What Happens at a Model Horse Show?

calmhs card 102Central AL Live Model Horse Show
Feb 28, 2015
Alabama Horse Fair
Garrett Coliseum
Montgomery, AL

Disclaimer: One person’s opinion after one show. Experienced hobbyists, please weigh in with questions, comments, concerns.

Second disclaimer: Long post. Take-away message – model showing is immensely complicated. Well worth checking out.

Last month, I competed at my first model horse show [Show Today]. I ended up there because of a blog post. After reading a guest post on a private blog, I was riveted by the intricacies of an entire subculture about which I knew nothing. The post author and the blog owner kindly allowed me to repost the article [All Hail Augustus Invictus]. I decided to find out more about models this year [Eight Resolutions].

The original plan was to watch and write a blog post. This morphed into the idea of competing. I was going to be there any way. It’s just plastic horses. How hard can it be? Ha! This turned out to be a inspired choice. Spectators were not allowed into the show room. I would have had to stand in the doorway, peeking in over the guard rope. From reading about “spectators corrals” at other shows, I’m guessing this might be standard practice? I can see why. Tables are heavily loaded with cute and gorgeous models. Models can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. One careless bump could cause a domino effect of epic proportions. Toward the end of the day, the rope was down and a spectator wandered in wearing a large backpack. As she spun this way & that, we all had a collective anxiety attack until she could be politely ushered out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What do you see when you walk in to a model horse show? A big room. Lots of folding tables set up around the walls and down the middle of the room. Each person is given a full or half table depending on the number of models. I had a half table.

My table
My table
My neighbor's table
My neighbor’s table

Having dutifully read the directions. I spread out a table cover, both for looks and for better footing. (Note to self: find cute, horse pattern table cover.) I positioned Spotted, Mr. Spot, and a selection of childhood models that a friend had rehomed to me [Surprise, Models Rule]. I then sat down and studiously scribbled little paper tags to go on each model’s leg. This is to prevent confusion if two of the same model are shown in the same class. How do judges evaluate different entries of the same model? Patience, Grasshopper.

calmhs card 101 borderThe next step was to make a card for each model for each class. Class number, class name, name of horse, breed of horse, gender. Shower’s name on the back. Cards of the winning models were picked up to tabulate the results. I think. Many entries had neatly-printed labels on their cards. Me, not so much.

My choices for classes included Foals, Gaited/Light, Stock, Sport Breeds, Draft/Pony Breeds, Long and Other, Special Classes. My division, one of four, had a choice of 148 classes. [prizelist: scroll down]

For extra sizzle, you can include documentation on the breed of the model you are showing. Particularly useful if you are showing an obscure breed in mixed class. Since Spotted & Mr. Spot are Knabstrupper rather than Appaloosa, I made documentation for them. The rest flew solo.

docu 2

I left myself an hour for the tagging and card writing. No problem right? Ha! What class? What breed? What name? I am terrible at naming my horses [Help Me Name My Horse, Prize Offered]. Suddenly I had to come up with a dozen. Again ha! I was beginning to sense the extent to which I was out of my depth.

The show began by calling the first classes. Each division had its own show table: AR, CM, OF, Performance, and Youth.

“Artist resins (AR) are original sculptures – meaning they didn’t come from any type of manufactured model horse. An artist will sculpt the horse entirely on their own, and then have it cast in resin in small batches. ” Breyer: Model Horse Showing III–Custom and Resin Halter.

CM or “Customized model is a horse that started out life as a plastic factory finish. An artist then found said plastic pony, and altered it to create an original piece of artwork.” ibid.

OF is original finish, i.e. straight out of the box. Shows vary on how much repair work is allowed before OF becomes CM. This is the sandbox I played in.

In Performance, models are dressed with tack to represent a specific moment in competition: dressage, jumping, western cow pony, racing, trail, and so on. Do a Google image search on Model Horse Performance. Seriously, the dioramas are even more amazing in person.

Open Performance Class A - Harness
Open Performance
Class A – Harness

Youth is self-explanatory. The only difference was that the judge gave critiques to the competitors after each class. My table was in the Youth room. I listened avidly to all comments.

For each class, entries were placed around the edge of the show table. Popular classes, such as Quarter Horse, required two tables. Competitors adjusted their models, lined up their cards, gave their models a final polish with a feather duster or small paintbrush.

My First Class 101 Light Foals
My First Class
101 Light Foals

brushFeather duster? Brush? What? I hadn’t even given my models a bath. Spotted and Mr. Spot were clean because they were new. The Spotted I brought to the show was a backup for the working Spotted who appears in the blog [list of posts]. I bought Mr. Spot at the same time because he was cute. Being mostly white, the original Spotted was too worn to show. Even I could tell that.

