Q: I show in horsemanship and Western riding on my 7-year-old Appaloosa mare. I know making a good first impression on the judge is an important factor in my overall performance, and can give me an edge over my competitors. What exactly can I do to guarantee I make a good first impression?
-Susan Campbell, Minnesota
A: Susan, as a judge for more than 25 years, I can attest to the fact that first impressions count—big time. And while you can’t always control what happens in the show ring, you can, with a little preparation and common sense, control that first glimpse the judge gets of you.
Here, I’m going to show you how to achieve that great first impression. Specifically, I’ll give you some concrete tips to improve how you appear to the judge in those brief moments when you’ve just stepped up to the starting cone and are waiting to begin your ride.
The photos will show both what not to do—we’ll call them the first-impression faux pas—as well as the presentation that would leave me very impressed.
Note: For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming you’ve already taken the appropriate measures to look your best: Your horse is clipped and well-groomed; your tack is clean and properly fitted; and although your show ensemble doesn’t need to be uber-expensive, it must be neat, clean, well-fitting, and appropriately color-matched.
STOPPING BEFORE THE CONE: This “early stop” position telegraphs a rider’s mistrust (or even fear) of her mount. She thinks stopping early provides a little extra “cushion” in case her horse starts forward a step or two (because the rider should not pass the cone before she’s on-pattern). A faux pas like this (plus the horse’s poor body position—splayed legs, head below the vertical) would tell me you need to go back to the practice pen until your horse is more consistent, and you’re more confident.
GOING PAST THE CONE: This overshooting-the-mark is careless on the rider’s part, and it demonstrates a lack of attention to detail. Either the horse isn’t broke enough to respond promptly to the rider’s stopping cues, or the rider’s simply not paying attention to the pattern’s instructions, or both. In any event, this sort of sloppiness tells me you’re not serious about your performance. And that makes me less-than-serious about you as a competitor.
LOLLYGAGGING: Yes, the horse is squarely aligned at the cone, but the rider appears to be in never-never-land. As she gazes off into the distance, away from the task soon to be at hand, she looks as if she’s on a trail ride, not competing for a blue. Note how her horse is following her lead, and appears equally distracted. This lack of focus in both rider and horse is extremely un-workmanlike, and will detract from an otherwise good first impression.
DRAPE-Y REINS: The cone-alignment is correct, the horse's legs are square, and I love that the rider’s smiling, but the faux pas here is too-long reins. Even if your horse is well broke and doesn’t require much steering, overly long reins look sloppy. Plus, they won’t be effective once you’re on-pattern. To win first-impression points with me, you need to be completely ready to perform at the cone, and this includes ride-ready reins.
‘CHECKING’ ON DECK: The rider is taking up on her reins to make sure her horse’s head stays properly positioned as she waits for her turn. She thinks I won’t notice, but I might well glance her way or see it out of my peripheral vision. Either way, this sort of schooling is a major foul in my book. If your horse won’t stand correctly without being micromanaged, you need more preparation before showing.
GETTING IT RIGHT:This is a serious contender. She’s aligned her horse so the cone is across from his neck (between his throatlatch and shoulder, as required). He’s standing squarely over all four feet, with a level head-and-neck. The rider’s reins are the correct length for maximum control with minimal intervention, and she appears confident and relaxed. Both she and her horse look focused and ready to compete. And, yes, I am impressed!
SLOPPY DETAILS: The rider’s head-down posture looks bad and causes a matching shoulder-slouch. Her loose hair is distracting and tells me she didn’t bother to style it. Her unbuttoned cuffs and rolled-up sleeves ruin the continuity of her arm and hand position. Her upturned chaps (yes, they do happen!) are such a major distraction that I’ll struggle to notice her ride. (Tip: Enlist someone to remind you to fix rolled-up sleeves and upturned chaps before you enter the show ring.) And those feet out of the stirrups—though fine during a break, they’re never OK and look terribly haphazard in the show ring. Lastly, the crooked number and slipping saddle pad are the finishing touches for a just-awful first impression.
PERFECT DETAILS: WOW—What a difference a few details make! The rider is looking up, which is good of itself but also improves her overall posture. Her hair’s pulled into a nice, clean bun (no loose strands). Her sleeves are pulled smoothly down over her wrists and are buttoned; her chaps are rolled down and smoothed so they lie flat against her heel without bunching; her feet are actually in the stirrups (thank goodness!). Her number’s pinned on straight, and the blanket is level and flat against her horse’s back. My first impression of this rider is one of competence and confidence—even before she’s taken the first step of her pattern.