Showmanship for Horses

Showmanship Made Simple
Showmanship is both a competitive event and a state of mind. As a competition, Showmanship classes encourage handlers to develop skills that can be instrumental in presenting horses to their best advantage in hand. As a state of mind, showmanship is a practice of daily handling and preparation where directing the horse’s movement and stance is aimed at developing those skills.

Watching a showmanship class at a show can be totally mystifying. For those new to showmanship, participating in a showmanship class can be seriously confusing. Patterns, pivots, “quarter system”… what does it all mean? Let us begin at the beginning…

A showmanship class consists of movements that are necessary for a handler to competently exhibit a horse’s conformation and movement to an observer. This observer can be a judge or an Evaluator, a veterinarian performing a pre-purchase exam, a prospective buyer, or for diagnosis. Any of these observers will want to be able to scrutinize the horse’s structure while standing, its correctness of movement at the walk and trot, and its balance and handling qualities on turns and stops.

When a horse is being judged in hand, it is important to give the judge a good view of the flight of the limbs in movement, both in profile, showing quality of movement, and from front and rear views, displaying the flight path of the limbs and feet. A good showman must be able to travel the horse towards the judge and away from the judge in a straight line. In most cases, this can be accomplished by lining up the handler’s right shoulder with the judge’s right shoulder, placing the horse in a direct line with the judge. Horse’s do not travel in a straight line by nature. They need assistance from the handler to stay straight, plus they must not be interfered with by the handler. Holding a horse on too short a lead, pulling the lead across the handler’s body, and using the lead to support a portion of the handler’s body weight can all result is a horse weaving or bowing in or out rather than moving correctly. Straight lines take practice!

At the beginning of each line of travel, the horse that is balanced over its hocks will fluidly power into the gait of choice. At the end of that line of travel, the horse must again be positioned over its hocks to execute an engaged and balanced halt. The pace at which the horse is traveled can have quite an impact on the observer. A quick, short, or flat trot will not provide the optimum view of the horse’s movement.

When the horse is posed for close conformation inspection, a horse that quickly and quietly assumes a balanced and poised stance allows prompt and accurate inspection. Judging a horse “on the fly” is an acquired skill, and is less likely to be fully accurate than judging the same horse posed and poised. A horse should be taught to position it’s feet at the handler’s request. The handler in turn must be aware of the requirements under the rulebook, and that particular horse’s most flattering stance. Head height, length of neck, and the distance between the front and hind legs can all have enormous impact on the overall appearance of the horse.

While the observer is inspecting the horse a wise showperson will avoid blocking the observer’s line of sight at all times. This maximizes the available time of the observer, and avoids distraction. The observer is looking at the horse, not the handler, even if the handler is being judged! There are ritualized systems of movement in use in various horse show venues, so being aware of the specific rules in place wherever you compete is essential. (See your state’s 4-H rulebook’s showmanship section as a good starting place if your breed rulebooks doesn’t give enough information. Many are available online.) In general, if the handler is always able to make eye contact with the observer, and with the horse at the same time, and the handler is never positioned between the observer and the horse, the basics are accomplished. The practical application of this system can help keep your veterinarian or farrier safe while they are working under and around the horse you are holding.

“Turnout” refers to the presentation package, to the cleanliness, grooming, fitness and preparation of the animal. It is much easier to recognize quality in a clean, fit, well presented horse than in one that is scruffy, dusty, mud-caked or parasitic. Cleanliness is the easiest part of the showmanship equation. It only takes water, shampoo, and hard work. Or, if you prefer, just the hard work will suffice. Clean-to-the-skin is the minimum requirement. Grooming preparations may be used, but I often show with a good fly spray and a clean horse. That way I don’t have a lot of gunk to take off my horse when I get back home. A clean horse will have a healthy skin and haircoat, which are signs of vitality and quality. Cleanliness also implies a pride in the horse and respect for the observer.

The handler is part of the presentation package. The handler must also be clean, appropriately dressed and focused on the job at hand, which is showing the horse. Whatever headgear is on the horse should also be clean and well-fitted to enhance the individual horse’s head and to provide the appropriate amount of control for the handler. The horse must be familiar with the equipment to be used. This is imperative, both for the safety of the horse and handler, and for the effective control required in traveling and posing the horse. Here again – refer to the rulebook!

To develop the skills that can make showmanship simple:

  • Travel your horse correctly, in straight lines when indicated.
  • Stop and turn your horse in proper balance.
  • Pose your horse promptly, with the head and neck poised at an advantageous height and length. This takes practice! Every time you handle your horse, walk and trot some straight lines, stand your horse correctly several times and practice moving around the horse without disturbing it’s stance. This daily work will pay off in greater responsiveness from your horse.
  • Make your horse shine! Brush, scrub, trim and tidy. To paraphrase from the Marine Corps, “Clean all that you can clean!
  • In competition, study the rules that apply to your show venue. What is correct in a 4-H arena may not be what is expected at a breed show.

At competitions, a showmanship classes may be run on two different styles. In one style, all exhibitors and their horses will enter the ring traveling counterclockwise, until being directed to stop by the judge or ring steward. From that point instructions will be given to exhibitors concerning the individual performances that will be executed. In the other, currently very popular style, the individual performances will be worked one handler at a time over a pre-set course, called a pattern. In this case the pattern will be posted prior to the beginning of the class, and must be performed from memory by the handler. Patterns are usually posted near the entry booth or show office. By all means, if you do not understand the directions, ask for clarification.

Patterns will be combinations of the simple skills of:

  • Traveling the horse at various gaits,
  • Stopping, turning and possibly backing the horse into position,
  • Posing and “showing” the horse, and
  • Moving out of the judge’s line of sight.

These simple skills can be combined into a seemingly complex pattern. Turns may be made in any fraction of a circle, or more. If each movement is performed with precision and balance, the whole pattern will seem to flow.

The mindset of showmanship is complex. It includes a strong pride in oneself as a skilled handler, and pride in one’s horse. It requires organization and preparation, self-awareness and perspiration. The benefits can be enormous, even if you never enter the showring. Becoming a better handler is a worthy goal for any horse person. It can result in a deeper understanding between horse and handler that will cross over to all aspects of the horse-human relationship.

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