The members of my friend’s herd had been loaded straight from their shelf. I picked the ones who looked reasonably decent to me. Turns out my eye is nowhere near precise enough. Still, a bath would not have covered up for the shortcomings in condition. When showing living horses, a bath is a final step. The real gleam on a coat comes from good nutrition, good health, good horsemanship. A simple bath would not have lifted my entries to the level of show model. While they looked okay in my living room, at the show, under the lights, looking critically, I could see bangs and nicks and wear. Who knows how many years of love and dirt were ground into their hides. My fault for taking fuzzy pasture ornaments to fancy horse show.

Once the entries were polished and positioned, competitors moved back to allow the judge room to work. A competitor may have hurried away to place a model in a class on a different table. Or scrambled to make a tack change for the performance division. Most experienced showers had a table filled with models and a day filled with classes. Even the three Youth showers had way more than my handful of horses. Several of the judges were also showing in the divisions they were not judging. Not a lot of sitting was done. More than one woman had a spreadsheet that displayed which horse, which class, which tack, and so on.

Yes, it was mostly women. A few men came along for support. One male competitor appeared to be knocking it out of the park in the Performance division. This happened on the other side of the room during the morning while I was still confused, so I couldn’t tell if he was competing, if he was helping his wife, or if it was a joint effort.

After a final announcement to close the class, the judge circled the table, leaning in to observe small features, perhaps bending down to check out a horse from table level. The judges took their work seriously. Every model was fairly evaluated. I’ve ridden in horse show classes that were judged with less consideration.

Class 116.  Quarter Horses Breyer, Table 1
Class 116. Quarter Horses Breyer, Table 1
Class 116.  Quarter Horses Breyer, Table 2
Class 116. Quarter Horses Breyer, Table 2

As with a halter class with living horses, models are judged on how well they represent the breed in question. Is this model a better representation of an Arabian that that one? Does this one have a better neck? That one a better hindquarter? This is where the art of model showing comes in. A shower must choose appropriate models. The model might be sold as a X, but he would make a better Y. Or vice versa. One model was shown as a Tennessee Walker by one competitor, and as a Quarter Horse/Paint cross by another.

Knowledge of different breeds is mandatory. Perhaps the model is a X, but is it a good X? Does it have good conformation? These model folks know more about horse anatomy than I have learned in decades of riding the real thing.


As an example of the attention to anatomical correctness, consider the comments on Fire, a model I recently purchased [My First Model]. Apparently the mold is known for having a wonky shoulder. Now that it has been pointed out, I can see it. Maybe. I guess.

Condition is also considered. After a few classes, my judge made a point of announcing that people should be sure to dust their models before presenting them. She may have been talking towards me, but I got the feeling it was a little more universal. Nicks and dings will mark down a model.

What happens if two competitors enter the same factory fresh model? The judge then considers the paint job of each. Every model is slightly different. What is the color? Are there oversprays? Dye problems? This gets back to choosing the right model to show. You may have a lovely model made on a bad day. My grandfather used to call these Friday cars. He said you never wanted to buy a car built on Friday afternoon. So, your Friday horse stays home. Or if you do show it, expect to lose to one made on a Wednesday morning.

Every judge has preferences as to which features are more important. A model will do well at one show and get nothing at the next. Kinda like the big horses.

Judging complete, ribbons one through six were placed next to the models. The top two got qualifying cards for the national show, the North American Nationals or NAN. I get the feeling that winning a NAN card is more to be treasured than winning a class.

At the end of each group of classes, e.g foals, the winners came back for Championship and Reserve. Once each table was done, all of the Champions and Reserves came back for an Overall Champion and Reserve. At the very end, the Overall Champions and Reserves competed for Best in Show. The ribbons and prizes got progressively more flamboyant as winners worked their way up the ladder.

Throughout the day, people were fantastically friendly, informative, and welcoming. Everyone I talked with happily answered my questions. I can ask a lot of questions. I got advice on what classes to show in, which models to use, whatever. Special thanks to my table neighbor, Rachel Butler, for answering so very many questions while also showing and judging the Youth division. Another equally helpful competitor elected to remain anonymous.

Everyone was kind about my sad show string. No one said or even intimated, ‘What you doing HERE with THOSE.’ They should have. After a while, I stopped putting models down on tables. I could see that the other entries were at an entirely different level in terms of condition. I had brought Wiffle Balls to a Major League baseball game. No slight intended to Spotted, Mr. Spot, or my friend’s herd. They are wonderful at what they do. That just doesn’t include being show horses. I adore Sam [Sultan’s Miracle Man], but I wouldn’t take him to Louisville. Although I did take George [photo] to Washington. [Photos from the class, LtUaE: For Katherine]. But I digress.

I got no joy all day. Sniff. Not even in the class for Retired before 1990. I thought I was a shoe-in for a ribbon there. I know how long ago my friend & I were young enough to play with model horses. It was well before 1990. In the event, the class had ten entries, most in beautiful condition. How do they do that?

In the European Warmblood class, I had hopes for Spotted with her clever narrative. I may not be good with models, but I can sling the wordage. I thought sparkling wit might earn me some points. In hindsight, I see that Spotted is more of a toy than accurate depiction of a real horse.

