What You Should Know if You've Never Showed

Gem State gets it...

Your first cowhorse show can feel a little intimidating! We strive to be a friendly, welcoming organization that works to ease the transition in to cowhorse events for our new members. In keeping with that spirit, we’ve assembled this Primer for the New and Nervous! We’ll cover the basics of the rules, what to expect when you get to the show (it’s always nice to know where to park ahead of time!), how to enter, and more. We hope it helps ease the stress of getting started in the cowhorse.

Use the buttons below to jump to a specific section, or just scroll through. Let us know if we missed anything!

1. Parking and Checking In

Our May and July shows are held at the Idaho Horse Park in Nampa, ID. This map is marked with all the stuff you need to know, like parking, warmup arena, and more.

After you park, you’ll need to head to the show office to get checked in.  Our show secretary Nikki will have you sign a waiver and provide your SSN or Tax ID Number. This is required for tax purposes since show earnings count as income.

The show office opens at 6:30 the morning of the show.

2. Warming Up

The main arena will be open at 6:00. It’s a great idea to get your horse in the show pen ahead of time to get used to our sponsorship banners (side note: one of those could promote your business! Learn how) and any scary corners.

Warm up pen etiquette is important for both manners and safety. Go the same direction as the other riders, make sure you look behind you before stopping or slowing down, and find a place out of traffic to dismount, work on turnarounds, or put boots on. You’ll also want to watch for riders working on stops. For the most part, the person doing rundowns has the right of way.

You’ll be free to ride in the arena until 6:45 when we start settling cattle. The area outside the cutting pen will stay open as well. There is also a warm-up arena available for use throughout the show (see map above).

Depending on the size of the show, there will be breaks that allow you to get horses in the pen. Check the draw sheets ahead of time so you can be prepared for these breaks.

3. Rider's Meeting

Gem State is eliminating the Rider’s Meeting for 2019 to help cut down on time. Please review this guide and our rulebook before the show. We’ve added Heather Linder as our Show Manager for the year, and she’s available throughout the show to answer questions, find answers, and help with issues!

4. Draws

You’ll need to know when you’ll be showing! The draws will be posted on the website within a day or two of the show. They’ll also be available in the show office and are usually stapled up by the main entrance gate. If you can’t find them, the office staff and person at the gate during the show will have a copy or know where to find one. There will also be a whiteboard by the gate with draws that will be kept updated as people show.

Look for the name of your class, then find where you sit in the working order. It can be helpful to remember who is a couple draws ahead of you. That way, if you hear their names announced over the loudspeaker, you’ll know it’s almost your turn!

Pro tip: you can approximate how long until you show by counting up the runs and drags. Here’s how about how long everything takes:

Herd work run: 2 minutes 30 seconds
Cattle change: 15 minutes
Breaking down panels after herd work: 15 minutes
Reining only run: 3 minutes
Working the ground: 10 minutes
Reining + fence work: 4 minutes
Fence only: 2 minutes
Reining + boxing: 4 minutes

5. Your Run

When it’s close to time for your run, it’s best to head over towards the arena gate. Someone will be stationed at the gate to open and close it for you.

Herd Work:

If you’re showing an aged event horse in the herd, you’ll want to find turnback help before your run. You’ll need four people. Don’t be scared of asking someone to turn back for you! Trainers are (their own show schedule permitting) almost always willing to help in the herd, even if they don’t know you.

Rein/Boxing/Fence Work:

The gate person will open the gate once the cow from the run before is cleared out. Wait until the previous rider is at least mostly exited, then ride in the gate and start your reining pattern.

Download Pattern #2 Lope Away here

After you stop and back up, hesitate to complete your pattern. The cattle help will be ready to open the gate and let a cow into the arena. Ride up to where you’re comfortable starting your boxing and nod at the cattle help so they know you’re ready for your cow.

After your awesome run, exit the arena, then stop, dismount, and drop your horse’s bridle for the gate person. They’ll take a quick look to make sure it’s NRCHA legal and then you’re good to go.

1. What to Wear: Human

The basics:

Riders must wear a western hat, long-sleeved shirt, and riding boots. The wearing of chaps or chinks is optional in Greener Than Grass, Youth 9-11, Jr. Youth 12-15, and Little Buckaroo.

While the show is in progress a rider must wear a western hat or helmet and a long sleeve shirt in the show arena.

