Showmanship – it all starts here

showmanship 2
Showmanship misconception

There’s a misconception that it’s the horse that’s judged in the Showmanship class. Whilst the horse has to be well behaved and aware of what’s going on, it’s the handler who is  judged. It’s his/her ability to show the horse to its best effect that counts.

That said, of course, the object of the exercise is showmanship and you won’t get far if you haven’t prepared your horse to show him at his best. And, whilst some associations won’t get too excited over rhinestones and the like on the handler, you need to take care yourself in your personal turnout. It’s you that’s being judged in the showmanship class and if you haven’t taken the trouble to present yourself to your best effect, it’s likely that the judge won’t spend much time assessing your showmanship.

For many people, the “halter classes” are all there is to competing with a western horse and the showmanship class can be hugely well supported and highly competitive. A judge’s nightmare! So attention to detail is the key.

The Showmanship Rule

Only the handler to be judged. The horse is merely a prop to show the ability of the handler, but competitors should bear in mind that the condition and turnout of the horse would reflect on their ability to fit and show in a halter class. The showmanship handler may only control the horse with the halter lead shank and must not position the horse by touching it with hand or foot. Any Western type show halter to be neat, clean and in good condition. Nose chain optional, lead shank to be carried coiled in free hand. Bits are not permitted. Bosal with Fiadore is permitted.

General appearance

Hair coat clean and well brushed. Mane and tail free of tangles and clean. Hooves should be properly trimmed. If shod, shoes must fit properly and clinches should be neat. Inside of the ears may be clipped. Long hairs on jaw, legs and pasterns may be clipped according to breed regulations. (Condition 15 points, grooming 20 points).

Tack – to be neat, clean and in good repair. (5 points)

Appearance of Competitor – Clothes and person neat and clean. Suitable Western clothes. No whips to be carried. (10 points)

Showing the Horse in the Ring. (50 points)


Showmanship pattern 1
1. All competitors will walk anti-clockwise around the arena
2. When asked by the judge all competitors will line up approximately 15ft from the wall.
3. From a standstill, walk on a straight line to the judge.
4. Stop with your horse in front of the judge, and square him up for inspection.
5. Turn your horse 180 degrees and immediately trot back through the line.
6. Stop and turn your horse 180 degrees.
7. Walk back into line with your horse in front of the judge and square him up.

Pattern 2
Showmanship Pattern 2

1. From a standstill, trot on a straight line from marker to judge.
2. Stop with your horse in front of the judge, and square him up for inspection.
3. Turn 11/4 revolutions to the right.
4. Back up.
5. Immediately trot straight toward the line-up

What I’ve learned

Most of what you’re doing for Showmanship is within the ambit of preparation of your horse for a show anyway. That is, you probably spend most of the day before shampooing, clipping and cleaning out all those important little places. It’s where your average horse just loves to store up grit and grime. And isn’t it at times like this when people sidle up to you and tell you that’s why they’ve got a mare and not a gelding or stallion? I’ve seen a pair of marigolds donned by even the roughest, toughest hombre before addressing his boy’s sheath! I just keep my fingernails short and get on with it…

But grooming is the easiest part of what we’re about with our horses. For me it’s a good time to be enjoying his company and planning for what we’re going to do. Once you have him as spick and span as you can get him, make sure he’s dried off and then cover him with a light rug (I use a day sheet) to keep him as clean as you can overnight.

Preparation of tack

Preparation of tack comes into the same general category of show preparation.  Although the rule doesn’t require finery in the halter department, it’s worth keeping one halter and lead rein just for the Showmanship class. So, get the best you can afford. You’re not going to need to replace it often (or at all) and nothing makes a horse look better than a finely made leather head collar. The lead rein needs to have a good length of chain (about 18”) at one end so that you can clip the rein to the head collar. Then, depending on whether your horse has a tendency to throw his head up or down, you pass the chain either over or under his nose to give you better control.

Because clean horses have a tendency to roll in the first puddle or sandpit that they see, it’s probably best not to give them any turnout on show days. Then, as the Showmanship class will always be the first of the day (if the show organiser has any sympathy for the poor hardworking handler!), we start the day putting straight anything that might have gone awry over night. I always put on a pair of overalls and old boots to do this because, as sure as God made little green apples, some part of the horse will end up on me as we get ready.

Starting the class

Now, you’re ready for the show ring. First of all, don’t be in too much of a hurry to get there. This is because you don’t want your horse to get bored. In the same way, don’t leave it too late. Now it’s because he needs a bit of time to acclimatize himself to the ring and the other horses. So, lead him out in good time. Here again, much of what you’re now doing is normal handling technique.

