Horseback Riding Doing it Best

Many times horse show exhibitors who leave the class without winning a ribbon ask the judge, “What did I do wrong?” It is a fairly common misconception that “doing something wrong” is the reason for their failure to place.

While in some cases there is an easy answer to this question (an uncorrected wrong lead at the canter, bucking, or a complete failure to perform one or more of the class requirements), the exhibitor is generally aware of the error. But what about those times when you thought you had a pretty good ride and you “got the gate”? Did you wonder if your horse was the wrong color (“that judge only likes palominos“) or if, perhaps, you and your horse were invisible? Did you complain about “politics”? Or did you look to see what WAS getting the ribbons, and try to see your performance in that context?

While judges in most horse shows in America are placing entries against one another, they are also placing against an ideal, or mental picture of the perfect horse or perfect rider for that class description. While there may be no “perfect” horse in the ring that day, the winner will be the one that most closely matches that judge’s mental picture, with the next closest being second place, and so on. Of course, if the judge observes his or her first place horse pick up a wrong lead, that horse must be penalized in the placings according to the class description, the applicable rulebook, the severity of the error and the merits of the other competitors. It may still be the best entry in that class despite the error, it may be penalized by several places, or it may be entirely out of the ribbons.

But what if your horse didn’t make an error? He got his leads, made his transitions properly, your tack and attire were correct, clean, and appropriate, you had a good ride, and you still didn’t get a ribbon. Chances are you didn’t do enough right. Judges are looking for “the best of the best”, we are not judging by default. We are looking for everyone to get a good ride. Then we can evaluate quality of movement, the balance of horse and rider during transitions, manners, suitability, eye appeal (it is a horse show, after all) and any other criteria required by the rules in force at that competition. When errors are made, we must penalize appropriately, but it is much more pleasant to reward quality than to penalize errors. Perhaps your horse is only an ordinary mover, drags his hind toes, fails to perform correct two-beat trots, or canters in an artificial manner. Or your horse may harden his jaw against the influence of the bridle, producing a picture of resistance or unwillingness. Many horses drop their backs away from the rider’s seat (going “hollow”), rather than supporting the rider with a muscularly raised back, producing jarring, disorganized gaits.

In large classes it is possible to ride a good class, but never get seen by the judge(s). If you ride in a herd you can get missed. If your turnout is drab or monotone you and your horse may not show up against the rail or the arena footing. If you ride too conservatively your horse may not get a chance to show itself well. If your number is unreadable, missing or incorrect the judge can’t place you without making extra effort or in some cases violating the rules. Find more info on horseback riding helmets at Equine Ridge.

If you are riding a style or breed that is unusual, accept that you may have to be much better than the more standard entries to get used at all. The only Arabian in a Western Pleasure class full of stock horses can win the class, but it better be darned good, or at least good enough to overcome any breed preferences the judge may have in his or her mental picture.

So ask yourself; Did I show to advantage? Is my horse good-gaited? How is my horse’s frame in comparison with the class winner’s? Could the judge see me? Did I give the judge any reasons to not place me? Did I give the judge any reasons TO place me? Is my tack and turnout appropriate and correct for this class? Then if you are still wondering, make an appointment with the ring steward for a moment with the judge. Instead of asking “What did I do wrong?”, ask for suggestions for improvement. Accept any response gratefully and gracefully. Most importantly, if you enjoy your rides, enjoy your horse and being at the competition, you will be a winner…maybe not THE winner, but a winner, nonetheless!

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.

Horse Judging

Judging by the Rules

I am often asked to give clinics dealing with “What Judges Are Looking For” to help exhibitors and owners take some of the mystery out of show results. While it is easy to refer to rulebooks (and if you haven’t, you should!), there are many areas which are open to interpretation. In addition to very specific requirements and infractions, horse show rulebooks specify desirable qualities which are intangibles, not easily measured or quantified.

