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    Top 5 Show Horse Breeds

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    There are hundreds of horse breeds that exist today. Each is known for its origins, discipline suitability, and temperament. Many horse breeds are versatile and can compete in various horse shows. Knowing what types of horse shows are available is vital to helping you pick the best horse show breed for your goals.

    What types of horse shows are there

    Competitions fall into four broad groups:

    Open horse shows

    Open horse shows welcome any breed and highlight the greatest diversity. You might see a Gypsy Vanner, a Morgan, or an American Saddlebred, a type of horse you might not otherwise encounter.

    Breed shows

    Breed shows are specific to horses registered with the hosting association. Registration rules vary, so understand the requirements of those you’re interested and how that aligns with your interests.

    Discipline-specific shows

    Discipline-specific shows feature a specific riding style, and multiple breeds are welcome to compete. For example, the United States Dressage Federation, the United States Hunter/Jumper Association, and the National Barrel Horse Association, do not limit participation to only one breed.

    Agricultural and county or state fairs

    Agricultural and county/state fairs feature a mixture of horse competitions. Some host open shows, breed shows, or discipline-specific classes as part of their multi-week events.

    What are the best horse show breeds

    The best horse show breed is the one you are most passionate about owning and that matches your showing ambitions. Typically, horses are bred with a purpose and for a use paired with their genetics. These five breeds are among the most popular competitive partners. 

    American Quarter Horse

    The American Quarter Horse is the oldest recognized and most well-represented breed in the United States. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) has registered more than 6 million horses since its founding in 1940. First known for its speed, the Quarter Horse earned its name by its ability to outrun any horse breed in races of a quarter mile or less. They are also the preferred breed used on working ranches in America.

    Quarter Horses excel in timed events from team roping to barrel racing, tie-down roping, and steer wrestling, with many ranking as the top mounts at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The breed is also widely known for reining—the only western sport held at the FEI World Equestrian Games.

    In addition to speed, Quarter Horses are known for their versatility and suitability for riders of all experience levels. These horses compete in numerous disciplines, including jumping, Dressage, driving, and more.

    American Paint Horse

    Large, colorful dark and white coat patterns distinguish the Paint Horse from other stock horse breeds. The markings are categorized by the amount of and location of white patches on the horse. The American Paint Horse Association Paint Association (APHA) use these three descriptions to define each pattern: tobiano, overo, and tovero

    A Solid Paint-Bred is a horse that meets lineage requirements but has little or no white. Paint Horses must descend from registered APHA, AQHA, or Jockey Club (Thoroughbreds) to qualify for American Paint Horse Association registration.

    Like the Quarter Horse, paints are a versatile stock horse breed that excels in English, Dressage, and Western disciplines with opportunities to show at APHA-approved or open shows. 

    An added bonus: APHA hosts a Paint Alternative Competition (PAC) for riders to tally year-end points at unsanctioned shows to earn year-end prizes, titles and lifetime awards.  

    Paint or Pinto: What’s the difference?

    People often confuse Paints and Pintos. Both have splashes of white patterns against a dark coat, often with white face and leg markings but are distinctive from each other. 

    An easy way to remember? Paints are a breed while Pintos are specific to color pattern.

    A horse may qualify to be registered in both Associations creating more competitive opportunities.

    A Paint horse must have registered paint, quarter horse, or thoroughbred parentage to qualify and meet a coat color requirement.

     A Pinto is a color-breed registry that includes horses of any breed with “loud” white markings.


    Most often, Thoroughbreds are linked only to horse racing. But the breed is popular among riders who train off-the-track racehorses for second careers—many of which include competing in horse shows.

    Thoroughbreds are a popular choice in hunter-style events, jumping, Dressage, and eventing. But the breed is suitable for many disciplines, including Western Dressage, competitive trail, ranch riding, barrel racing, and western pleasure. In addition, Thoroughbreds are frequently crossed with other horse show breeds to enhance the best traits of both lineages.


    If you’re looking to compete in endurance or competitive trail riding—an Arabian is the best show horse breed for the sport. For centuries these horses have been esteemed for their stamina, hardiness, versatility, and loyalty. The breed is considered one of the oldest and purest breeds, with ancestry dating back to early civilization.  

    Notable leaders, including Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and George Washington, chose Arabians as their personal mounts. On average, these horses stand 14.1 to 15.3 hands high.

    Arabians also excel in various other events, from cutting and reining to English and Western pleasure, Dressage, jumping, and driving.

    Hanoverian, Dutch Warmblood, Holsteiner and Oldenberg

    For Dressage riders, especially upper-level competitors, it’s challenging to identify the single best horse show breed for the sport. Hanoverian, Dutch Warmblood, Holsteiner, and Oldenberg horses consistently take riders to the Olympic medal podium.

    All four breeds were developed in Europe and later imported to the United States. The Dutch Warmblood is the smallest, ranging from 15 – 17 hands, with the other breeds averaging 15.3 – 17 hands. This group of horses is known for their grace, floating movement, athleticism, and willingness to please.

    How can you learn more

    Depending on the level of competition you aspire to compete at, many horse breeds can be the right fit for you. Attend a horse show or two watch and observe which breeds are most numerous in the classes you’d like to enter. Talk with the trainers or owners to learn what they most love (or find most challenging) about the breed. 

    More information about showing horses

    Showing is one of the most exciting parts of horse ownership. Check out this guide for essential gear to keep you event running smooth and fun.
    One of the most rewarding experiences you can have is getting to know a horse. This guide gives you all the information on how to care these gentle giants.