Take the lead rein in one hand not more than a foot from your horse’s head and carry any loose rein neatly in your free hand. Position yourself so that your shoulder is halfway along the horse’s neck. Too close to his feet and you’ll get trodden on if there’s an incident and, in the same way, you should not be too close to his head. Remember, it’s you that’s being judged and, during this phase of the class, you’ll need to position yourself between the horse and the judge. Walk your horse quietly around the arena. The judge will announce when the class is “open” and will normally ask everyone to continue walking around the outside of the arena. Try to distance yourself from the horses in front and behind and, remember, you’re showing your horse…


The judge will then invite all the competitors to line their horses up. As you will see, there’s a different arrangement in this respect between patterns 1 and 2 (the show programme will specify which one). The judge will then call competitors forward one at a time to show their horse according to the pattern in question. Pattern 2 requires more work from the competitor than Pattern 1 and for current purposes we’ll concentrate on Pattern 2.

As you’ll see, this starts with a jog in a straight line up to the judge. Walk your horse from the line-up to the marker cone indicating the start point for the jog up.

Now, the judge will give you a nod to start. You’ll find you get the best jog if you lean slightly back on your lead rein before you set off. because this tends to balance the horse onto his back legs and he starts with a nice collected jog. If you can, time your own steps to coincide with your horse’s front feet. Put your right foot down as he puts his right front down. This is a safety thing as much as looking good because it means that your foot on the ground is always furthest away from the horse’s step. Keep your head up and look at the judge. You bring your horse in line with the judge and not yourself. Most of all, remember to maintain position with your shoulder about halfway along your horse’s neck.

The show

Stop your horse no more than about 5 feet away from the judge. Now comes the tricky part. It’s the “square him up for inspection” bit that I have always found the hardest but we got it right first time about 75% of the stops if I stopped sharply and gave George a slight backwards tug as I did so. Remember: talking to your horse in this class is a markdown.

Stopping in a slightly marked manner tends to get him square on all four feet straight away. If that doesn’t work your only option is to practice squaring your horse up so that he knows what’s required of him at this stage. It can be frustrating and a bit like a leaky pot as you get 3 feet in place and he moves one out of line. The answer is that it doesn’t pay in the class to keep trying if you don’t get it right at the first few attempts. Settle for the nearest you can get and practice some more for the next time. Constantly shuffling your horse about is only going to upset him and you’ll lose more points doing that than if you opt for a slightly “unsquare” position.

Showing your horse to the Judge

Having got your horse square, stand at his head and face the judge to show that you’re ready for your horse to be inspected. The judge now considers your efforts while preparing your horse for judging. Therefore, at this stage of the class, your job is to keep your horse still and stay in sight of the judge but not between the judge and the horse. This will involve you moving about at the horse’s head as the judge moves around the horse. I’ve seen be-sequinned young things performing something akin to a line dance at the horse’s head as this stage of the class unfolds and it’s a marvel to me at such times that it doesn’t upset the horse more than it has. The requirement is to be attentive and move alertly without letting your horse move. No casual shuffling from one standpoint to another.

The judge returns to face you and the horse and you must turn your horse through 1 ¼ revolutions to the right. The expectation here is that the horse will plant his back feet and move his fronts around a circle, shuffling the back feet to stay comfortable. Again, this requires practice to avoid the horse just walking round a circle or backing up. It’s best done by simply moving his head sideways without pulling backwards or forwards on the lead rein.

Now, when you have completed the turn and a quarter, you’ll find yourself facing the line of the other showmanship horses with the gap in it that you came from. Because that’s where the judge positioned him/herself to start with! You now back up your horse. There’s no set distance for this, 4 or 5 full paces will do it. But you are expected to have your horse move back quietly without throwing his head and in a straight line.

A common failing…

The most common failing here is inadvertently to apply side pressure one way or the other to the horse’s head. He then starts to wander off line. So, concentrate on giving direct back pressure. Release it with each step of the front legs in the same way as in a mounted backup. There’s no rush. So, do it with your body facing the judge but remember: look back to see where your horse is going!

Back to the line-up

So, immediately you have finished the backup, collect yourself and your horse. Then, jog back to the line, remembering all you did on the jog out to the judge.

And remember, from the judge’s announcement that the class is open up to rosettes, you are being judged. Judges have an uncanny knack of spotting what’s going on in the lineup. Because, while apparently concentrating on another horse, it seems like they’ve got another eye out for the lineup. It’s embarrassing to get thrown out of a class for talking in the lineup but it happens. Don’t do it or you will throw away all your time and effort to get there. Keep your eyes on the judge at all times!


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