It’s not required and you won’t be penalized if you don’t follow this step, but it is considered a sign of respect for the judge, your fellow competitors, and the sport to present a clean, tidy appearance.

Also, if the weather necessitates it, you can wear a sweater, vest, or jacket over top of your western shirt.

2. What to Wear: Equine

Bit Rules: 

In short, horses in Futurity classes must be ridden in a smooth snaffle that’s at least 5/16″ when measured an inch from the break in the center of the bit. Derby horses may be ridden in a smooth snaffle or a hackamore. Hackamore horses must be ridden in a round leather or rawhide bosal with a non-metal core (the bit check person will check this with a magnet). Two Rein horses must have a bosal of any size and an NRCHA legal bridle.

Bridle Horsemust be shown in a spade bit or a bit that meets the following requirements:

  • Unbroken bar mouthpiece
  • 1″ or higher port
  • An operable cricket or roller
  • Cheeks of the bit must be connected at the bottom
  • No longer than 8.5″

Bridle horses also must be ridden in romal reins.

Another important note: chin straps must be smooth, flat leather that’s at least 1/2″ wide. No chain, rawhide, wire, etc. There can’t be any metal on the chin strap where it comes in contact with the horse. This include rivets and metal keepers!

Metal keepers and buckles are acceptable for snaffle bit horses. You can also use any width chin strap with a snaffle bit and it can also be made of a woven, non-leather material.

It’s definitely worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with the full bit rules in the NRCHA Rulebook.

Download the 2018 NRCHA Rulebook Here

Prohibited Equipment:

No tie-downs, saw tooth bits, hock hobbles, tack collars or tack hackamores. Any equipment that restricts the movement or circulation of the tail is also prohibited. NRCHA legal equipment must be ridden at all times while you’re at the show.

Broken Equipment:

If some piece of your tack fails while you’re showing, you’re allowed to continue as long as you’re not endangering yourself or your horse. If, for example, you break a rein during the reining, you’re allowed to dismount to fix it after you complete your pattern (not during!) and before you call for your cow. No one from outside the arena is allowed to enter or bring you replacement equipment. Sorry.

If your hat blows off, you’re also allowed to dismount to pick it up in between your reining and cow work, although most people just leave it until their entire run is complete.


Your horse must be ridden in a western saddle, but there aren’t rules regarding blankets or pads. You’ll definitely want a back cinch and a breast collar. Protective boots are a matter of personal preference. Most people go with splint boots, sport medicine boots, or polo wraps and bell boots plus skid boots.

Technically, your horse’s tail must be loose (as in, not in a knot or braid) before you ride into the show pen. Correction: it is not required in the NRCHA for your horse’s tail to be loose.

Just like with human apparel, it’s considered a sign of respect to the judge, your fellow competitors, and the sport to present a clean, well-groomed horse.

1. Ethics

Good horsemanship and stockmanship are the foundation of both Gem State and the NRCHA. This means that all contestants are held to a high standard when it comes to ethical, sportsmanlike conduct when dealing with their horses, the cattle, as well as the judge, management, and other contestants.


Not that you ever would, but please make sure to not to engage in any form of misconduct, harassment, or unsportsmanlike conduct towards other contestants, show management or Judges. 

It’s also important to remember to avoid conversing with the judge outside of rider’s meetings.


From NRCHA Rulebook section

THE NATIONAL REINED COW HORSE ASSOCIATION TAKES VERY SERIOUSLY THE WELFARE OF THESE GREAT HORSES THAT WE ARE DEVOTED TO. Inhumane treatment of a horse in any manner in the show arena, practice pen or on the show grounds is strictly prohibited.

Inhumane treatment of horses includes showing a lame, crippled, or injured horse that will cause the horse undue discomfort or stress. Abuse includes excessive whipping, spurring, jerking, or slapping.

Cattle are handled in accordance with the the NRCHA guidelines, as well as with the good stockmanship that is the foundation of our sport.

Read more about Gem State’s Ethics and Conduct requirements

Download the 2018 NRCHA Rulebook

2. Understanding the Rules

Take the time to read through Gem State’s online rulebook before the show! You should also download the NRCHA rulebook for a comprehensive guide. It’s your responsibility to be familiar with the rules before you get to the show.

If you’re confused about something, reach out to us before the show, or feel free to ask questions during the Rider’s Meeting, which is held before the start of each show.

