I’ve been saving up since graduating college last spring, and a few weeks ago, I was finally able to buy my own horse to show in the AQHA all-around events. I did 4H and open shows as a kid and rode IHSA in college, but this is my first “real” show horse and I couldn’t be more excited. However, as we horse people know, showing comes with a hefty price tag. Here are some things I’ve learned to do that can make horse shows a bit easier on your wallet.

1. Make a Budget and Prioritize

This is an absolute must. Early in the year (or a few month before your season starts) look at the calendar and determine which shows you really want to go to, which ones you’d like to try to attend if time and money allow, and which ones are just plain unfeasible. Figure out how much you have to spend and which shows are the best bang for your buck. Of course, this will depend on your individual goals for the year. For me, this means looking at which shows have historically had higher class numbers and prioritizing those because I want to be able to earn as many points as I can per show. It doesn’t make sense for me to go to a show where there are usually only 5-6 people per class, because there aren’t many points to be earned. Others may value certain shows for their small class numbers or for the atmosphere, awards, exhibitor parties, etc.. Usually, you can find the premium list on the show’s website, so you can add up all the fees and figure out almost exactly how much the show will cost you. If you are going with a trainer, ask them how much they charge for hauling, day fees and extras if you don’t already know. Knowing how much each show will cost you beforehand will eliminate any nasty surprises when you go to check out at the end of the weekend. Also, take advantage of pre-entering! Most shows will offer a little discount for pre-entries, and usually you don’t have to send a check in with your paperwork so there’s no risk if for some reason you have to cancel. This will also save you time and stress when you arrive at the horse show.

2. Get to Know the Show Management

When I first started showing at AQHA shows in New England a few years ago on a leased horse, I made a point to always be friendly and offer help to the show management. Now I am on the Board of Directors in my state’s AQHA affiliate. Obviously the organizational structure varies in different associations, but getting involved in the community allows you to network and meet new people, and you never know what opportunities may arise from that. A few years ago, a show manager contacted me and asked if I would be interested in running the gate at our annual 3-day Novice Show (which I wasn’t planning on showing at anyway) for $150 a day. I agreed, made a little extra money, and now I have worked my way up to being a Ring Steward at a few shows throughout the year. I plan on continuing to do this at the shows where I’m not showing my horse; it’s a great way to offset your costs while at the same time learning a TON from the judges you work with and being around all your horse show friends.

3. Learn to Braid and Band

This is something I plan on practicing over the winter when it’s too cold to do much riding. There are plenty of braiding and banding videos and tutorials out there, and maybe even people at your barn that are willing to help you learn. It might take awhile to get good enough to braid professionally, but if you can get the techniques down and build up a good reputation then you can make some serious side money at horse shows. My trainer charged $60 to braid a mane and $30 for a tail, and would sometimes do 10 or more horses at a show. If nothing else, you will save yourself the cost of someone doing it for you.

4. Shop Used, but High Quality Tack and Clothes

It can be hard sometimes not to be jealous of other people’s super fancy saddles and jackets. Don’t let yourself get discouraged thinking you’ll never be able to afford what other people have; instead, work towards saving up for high-quality equipment that will last you for years.
Luckily for me, plain fitted shirts are “in” right now in the western world. I have one well-fitted shirt that I use as a base for my show wardrobe, and I plan to add a few more pieces for color coordination when I can afford to do so. I also have a secondhand but pretty high-end saddle that I use for schooling and showing at small to mid-size shows. Don’t be afraid to shop consignment or even borrow things if you have someone willing to help you out. There have been numerous articles written in which judges admit that clean, well-fitting clothes flattering a rider’s figure can be just as attractive as the “super blinged out” outfits, sometimes even more so. When it comes to show clothes, sometimes less is truly more.

5. Pre-plan Your Meals for the Show

Horse show food is notoriously unhealthy and expensive, so bringing your own can help you not only save money but eat better, too. It takes a little planning, but you can fill a cooler before you leave for less than half of what you would pay to eat at the food both all weekend. I like to make protein muffins or overnight oatmeal for breakfast, and chicken and pasta salad for dinner. I also bring a loaf of bread and some cold cuts for lunches during the day. I’ll grab some granola bars and fresh veggies and hummus for snacks and I’m all set for a weekend at a horse show.
If I’m camping away from our stalls and know I’ll be busy for most of the day, I’ll usually bring a smaller lunchbox with ice packs and the next meal with me and stash it in the tack room in the morning. That way I’m not tempted when I walk by the food booth with a growling stomach.

6. Get Creative with Travel and Accommodations

Gas is expensive. Hotels are expensive. If you don’t haul your horses to shows, make friends with people in your area and see if you can haul together and split the cost. If you’re with a trainer, ask around to see if any of the other clients want to split a hotel room with you—maybe someone has an extra spot in their camper or trailer. Or, if you’re really on a budget, just camp out in the back of your car or truck. This may seem crazy, but seriously, a few times I’ve put a sleeping bag in the back seat of my car and toughed it out for a few nights. It’s not like I’m spending much time sleeping anyways, and that way I avoid paying for a hotel or even a camping fee. I just park in a secure area, lock the doors and bring an eye mask and ear plugs. The funny part is, I’ve had many people tell me that they started out doing the same thing.

Bottom Line

Horse showing is expensive, but for many of us it’s a dream that we’re not willing to give up. Don’t be afraid to do whatever you need to do to make it work.

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