Q I’ve shown in my home state for a few years, and added showmanship classes to my list in the last year. My horse has done this event with his previous owner, but I’m still a novice at it. When I walk, trot, or back, I must constantly pull forward/backward on my horse to get him to go. What should I be doing differently so my horse responds to my body cues instead of dragging him with the lead?
JESSICA LOWER, California
A From what you’ve just described it sounds like your horse has become dull—or heavy on the chain. While you come across horses that are naturally dull, dullness often comes from the handler not being in the correct spot, or not asking for a maneuver properly.
Showmanship requires light contact with your horse; whenever you depart to a walk or trot, your horse should take a step forward when you do. Your hand acts as a rudder for steering, and shouldn’t be used to drag your horse through a pattern. Here I’ll discuss body position and a few things you can do to help your horse become less dependent on your hand. Remember to regularly practice at home; you can’t expect to fix your horse right before you walk into the show pen.
Before you initially ask for a walk, keep your body near your horse’s throatlatch and your right hand extended out and parallel with the ring on your show halter. Look forward, and keep your body square. If you look at your horse during a departure, you’ll walk toward your horse’s head and into his personal space, resulting in him sucking back to avoid getting run into. And when you stand too far in front of your horse’s throatlatch, he’s already behind the motion, causing you to drag him forward from the first step.
As you step forward, your horse should follow your lead and begin to walk. Your hand needs to stay next to the ring of the halter. If it ends up near your horse’s nose, that’s another signal you’re pulling him forward. Ideally, you shouldn’t put any pressure on the chain as you take that first step, but rather use your hand to help guide you through your pattern.
If your horse doesn’t willingly go forward, avoid keeping constant pressure on the chain and dragging him along. Constant pressure on the chain increases dullness. Instead, give him a quick pull forward; make sure that when you pull him forward you keep your hand straight and thumb pointed forward to avoid pulling him to or pushing him away from you. You don’t want to pull his head in one direction or the other and cause his whole body to become—and stay—crooked.
If you pull your horse forward, avoid going in too aggressively and scaring your horse in the process. And as you put pressure on the chain to get him forward and off the chain, make sure to release pressure the moment you feel your horse willingly go forward. You want him to understand that’s the correct answer.
The trot departure has a similar approach to the walk. Just as you do at the walk, when you start your trot you want your body near your horse’s throatlatch and your hand in the same spot, extended forward and near the ring of the halter.
As you trot off, go into a full trot from the first step. You can also give a soft cluck to let him know you’re about to move. If you’re hesitant when you make your departure and don’t trot on the first step, you can’t expect your horse to go forward—your horse should follow your body. If you aren’t going forward, he won’t either. If your horse sucks back on the departure, do a quick pull forward with your lead hand, releasing chain pressure once you feel your horse move forward and off the chain.
If more reinforcement is necessary, try using the end of your lead shank to help. You may have seen people use their hand to tap their horse’s shoulder or chest, but I recommend using your lead shank instead so you can keep your body in the correct position while you’re correcting your horse. (Tip: Any time you use your lead shank, it should be to encourage your horse, rather than scare him. Showmanship is about working as a team, and you can’t work well as a team if your horse is scared.)
Uncoil your lead shank and give a quick tap on your horse’s chest to encourage him to step off quicker to a trot and get his attention focused on you, I recommend the chest because it keeps your horse’s body from moving one direction or another. Tapping your horse on his left shoulder to get him to walk or trot off causes your horse to become crooked when you depart.
Backing shouldn’t be any different than other parts of your pattern. Your horse needs to willingly back up without constant pressure on the chain. When you take your first step, your horse should naturally back up to stay out of your personal space.
Before you take your first step, position your right hand across your body, next to the ring of your halter, and your body in front of your horse’s nose but still to the side of him. (Tip: Never stand directly in front of your horse’s head when you’re backing. Not only is it a large penalty in the showmanship, it’s a safety hazard.) If you start near your horse’s eye when you ask to back, you’re in his personal space, causing his head and neck to curl in while he tries to get out of the way.
Once you’re in the correct position, take a step to move him backward; your horse’s neck should stay relaxed, and he should willingly step backward without any pressure on the chain. If you feel resistance, use your lead shank and quickly tap him on the chest. (As mentioned earlier, avoid using your hand to keep your body from going in the wrong spot.) This encourages him to get out of your personal space and back on his own.
When you feel your horse start to back without any chain pressure, go a couple steps then stop to let him relax. Try backing again; once your horse wants to back on his own, stop and praise him. It’s not uncommon to only get a few steps out of your horse the first time you school him on it. Don’t over practice; once you feel your horse back a few steps on his own, end your session or move on to schooling a different element. The next time you pull your horse out of his stall, try getting him to back a few more steps on his own, building up his ability to back without any pressure on the chain every time you handle him.
Leslie Lange, Greeley, Colorado, owns and operates T&L Quarter Horses with her husband, Tom, and associate trainer Jeff Mellott. She’s an AQHA and NSBA judge and has trained and shown multiple world champions. In 2015 she was voted AQHA’s Most Valuable Professional.