Spotted docu front

Still, I’m glad I had my entries. They increased my investment in the show. I had to listen as numbers were yelled, keeping track of my classes. I got to scurry back and forth setting up my horses in their classes. I never won, but I was always alert when the ribbons were awarded.

If I had just brought Spotted, I would have spent more of the day drifting about. This way, I have a small inkling of what it must be like to show with an entire table full of models. Because of the Retired before 1990 class, I stayed to the bitter end. I probably would have anyway, for the blog and out of curiosity. With my best chance at a ribbon on the line, there was no way I was going to leave. Competitive? Moi?

As I wandered about, it didn’t take me long to develop opinions. No. No. No. A horse in that frame would never be jumping that fence. I don’t care what tack you put on. Some models were so realistic that I would have been happy to give stable space to a 16-hand version: a Thoroughbred (no surprise), a sport Appaloosa (ditto), even an American Saddlebred caught my eye.

My choice for Best in Show was The Miracle Chip, an AR based on a real horse. You could see the horse thinking. While the model did well and made it to the finals, the judges did not ultimately agree with me on Best in Show. The model is a Sencillo mold painted by Claire Williams. Owned by Ildze Ekmanis of Clifton Park NY, proxy shown by Charlotte Martin of Lake Charles LA.

Look at that expression!
Look at that expression!

Winner of 315 Mustang & 333 Other Colors. Champion Stock Breed. Reserve Champion Overall Resin Halter & Special Classes AR. [results]

What is involved in model showing? First of all, an eye for detail that is beyond me. This is why I do not sew my own clothing either. I can. I’ve even made a jacket, complete with sleeves and lapels. Unfortunately, the precision required in the preparation exceeds my patience. After a while, I tend to say, ‘Close enough. Moving on.’ This would apply to evaluating and maintaining any models. ‘Looks good to me. Let’s go.’

Also, model showing appears to be all about building one’s show string. Getting the right model. Researching the breeds. Finding/making tack and props for Performance. I don’t do the daily grind. Back when I had Previous Horse, I could do a few days of dressage, then, ‘Patience my a$$. I want to jump something.’ Just ask the nice lady who is trying to teach me to canter in a ladylike fashion [Show Report: At The Barn].

Plus, I do not need another obsession. I already have a gracious plenty. Model horses would have to take a number.

Still, no one said it had to be an all-or-nothing choice. I would have guessed that model showing was a poor substitute for folks who weren’t able to do real showing. Yes, we all have our prejudices. Turns out many folks do both.

I’m am unlikely to travel to model shows, at least for the nonce. My state only has one show. Other shows would require overnight stays. As I said elsewhere [8], If I’m going away for the weekend to show, I’m gonna be riding: my own horse of a preference; a Stepping Stone Farm Saddlebred more likely.

I’d consider entering this show again next year, if I had anything worth the entry fee. Fire would make a great centerpiece for the Unrealistic Scene class.

So that was me and model horses. Thank you for reading this far. I had a blast.

For more information:
Breyer: Model Horse Showing
North American Model Horse Shows Association
Breymere Custom Saddlery. This was the blog recommended to me by Invictus’ author as a way to get to know the hobby. I binge-read several years worth over the holidays.
Amanda’s Painted Ponies. This is the show organizer who was so welcoming to a clueless newbie.

A fantasy entry by Ms. Butler.
A fantasy entry by Ms. Butler.

5 thoughts on “What Happens at a Model Horse Show?

  1. Very interesting! I can see why it would be hard to add another intensive sort of hobby to what you already do (my knitting has been seriously impacted by a return to riding, so you know, you take the good with the bad 😉 ), but it does sound like a fun winter sport. Something you could plan for and think about during summer months, but execute during the less riding intensive winter.

  2. How I enjoyed reading your post – it brought back many, many memories of my daughter Katie taking part in these shows. We’d travel around the South of England taking part and she was very dedicated to it. Often being the youngest competitor, I’d stay with her, and would be amazed at how friendly everyone was, but also how passionate they were about this hobby. My daughter spent all her pocket money on models of all kinds, working up towards customs (and customising) and a resin (although not a “proper” resin). She still has the vast majority of these lovely models on her bedroom shelf (she’s off to Uni in September!) – they are a big part of her childhood. Model horses moved on to real horses and I think owning our own horse is slightly cheaper than model horse collecting and showing (and probably less competitive!). Elaine

  3. Yeah. I think I would have loved this as a kid, for sure. And if I didn’t have real, hairy, mud-covered, wallet-consuming equine quadrupeds I could definitely be tempted. Maybe I will plan it for when I reach my dotage. In another year or two.

  4. Interesting and fun reading! Who knew? I’m glad you got to see if from the inside. And it did my heart good to see some of the herd again. Too bad they weren’t up to this type of loving but you are absolutely correct that they were well loved and used in our youth. Their early history did not include much shelf time 🙂 I’m glad that they have such a good home.

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