The AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) describes its purpose as “designed to evaluate the exhibitor’s ability to execute, in concert with a well-groomed and conditioned horse, a set of manoeuvres [moves] prescribed by the judge with precision and smoothness while exhibiting poise and confidence, and maintaining a balanced, functional and fundamentally correct body position.” Quite a tall order!

Be Dazzling

Showmanship at halter is judged not only on how well you and your horse perform the prescribed patterns, but also on your appearance as a team. Katie Turner of Deep River, ON, a frequent competitor in this class, says, “The judge is watching you show off your horse. The rider should be wearing a cowboy hat, shirt, pants, and boots, and of course his or her number. Since this has become a very competitive class, some competitors are now choosing to wear outfits that match their horses and have lots of bling or flashy patterns to make them stand out. Each competitor is hoping to catch the judge’s eye.”

As for the horse, the only tack required in a showmanship class is a clean, properly fitted halter and a lead line with a chain. The horse should, of course, be immaculately groomed. While banding of the mane isn’t a requirement, says Katie, it is encouraged. Hoof polish is often used, and many competitors also apply face oil and body spray to their horses to make them shine. In some associations, tail extensions are acceptable. These are inserted below the tail bone to create a “perfect” full tail look.

All the Right Moves

While “looking pretty” can definitely help create a good first impression, an exhibitor in showmanship at halter can’t possibly do well without a horse trained to do the required moves. “Judges want to see a smooth, flowing pattern,” says Katie. “The pattern will consist of walking, jogging, backing, pivoting, and squaring up for inspection by the judge.” A novice will definitely need help from a professional to learn how to exhibit properly in showmanship, particularly if his or her horse isn’t yet acquainted with moves such as pivoting and backing. It takes time and practice to become familiar with all the required skills.

While not everyone is fortunate enough to have a coach to teach them, there are a number of other good sources of information available regarding showmanship, such as DVDs, clinics, books, and magazines. (For example, the March/April issue of Horse-Canada has an excellent article by Lindsay Grice on “How to Set Your Horse’s Feet” – advice for positioning your horse, quickly and consistently.) Competitors often put their winning showmanship performances on YouTube, and the best of these can make great training tools for those who are just learning.

When asked how she first learned to compete in this class, Katie says she was taught by a very experienced coach/friend who competed at AQHA championship level. “She explained that it is a dance with your horse that should flow and have absolutely no hiccups. You’re showing the judge how well you and your horse perform as a team.”

Basic Showmanship Tips

Here are a just a few tips from well-known Western coach and competitor Dale Rudin: 1. Hold on to the leather part of the lead, never the chain. 2. Dale suggests shortening the chain by clipping it on the off side so that no more than two inches extends from the halter. 3. Give yourself as much time as possible to memorize and practice the pattern before your class. 4. Learn how to “quarter” (show from the left side or right side, depending on where the judge is standing) and practice even while standing in the line-up when the judge is elsewhere in the arena. 5. Work at home towards being able to square up your horse in four seconds or less.

Basic showmanship training has many benefits outside the show ring as horse and handler learn to respectfully read each other’s body language. “It fine-tunes your ability to control your horse’s position and pace,” says Katie, “which makes it useful for real-life situations such as backing your horse from a trailer, turning your horse in tight quarters, squaring your horse for the farrier, or jogging your horse for the vet.”