3. Knowing When You Show

It’s up to you to make sure you’re at the gate and ready when it’s your turn. If you’re called for more than twice, the show will move on to the next person and your run will be scored a zero with no refund of your entry fee. Make sure to listen to the announcer and be ready!

We’re prioritizing efficiency for 2019 as we expect our shows to go long. Please do your part to be ready at the gate as we’ll be strictly enforcing our no-waiting policy!

1. Payouts

Where does the payout money come from? The purse for Gem State club shows comes from the $15 jackpot fee added to each entry. See breakdown of class fees.

How is it divided between horses? If a club show class has 10 horses entered, the available purse will be $150 (10 horses X $15 each Jackpot).

A ten horse class pays the top five holes.

First place wins 30% of the purse ($45), 2nd gets 25% ($37.50), 3rd gets 20% ($30), 4th gets 15% ($22.50), and 5th gets 10% ($15).

How is the July NRCHA show different? Gem State uses the NRCHA payout rules for our July show. This means that the payouts are based on the number of horses shown in a class, which determines the number of placings that pay. Payout is determined by the jackpot (or “add-back“) and any added money.

Add-back is required by NRCHA rules to be a minimum of 1.5 times the office fee.

In previous years, Gem State has put 70% of the entry fee into the purse for our NRCHA show. The remaining money goes towards future added money, as well as our outstanding year-end awards!

Added money? Added money is donated by sponsors and by the club and means that there’s extra prize money available for classes. We publish the total added money for a show ahead of time and include how much is added to each class and division on our entry forms.

2. Prizes

Prizes are awarded at our July NRCHA-sanctioned show. We give buckles to the winners of the Derby and the Greener Than Grass class. Winners of horse show classes receive a different prize (it’s pretty nice this year ;).

Year-end awards (more on the point system below) are given to the top five riders in each class at our annual banquet. We work hard to make our awards unique, useful, and high-quality.

If you have suggestions about what you’d like to see for awards, please let us know!

3. Gem State Year-End Points

Year-end points are awarded based on the number of horses shown in a class.

Classes with five or more horses shown: the first place horse wins 5 points, plus one for every horse defeated. Each succeeding place receives two points less than the place before it. For example, if ten horses are shown, first place wins 14 points, 2nd wins 12, 3rd – 10, 4th – 8, 5th – 6.

Classes with less than five horses shown: the first place horse wins one point for every horse in the class plus one point for every horse defeated. For example, if four horses are shown, first place wins 7 points (4 for the total number of horses and 3 for the three horses defeated), 2nd wins 5, third wins 3.

To qualify for year-end awards, you must show your horse in at least three of our four shows.

New for 2019: We’re adding a requirement to qualify for year-end awards. In addition to attending at least three club shows, for 2019 you must get a score in at least 60% of your runs. 

Here’s a couple examples:

If you show in a horse show class at three shows, that’s 6 runs (3x rein work and 3x cow work). To qualify for a year-end award, you must get a score of 60 or greater in at least four runs.

If you show in the derby at four shows, that’s 12 runs (4x herd work, 4x rein work, and 4x cow work). You must score 60 or greater in at least 8 of those runs.

If 60% of your runs is not a whole number, we’ll round down to the nearest whole. For example, if you show in the Four Event Bridle Spectacular at all four shows, that’s 16 runs. You must get a score in at least 10 of them to qualify for the saddle.

Learn more about Gem State’s Year-End Points system.

Why are all those Open riders getting zeros?

We got this question several times at our first club show, and it’s a good one.

Basically, these trainers are getting zeros on purpose!

Here’s why: horses are smart. The more they’re showed, the more they begin to recognize that being in the show pen is a little stressful or a little scary, or even begin to notice that they’re not being reprimanded for acting up like they would be at home.

Because of Gem State’s affordable entry fees, many trainers use our shows as an opportunity to get their horses ready for larger shows. Using a run to train the horse instead of trying to win is called schooling.

This may mean that the rider may use non-legal bit in order to train on their horse a little more, or they may countercanter a horse that worries about changing leads, or they may turn around more than the pattern calls for in order to stop only when the horse is feeling correct, or they may work on getting their horse to stop straight instead of making a fence turn.

There are as many ways to school a horse in the show pen as there are trainers.

Schooling is an essential tool in keeping show horses tuned up. Talk to your trainer about it!

Did we miss anything?

Please let us know if there’s other helpful topics we should cover in this guide! Gem State is committed to continuous improvement based on member feedback. You can also let us know if this guide helped make your first show smooth and stress free!