What’s the Difference Between Affiliated Dressage Shows and Schooling Shows?


Competing in dressage shows can be an excellent way to improve your horsemanship and get feedback from judges other than your trainer. Whether you’re just getting started riding dressage or recently decided to strive for your medals, you might not know where to get started in the competitive realm of the sport. First, you’ll need to pick a show, which means weighing the benefits of showing in affiliated or unaffiliated dressage shows—also commonly called recognized shows or unrecognized schooling shows. Here are some of the differences to help you decide where you want to start showing next season.

What Are Affiliated Shows?

Affiliated shows are managed and licensed through the United States Dressage Federation or the USDF, and all standard regulations apply. For example, the USDF ensures all judges meet qualification standards and remain up to date, in addition to complying with judging regulations, training, and periodic judge-training updates. Show facilities must also be up to USDF regulation standards. 

Happy rider leading horse at show facilities

What Are Schooling Shows?

Schooling shows are privately organized shows that are not affiliated with the USDF and therefore do not need to comply with USDF regulations. Thus, the host of the show is responsible for the quality and standard of the facilities and judges. Judges do not need to hold the same level of high accreditation as affiliated shows, and as such, most judges are L Graduates—not rated judges. Schooling shows give L Graduates practice judging as well.  

Main Differences

Test Scores and Medal Requirements

Only test scores from affiliated shows count toward national medal requirements so that the standard for judging and scores is as equal as possible for all competitors. In order to compete in an affiliated show, you must pay to become a registered member of the USDF

What’s it Like To Be There?

Schooling shows can be hit or miss: some are targeted toward younger riders. Some could be set up as fun events and are not intended to be used as practice for nationally recognized competitions.

However, some can be excellent practice for affiliated shows when you and your horse are ready to earn qualifying scores. Maybe your horse needs more experience traveling off-property or you would like more experience before attending the affiliated events where scores begin to count. Schooling shows can be a lot less pressure: a place for learning the ropes while enjoying the spirit of competition.There also tend to be fewer people at local schooling shows which can create a calmer environment for yourself and your horse.

Affiliated shows are very comparable to many unaffiliated shows, but nerves about earning desired qualifying scores for other competitions or medal placements may be more palpable. As long as you can keep calm, it shouldn’t be a problem—there will always be another opportunity to earn your scores!

Riders and horses generally show up to recognized shows a day before the actual competition begins. This allows horses to acclimate to their surroundings, perhaps calm down, and get used to being away from home and ready to get to work in the arena. It is also helpful for riders to know their way around before the stress of competition day. 

Duration and Expenses

Typically, schooling shows last a day or two, while recognized shows can be up to three. This causes recognized shows to be more expensive in addition to the fact that recognized shows require membership fees.

Different Rules

Some schooling shows have more lenient rules than affiliated shows. For example, they may allow more or less tack, and the judging can be less harsh. That said, many rated judges or L Graduates are employed by the hosts for unaffiliated shows, so you may receive similar quality judging.


Many facilities offer both affiliated and unaffiliated competitions, so facility quality may be the same. Your dressage community and trainer likely have a good feel of the quality of unaffiliated shows in your area and can make sure the show you might attend would be beneficial for your particular training needs and competition goals. At affiliated shows you can be sure facilities are up to USDF guidelines.

horse and rider cantering in show ring

Pros of Going to Affiliated Shows

Going to affiliated shows when properly prepared to earn a desired score is preferable to attending an unaffiliated competition, since affiliated shows are the only ones whose scores count toward medaling, testifying to your hard work and skill in dressage.

At affiliated competitions, you will be competing with riders of approximate level to you. This makes it easier to place higher in the classes you are in, meaning it will be easier to acquire a better ribbon in addition to your score. When competing in unaffiliated shows, you may encounter riders who could compete in higher or lower levels than the class they are in, so affiliated competition ribbons are more representative of your standing amongst your peers.

Pros of Going to Schooling Shows

Attending unaffiliated shows is an excellent way to learn where you need to improve most before trying to acquire a desired score at an affiliated show. They are more relaxed and are perfect training grounds for showing at levels in which you have not yet competed. 

Schooling Shows are Best for Beginners

If you’re just getting started in dressage, you will want to consider going to a schooling show. Schooling shows are less expensive and can be great practice. These shows are great for beginners to gain good showing experience before they attend affiliated competitions where their scores can begin to count towards a medal. They are also great for green horses to gain showing experience. 

Higher Level Tests

Properly managed schooling shows can give you a good idea of what range of scores you will receive if you were to perform in an affiliated show arena. If you are competing for the first time at a new level, you might also want to attend a schooling show so you know whether or not it is worth it for you and your horse to compete for medal-qualifying scores or if you’d like to spend more time training at home first. This is particularly good if you have a goal to, for example, earn your bronze medal in one summer season or if you are aiming to eventually compete in either Juniors or Young Riders category and must fit within the age limits set.

Green Horses

If your horse is particularly green or new, these shows are especially useful in seeing how well your horse handles being away from the barn and how much it affects his performance. This lessens the pressure and the price that could come with performing well at an affiliated show.

New Dressage Competitors: Don’t Worry about the Ribbons!

Dressage classes are not like jumping classes which are filled with competitive peers. It is very common in small local dressage shows to have few people in a class. You might even be the only person in your class performing your test, which would make you the winner by default. Alternatively, you might be competing with trainers or even nationally ranked competitors depending on where you live.

In both affiliated and unaffiliated shows, everyone loves a pretty blue ribbon, but placement is much less important than the actual test scores in the dressage arena. If you are looking to eventually earn your medals or if you’re trying to qualify for a higher-level competition, as long as you get your required qualifying scores, it doesn’t matter what place you finish in your class in affiliated shows. If you’ve chosen unaffiliated shows to get practice, shooting for the best score you can get regardless of placement can give you a good idea of whether you’re ready to move to affiliated shows to earn your medal scores. Nothing bars riders in schooling shows from enrolling in higher or lower level classes than they are qualified for. This means that placement is largely dependent on who is in your classes rather than how well you did at your level. As long as you focus on riding your best for your desired score and enjoying the experience, you will do great.

Good Luck!

Best of luck as you embark on your journey into the competitive world of dressage, whether you choose to attend affiliated or unaffiliated shows! Do you have any showing tips? We’d love to read them below!


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