffle bits.

• Martingales are not allowed.

• Braiding is optional (but recommended). 

• Hunter-style: You will use hunter tack and clothes that you would normally use in those respective classes: light-colored breeches, short riding coat of conservative color, with tie or choker, boots or smooth leather half-chaps, and hunt cap or protective headgear. 

• Dressage-style: White or light-colored breeches, short riding coat of conservative color, with tie, choker or stock tie, boots, a hunt cap, derby, top hat or protective headgear. 

In the Ring

If you have shown main ring, you will be familiar with the class procedures. Enter counterclockwise at the trot. Walk, trot, canter, and reverse will be called. Judge may asked for a lengthening of stride in any gait and may ask for a reinback in the lineup.

The judging criteria for sport horse under saddle are, in order:


The Half-Arabian gelding Toombstone (Lucky Sol Moon x Mariah Montana) shows in the discipline of dressage, typically judged on strength and overall quality of gaits.


Hunter-type judges look for a low sweeping and balanced stride with a powerful hind end that stays nicely underneath the horse, and a long, ground-covering stride. Hunter-type horses will naturally carry a longer, more level looking frame, with a more relaxed headset. Pictured here is the Half-Arabian mare Zip Me Im Skareemin (HR El Kareem x Zippos Michelle).

 Performance — This translates to “purity and quality of gaits.” Does the horse track underneath himself and push himself from behind? Is the dressage horse showing a tendency toward uphill in his carriage and frame? Is the hunter horse carrying himself in a natural, relaxed frame with obvious balance and power? Is there suspension in his stride? Does his back swing freely as he moves? Does he show tension in the bridle or go behind the vertical? Is he champing at the bit excessively or swishing his tail indicating irritation or a lack of willingness? All of these things and more will affect this first criterion.

Manners — Does he take the correct lead when asked? Canter from the walk without trotting in between? Does he stay in frame and maneuver through traffic? Walk calmly without anticipating further cues? Accept the bit and stay in frame without undue resistance or head tossing? Stand nicely in the lineup? Readily and willingly obey the rider’s cues?

Conformation — Is he built to do the job we are asking of him? Does he present a pleasant appearance as he goes around in frame or does he look awkward under tack due to imbalanced conformation? Is he so knock-kneed and cow hocked it’s a miracle he can make it around the ring at all, much less a jump course? 

Suitability as a Sport Horse — You might have the best mannered, prettiest mover in the class, but if he is trotting over level with his tail flipped over his back trotting laps around everyone else out there, perhaps he is more suited to the English disciplines.

Quality — That indefinable and sometimes controversial characteristic we call quality. It is a degree of excellence that we all strive to attain comparing your horse to the ideal standard. A well-bred horse with strong breed characteristics, fine skin, shiny coat, overall good basic conformation and appearance with a classy and charismatic attitude, with an overall bearing that grabs your attention.


Innate quality movement is a priority in the Sport Horse classes. All gaits should be pure in rhythm, and should be without tension or resistance.


Regular and unconstrained, forward and ground covering. Let your body move relaxed with your horse’s movement and encourage him to relax his back and swing freely as he moves. His head should be in the same frame he carries at all gaits, but since his head will naturally bob slightly with his movement, you should allow your fingers and elbows to stay relaxed and following so he doesn’t feel restricted in his motion. 


Free, active, and regular in cadence. Balanced and elastic with a supple back and engaged hindquarters. You don’t want the horse to be heavy on the forehand, pulling himself along —instead he should be light or balanced in the front and driving well underneath himself from behind, enabling him to cover ground in an athletic-looking manner. Tension in the back will show up with swishing tail, tight and constrained neck, tendency to go behind the vertical and with poll-low in the bridle and an unpleasant expression on his face.


Light in step (not thundering down the rail like a freight train), cadenced and rhythmic with a suitable tempo and springy impulsion. Transitions should be willing and balanced. While the horse is traveling on straight lines, his hindquarters should not swing in or out. Sit nicely in the saddle and let the horse carry you around the arena; stay forward and look up so as to avoid traffic and keep yourself in a visible yet safe location. Let your elbows stay relaxed and follow the motion of his canter while keeping your hips loose yet staying strong through your core. Restricting his movement too much with either your hands or seat will change the natural regularity of his gaits, causing tension in his frame and back that translates to inverted transitions and a lateral or stiff gait.

Lengthening of Stride

When a lengthening of stride is requested at walk, trot, or canter, the horse should maintain rhythm, regularity and balance, while reaching forward with the frame and stride. The rider should maintain contact with the bit, while allowing the lengthening. The strides should be more ground covering with increased push from behind and the horse should remain calm and supple.


Dressage-type judges look for suspension in the stride with a lot of overstep, some loft in the frame, and knee action in the canter, and a more uphill, connected frame, generally on or slightly in front of the vertical. Pictured here is Assante NS (Alixir x Ambianse).


Calm, obedient, straight, lifting feet in two-beat diagonal pairs without dragging or shuffling.


There are basic principles to any group rail class that are helpful to follow to make sure you get noticed. If you have ever sat on the rail and watched a large class, you will always note that you did not see every horse in the class. Your friend saw mistakes someone made that you did not see, and a horse might have won that you didn’t even see at all! So how can you become the one that did get noticed?

Stay out of crowds — especially in a big class, try to find your own spot where you will be visible and can ride your own ride. Look up and stay aware of your surroundings, cut the corner if needed, cut across the arena if it is especially crowded where you are, and it won’t endanger anyone else’s ride if you do so. Plan your reverse to put you in a path of clearness, not into a load of traffic.

Stay off the rail — If you have a fancy horse and are pretty confident of putting on a good ride, stay off the rail where you might blend in and become invisible. Make it easy for the judge to find you. This does not mean that you should make little longing-sized circles around the judge, annoying him and making him hope never to see your horse again. But stay visible, keep your presence noticed — while not jeopardizing anyone else’s ride.

Plan your transitions — if your horse has a bad canter transition to the right, get back on the rail and perhaps behind a crowd when you anticipate the canter being called. You’ll have a better chance of not being noticed if it takes you a couple of strides of trot or a quick head toss to get your transition.

Set yourself up for success — If you know there is a phenomenal moving horse out there and yours is nice but not spectacular, do your best to stay away from that horse. Try not to let that judge have an easy comparison, where your horse might fall short. If you can, place yourself by a nice but not as nice horse as yours where your quality will show through.

Be confident — Your expression, bearing, and appearance will shine through if you are confident you are on the winning horse AND having fun out there. The judge will note the relaxed, confident, and happy aura you exude, versus the rider whose head is down, focused 100% on the horse lest it make a tiny mistake. Which horse would you rather ride? Probably the one that looks like FUN. That’s what this is all about, right?

Sport horse under saddle is a great class to get out there in a lower pressure environment and get a different judge’s opinion on the quality of your horse’s gaits and suitability as a sport horse, to get your dressage or jumping horse some experience in the ring with several other horses in a disciplined class, and to compete with your friends on a fairly level playing field, judging form to function, rideability and potential athleticism in a fun and supportive atmosphere. Get him fit, become a team together and have some fun!

About the Author: Wendye Gardiner runs Solstice Training Center, LLC, in Aubrey, Texas, where she trains, markets, sells, and shows to the National level in several disciplines with many Regional and National wins in sport horse and dressage. She was the 2012 Region 9 sport horse/dressage trainer of the year. Twenty years of experience and wonderful opportunities to work with some of the best names in the business have given her the ability to individualize her training perspective to each particular horse, and she loves to teach interested people how to do it themselves!

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