When people come to me and tell me they want an all-around horse, I encourage them to think about what that actually means to them. When watching a good all-around horse in the show pen, it may look easy to go from class to class, but in reality, horses and riders are expected to handle long days that start long before the sun rises and end well after sunset, while competing in a handful of events that all require different skill sets.
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If you’re looking to add all-around events to your repertoire, you need to set your horse up for success by competing in events that he excels at. It takes a special horse to be able to handle the work load an all-around horse has.
The following milestones will help you find out what your horse’s limitations are, and what he can and can’t do. These steps will help you clarify if your horse is ready to be an all-around horse or not.
Western Pleasure Foundation
For most all-around horses, Western pleasure is the foundation event. Every all-around horse has to walk, jog, and lope with collection, which is why most horses start with a rail class and gradually move on to pattern events. This class also helps your horse understand the basics of body control, leg control, and face control, so he can handle the maneuvers that come with a pattern class.
I believe that you can tell by the level of a horse’s brokenness and self-control how good his foundation is. To me, markers of that foundation include a horse being able to extend his limbs while under control of the rider. If your horse can stay calm and put together while you’re asking him to perform, that’s a good sign.
Quality of Movement
The number one thing an all-around horse needs to have is quality of movement. In some events, like horsemanship, part of the judge’s score sheet includes a section for it.
However, quality of movement does not mean that your horse has to be a world-show level Western pleasure mount. A cadenced, smooth-gaited horse is all you need. If you can’t sit a gait easily, and find yourself bouncing all over the saddle, your horse might not be the strongest mover. That natural gait is something that may not improve with training, and it’s nearly impossible to show your horse at his best if you can’t sit his strides to begin with.
A lot of the time you might run into a scenario where your horse is stronger at one gait over the other. It’s important to preserve the gaits in which he excels while you’re working to improve his other gaits.
For example, if your horse is a good jogger, and lopes great on the left lead, but needs help with his right lead, I would warm him up, jog him around, start by loping around on the left lead, and then spend some time working on the right lead. You need to know what the good lead feels like when you’re maneuvering your horse around, and then work to replicate that same movement going the other direction.
Another important skill set to have is a turnaround. Being able to complete a 360-degree turn is a great start to preparing your horse for all-around classes, as you’ll have to use this skill set to compete in events like horsemanship and trail. It’ll even help you teach your horse how to pivot for showmanship. When you’re working on a turnaround, your horse should be comfortable crossing his outside front leg over his inside front leg, without moving his haunches around.
[READ: TEACHING A HORSE TO TURN]
The only time your horse will swing his haunches around in a turnaround—unless you’re asking for a turn on the forehand—is in an event like trail where you’re asked to turn in a box. You will have to move both your front end and back end around to avoid hitting the poles.
To see if your horse has a good grasp of the turnaround, try performing a rollback. Start by trotting or loping one direction; once you know you’re straight, ask your horse to stop. Perform a 180-degree turn to the outside (toward the arena rail), and immediately drive him out of that turn and trot or lope the opposite direction. Be sure to practice this both ways so you can see if your horse is stiffer going one direction over the other. If your horse struggles with the rollback, chances are, he’ll struggle with turnarounds, as well.
If you don’t feel like your horse is turning around properly, certain parts of his body could be stiff, or he could be heavy in the face, and you may need to go back to the basics to get him soft and supple before working the turnaround again.
A horse that doesn’t give in the face, or one that likes to pull on the bit, is going to have a more difficult time steering through a pattern than a horse that stays framed up and collected. When your reins are too loose, you risk the chance of not having total control over where you’re guiding your horse, which causes your body to go out of position. This is why you’ll notice most riders prefer to ride with a shorter rein in pattern events, like horsemanship, than in a class like Western pleasure.
To work on this with your horse, start in a snaffle, and shorten up your reins. As you begin to ride, start at a walk, and ask him to give his chin; you’ll accomplish this by using your hands and feet together.
Once you feel your horse give to the pressure and stay bridled up at a walk, you can increase the difficulty by jogging. Progress to extending the jog, loping, and extending the lope. It may take a couple of rides before your horse is totally comfortable doing this exercise, but as you progress, continue to change it up by throwing in different maneuvers, like circling, into your routine, When your horse is able to give in the face, you’ll notice he’s more accepting of your hand and guidance.