Horse show judges must apply their body of knowledge against the written rules of the particular show, association, or registry. Judges who work in a single breed or discipline need only be familiar with only one set of rules, which may readily be committed to memory. Judges who judge a large number and variety of breeds and disciplines must be familiar with all of the applicable rules and must be able to apply the particular rules in any situation. Good judging depends upon a correct observance of the fine points and the selection of the best horses for the purpose described by the conditions of the class. (AMHA Rule Book)

A judge who refers to the rulebook in the show arena is not demonstrating a lack of knowledge or insecurity, but is showing a willingness to verify or confirm the specific application for that situation. While class names may be the same from association to association, or breed to breed, the class routine, attire requirements or patterns may vary.

Judging criteria and order of application can vary according to the class description, so that in a junior exhibitor or ladies class manners may be paramount with performance and way of going being secondary, while in an open class performance may be given a higher weight than manners. This can result in a perceived lack of consistency in class results.

“A judge serves three interests, his/her own conscience, exhibitors, and spectators.” (AMHA Official Rule Book)

In general, show rules will specify the purpose or intent of the class, the required appointments, the gait calls and the class procedure, the causes for disqualification, and the desirable qualities to be displayed by competitors. While some of the class descriptions are very concrete, often the desirable qualities are intangibles which are not easily measured, defined, or quantified. That is where the judge’s body of knowledge comes into play, and this is often where the mystery lies.

Two intangibles which heavily influence my own views of a class are “balance” and “quality.” Saving the concept of “quality” for another article, I would like to address the subject of “balance.”

Balance is a word that is often included in the rules of many breeds, but without a definition. The NFHR Breed Standard states that “the gaits are well balanced”, and the canter “should be balanced and free.” The AMHA breed standard refers to “a small, sound, well-balanced horse”. The APHA Western Pleasure rules state that “the jog trot should be square, balanced, with a straight forward movement of the feet”, and in APHA working hunter the gaits should display “cadence, balance and style.” The IALHA rules state that “all gaits must be performed with willingness and obvious ease, cadence, balance, and smoothness,” “the trot should be free, forward and balanced” and “the canter should show impulsion, balance, and engagement.” In USDF dressage tests one entire movement score is often based on “balance during the transition.”

Balance should be evident in stance and movement. But how does one judge balance? Perhaps it is necessary to look at what is and what is not balanced. A balanced horse stands squarely over its feet, carrying it’s body weight distributed in proportion according to its conformation. The horse should appear to match from front to back, and from side to side, without obvious disproportion between the mass of the forequarters and the hindquarters. A horse that leans over it’s front end, or hangs back over it’s hocks does not appear to be balanced. A horse carrying a large amount of muscle through the neck, chest, and shoulder that is lean and light in the hindquarters is not a balanced individual. A horse that displays great symmetry and harmony of proportion is a well-balanced horse.

In movement, a horse that is heavy on the forehand is less balanced than a horse that is light and airy in its movement. A horse displaying asymmetrical movement is less balanced than a horse that is rhythmic and even. A horse that rushes is less balanced than a horse that moves with a measured and regular cadence. A horse that lays on the bridle or pushes into the riders or drivers hands is less balanced that a horse that is in independent self-carriage.

Here is where the variation observed in judging comes into play. To one observer, a horse that simply remains upright may be considered to be sufficiently balanced, as may a horse that is in balance only through the rider’s or driver’s obvious efforts. Just as soundness may be of varying degrees, so can balance.

When showing, an exhibitor can act to enhance or destroy what natural balance a horse may possess. A horse that possesses lovely balance may be stood in such a way that the natural balance of the horse is not evident, or a horse with normally balanced and cadenced movement may be rushed off it s feet and out of its natural balance. An unbalanced rider can destroy a horse’s balance, as can improper vehicle fit. Or an exhibitor can help a less than perfectly balanced horse stand well, or subtly support a horse that may rush.

How judges determine a horse s balance can vary. Simple tests such as transitions between gaits or within gaits will give evidence of a horse’s balance. Asking a horse to rein back gives additional evidence of balance or lack of it. Here, too, the exhibitor can help or hinder the horse s efforts.

Good judges work very hard to develop and maintain the skills needed to evaluate and adjudicate these intangibles An exhibitor desiring to understand what judges are looking for would do well to do the same.

NFHR Breed Standard and Judges Rule Book
2005 Official Rule Book of the AMHA
2005 Official Rule Book of the APHA
2003 USDF tests