Call the Shots, Lead the Dance

These analogies from a top Arabian trainer will help you to remain confident—and your horse to stay smooth and quiet—in the show pen and elsewhere.

Do you get the jitters in the show pen? A lot of riders do, and it only serves to make their horses nervous, too. I’m going to share techniques that’ll help you keep your calm, and your horse working the way you want him to. I’ll do that the way I do with my amateur and youth riders—by using analogies that help you really get what I’m talking about.

Credit: Photo by Osteen-Schatzberg Photography This youth stays confidently “on offense” by making minute adjustments to her horse’s movement as they go down the rail.

These tips will help you perfect your poise in the show pen, plus help keep your horse moving smoothly, confidently, and at the pace you want in any situation.

Stay ‘on offense.’ One of the key differences between amateur riders and trainers is that amateurs play defense as they ride, while pros stay consistently on offense. Trainers let the horse play defense while they call the shots and control the pace and direction of the game.

How do you do this? By keeping your horse’s attention on you. Use your legs to make subtle adjustments in your horse’s pace, and to cue for collection. Don’t let your horse get strung out and sloppy when you’re not in front of the judge—you’ll just have to fix it later, and in the meantime it gives him a chance to get silly. Keep him together in the first place by continuously asking for subtle moves and adjustments—his hip eased over a bit here, his front end elevated a tad there.

When you stay on offense this way, you can “think ahead” of your horse. For example, if you see a dog on the rail up ahead, you can gather your horse up a bit more before you get there, so you can ride right past the dog without incident.

Lead the dance. Here’s another analogy to help with the same concept. Control the quality and direction of your horse’s movement at all times, the way the lead dancer controls the movement of his partner. You must always be leading the dance. That means using your body and your cues in a way that’s constantly signaling to your horse what you want, rather than just going along with what your horse is giving you.

For example: Your horse is moving a little faster than you desire. You don’t “follow” that movement with your own body. You take a gentle hold with the reins and resist following with your seat. This is a subtle but effective way of slowing your horse down.

Remember—only one of you can be the lead dancer; make sure it’s always you.

Think ‘slow.’ Amateur riders tend to be quick-handed, and this is especially a problem in Western pleasure, where smooth and measured is the goal. Work on learning how to draw up the reins in a fluid and unhurried way. I explain it to my guy riders like this: “Be like the hydraulics moving a tractor—slow and smooth.”

Practice these concepts every time you ride, and watch your confidence and effectiveness as a rider improve.

Jody Strand trains horses, coaches youth and amateurs, and presents clinics; the three-time Western Pleasure Trainer of the Year (Arabian Professional & Amateur Horseman’s Association) is also a national-level judge. Strand’s Arabian Stables, a full-service training and breeding operation, is located in Toddville, Iowa (

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