Being able to counter canter is a must in all-around competition. A horse competing in those types of events is required to counter canter and lope diagonal lines while maintaining cadence in his body and brokenness in his face.
When you first ask your horse to counter canter, there’s a possibility he’ll struggle with loping a full circle and might fall out of lead in the hind end or try to change leads all together. Counter cantering is a maneuver with a high degree of difficulty, and It’ll take time before your horse is strong enough to lope a full circle while staying collected, in the bridle, and in the correct lead.
To see how your horse handles a counter canter, start by circling on the correct lead. When you reach one end of your arena, head longways on a diagonal line from corner to corner, making a half-moon arc on the correct lead. Once you’ve completed your diagonal and are now on the opposite side of the arena, you’ll create that same half-moon arc at a counter canter.
This way, your horse has more room to counter canter without breaking down to a jog or falling out of lead. Once your horse is able to do the half-moon arcs at a counter canter, you’ll build up to a full circle on the opposite lead without losing his body position or cadence.
It’s really important that your horse is comfortable changing leads, as you’ll be required to change leads in almost every class you compete in, whether it’s horsemanship, Western riding, or even a trail class.
While in some classes—like horsemanship or trail—it’s acceptable to perform a simple lead change, to earn a score with a higher degree of difficulty, your horse should be able to change leads in a willing manner.
For a class like Western riding, your horse must be capable of doing flying lead changes without losing speed or collection as you maneuver through the cones or over the pole.
To evaluate your horse’s lead change, go back to your counter-canter drill, and instead of going the opposite direction while counter cantering, make your change as your horse is crossing the long side of the arena.
The flying lead change is a difficult maneuver that usually requires an advanced riding skill. If your horse doesn’t have a flying lead change, or you’re new at changing leads, it’s best to seek the advice of a professional to avoid creating a negative riding experience that could cause more problems down the road.
[READ: FIX LEAD-CHANGE ANTICIPATION]
Going Over Poles
I’ve seen horses of all sizes and all stride lengths go into trail and Western riding classes. It doesn’t matter what size your horse is, but rather if he’s able to get over the pole.
If you’ve never gone over poles before, start by going over a single pole at the walk, then move up to a jog. Once you’re comfortable jogging over that pole, test your horse’s skills at the lope. Counting your horse’s strides as you approach the pole will help you put your horse in the right spot to correctly go over the pole at the right point of his stride.
Next, you’ll put two poles out—3 feet apart for one-stride jogs, 6 feet apart for one-stride lopes. This helps you learn where your horse’s feet need to be to clear a series of poles properly.
Pay attention to how your horse reacts over the poles. Can he maintain his cadence and speed control while going over them? Does he naturally like to drag his feet rather than pick them up? This could help determine whether or not your horse can do events that involve poles, as well.
Handling on the Ground
Showmanship is such an art. Your horse can learn the basics of showmanship early on just by walking alongside you. Pay attention to how he reacts next to you. Does he willingly walk when you walk? Does he stop when you stop? If so, try walking him in circles, or have him jog alongside you. You want to be able to control his hind end and his shoulders, so he doesn’t drift one way or the other.
If your horse is always on top of you or doesn’t want to get off the lead rope and back willingly, you know you’re going to spend more time teaching him showmanship.
Biting is another showmanship mishap. You’ll face penalties if your horse nips you during a class, and you’ll probably leave a bad taste in the judge’s mouth if your horse tries to bite him or her during an inspection. Your horse should have manners at all times, whether you’re in the show pen or at home in your barn.
If your horse likes to bite, avoid hand feeding him at all times. If you do give your horse some form of treat, place it in his feed bucket.
Set Him Up for Success
Unfortunately, we can’t be good at everything we do. You may come to realize your horse can’t do a specific event well. Maybe he’s a top-notch pleasure horse that’s capable of doing rollbacks, lead changes, and extending gaits, but he cannot pick up his feet to go over a log. He may not make the best trail horse, but he’s skilled at other maneuvers that will allow him to shine in other events.
Know the difference between being green at an event and not athletically capable of doing said event. You need to set your horse up for success so you both enjoy your time in the show pen. If that’s not an event he’s capable of doing well, don’t force him to do it—you’ll get in his way. Eventually, he’ll get mentally frustrated, as will you, and you’ll take away from his good events.
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