The World of Winter Circuits: A Beginner’s Guide to Braving the Journey


Whether you are a seasoned veteran or a circuit newbie, competing on a winter circuit can be a daunting task as the format is much different from the average horse show. Countless arenas with the voices of announcers like a perpetual echo, entries that can reach up to 3,000, and the endless miles of stable rows make the circuits quite the spectacle.

Winter circuits call equestrians from every corner of the country, and it is common to see people who have flown in internationally in order to compete in the most prestigious classes. The prize money is often higher than at a regular show and the competition is top-notch, drawing in the best riders from all areas of the United States. Top professionals bring their sale horses to these venues, making the winter circuits a great place to try and find a new mount. With a show schedule that spans eight or even twelve weeks long, there are tons of options for you and your barn.

Here is a collection of tips to help you survive your journey at these large, impressive winter circuits.

US Olympic Gold Medalist McLain Ward and Rothchild compete in the HITS Thermal Million Dollar Grand Prix. Photo credit: Full Gallop Captures

Choose your circuit, choose your weeks.

In the wide world of winter circuits, there are a wide variety of options. The Winter Equestrian Festival, or simply “WEF” is one of the largest horse shows in the world, with competition to match. It is not uncommon to see riders from all over the country migrate to sunny Palm Beach, Florida for the winter in order to compete there. WEF’s twelve weeks of competition offer much diversity in classes, from the leadline and trot-poles to the Grand Prix and USHJA International Hunter Derby.

On the West Coast, HITS Coachella (formerly Thermal) is a popular option for many. Located in Thermal, California, this show mainly attracts riders from the Southwest and Western regions of the United States.

When picking any winter circuit, often the larger, more well-known circuits will carry a hefty price tag, even for just one horse. When choosing a potential circuit, price, location, and competition are vastly important, so pick the circuit that appropriately fits you and your barn’s needs.

Plan ahead

A packing and trunk list are a must if you are staying away from home to ensure you will not have to buy anything at the show, or have to go without anything. Often times the winter circuits are ten to twelve hours away from the barn, making the retrieval of a lost item difficult! If your chosen circuit is far from home and you choose to stay in a hotel, book it ahead of time as the most popular places fill up quickly with riders.

Determining where your meal spots are will save you time and energy later on. If you are school-age, staying on top of your classwork is always a good idea, especially if you plan to excessively miss school. Keeping an organized planner is key to seeing that nothing is missed in the commotion of getting ready to show. Avoiding last minute studies is key. No one wants to start that project due tomorrow or start studying for a test after a long day at the show! Being proactive helps you stay on your teacher’s good side, and ensures your grades will not suffer come year-end.

Will Simpson navigates the Grand Prix course at HITS Thermal. Photo credit: Full Gallop Captures

Classes, classes, classes!

Scope out your options in advance with your trainer, as there are usually hundreds to choose from! When choosing your classes for competition, there are a couple deciding factors that will vary from person to person, from prize money and class count to jump height and difficulty. The winter circuit is often the best time to demonstrate that your hard work in the saddle has payed off, so try the classes that will challenge you. Do they have a 3’6” equitation challenge that you have always wanted to try? Go for it! Always wanted to compete in a USHJA Hunter Derby under the night lights? Here’s your chance! Make sure that the classes that you and your trainer pick do not conflict with your show arrival or departure times, as you will not be happy when your under-saddle runs an hour after your plane is scheduled to leave!

Health and wellness

When spending long periods of time away from home, it is easy to slip away from healthy habits, especially nutrition. On the road and at the show, the most convenient food options are usually fast food, sweets, sugary drinks, and fried food. Looking for healthy options at food vendors or finding a local grocery store in your area is incredibly important while showing, as it is important to fuel your body properly. Many circuits offer a large food court, complete with healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner options!

US Olympian Charlie Jayne begins his course. Photo credit: Full Gallop Captures

Winter circuits are a monumental time for most riders, as they help you gauge where you are in your riding and determine how you want to move forward. Picking show dates is easier than ever thanks to the many months of showing offered, most notably at circuits like HITS Coachella, Ocala, and WEF. For first-timers and seasoned show veterans alike, the winter circuits have something to offer for every riding ability. Make the most of your journey, because the amazing lessons, experience, and memories you will experience along the route are unforgettable.