Antsy Horse? Here’s How to Avoid Anticipation in Pattern Classes

Guide your horse through a relaxed pattern class with tips from a trainer and judge Sandy Jirkovsky.


Whether it’s showmanship, horsemanship, trail, western riding or ranch classes, pattern competition helps show a judge the skills you and your horse have mastered through precision and correctness. If your horse acts antsy in the pattern class, dancing in place with anticipation for your next move, chances of a blue ribbon can dissolve with each penalty and deduction.

A trainer works with an antsy horse to avoid anticipation in a pattern class
Practicing an entire pattern over and over can quickly contribute to your horse anticipating the next maneuvers. Instead, practice parts of the pattern with your horse, and memorize the entirety of it using other methods. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Here to help tamp down your horse’s jig, American Paint Horse Association and American Quarter Horse Association Professional Sandy Jirkovsky shares her advice.

Why Does My Horse Get Antsy?

There are several reasons why horses don’t settle while working a pattern and get antsy, and some of them are rider-related.

Rider tension: “If a horse can feel a fly on their skin, they can feel you tensing up,” says Jirkovsky. “Whether you tense up through your seat, through your legs, or even in your mind, they feel that, and the first thing they go back to is their natural instinct of flight because they feel apprehension on their back.”

A rider maneuvers a bay gelding through cones
If your horse tends to get antsy on the pattern, you could be tensing up and triggering his reaction. Check your mind and body for tension. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Over-practicing: Repetition is helpful for riders wanting to learn their pattern, but it’s not so good for a broke horse, says Jirkovsky. Completing entire patterns during practice can backfire when you go show.

“The horse learns the pattern faster than you do, and he’s going to anticipate,” she says.

Too fresh: Just like children in school, a horse with too much energy is not going to be able to focus on what you’re asking of him, according to Jirkovsky.

How to Handle It

Get mentally prepared: Jirkovsky suggests checking your mind and body for any tension.

“Make sure that you’re relaxed, taking deep breaths, thinking about what you’re going to do, and not transferring negative energy over to your horse,” she says.

Consider working with a friend or a trainer or having someone videotape your performance to see if you’re tensing up while riding, Jirkovsky advises.

Practice pieces: Choose maneuvers or portions of your pattern to practice. To learn your pattern as a whole, Jirkovsky suggests walking it on foot or even using another horse.

“We’ll practice maneuvers in a different order and make sure we have them all down,” she says.

School a Class Correctly

Jirkovsky says you can’t ride every class like you want to win first place. Working on sticky spots with your horse, even at the expense of a placing due to using two hands or breaking pattern, can make way for more successful performances in the future if you do it right.

“Sometimes you have to go to a smaller or open show to school and correct those issues, so that when you go to a show that counts, they’ve been fixed,” she says. “You’ll see many of the top trainers school through their patterns at a show, not being rough, but just keeping the horse focused on them.”

Avoid scaring your horse while schooling, Jirkovsky stresses.

“There’s two types of schooling,” she says. “There is good schooling, which is educational for the horse, and there is schooling to punish the horse. All that does is build apprehension for the next time he goes into the pen. Your schooling has to be proper and patient refocusing and redirecting, otherwise you’re just going to add to your problem.”

Don’t punish: Even if your horse acts up on the pattern, don’t discipline him—instead, recapture his focus.

“The worst thing you can do is punish your horse when he gets upset,” Jirkovsky says. “You just have to redirect his attention.”

Prevention Anticipation in Pattern Classes

Take a walk: Many riders skip walking in favor of other gaits and maneuvers. But Jirkovsky says the slowest gait is key to encouraging a calm and focused performance.

“Walking is a great patience builder, and seems to be a lost art,” she says.

Take some time to warm up, asking your horse to softly bend, flex and respond to your cues before moving on to pattern work.

A western trainer jogs a bay gelding
Take some time to warm up, asking your horse to softly bend before starting pattern work. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Cross-train: Working your horse in other disciplines can help his mindset toward your chosen class, Jirkovsky says.

“Take a horse that you always do reining on and go do ranch riding with him,” she says. “Take your horsemanship horse into a trail course and let him refocus a bit on the poles. Adding different classes instead of just that same class where he tends to get upset can help.”

Make the cone a happy place: Jirkovsky leaves cones out in the arena at home and does pattern maneuvers away from the cones, leaving the marker as a resting spot.

A trainer pats an antsy horse to ease anticipation during a pattern class
Make the cone a happy place by bringing your horse to rest there after working. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

“After working our horses around the arena, if we’re going to stand and talk for a while, we’ll do it at the cone,” she says. “The horses really anticipate, and once they see a cone, they think they’re going to have to do something. But we make the cone their resting place.”

For a showmanship horse, Jirkovsky will leave a bucket of grain at each cone, which encourages the horse to have his ears forward, looking forward to being at the cone.

Start with focus: Before you start your pattern, cue your horse with your legs to encourage him to take a breath and focus. This is a move you teach your horse at home after working hard, so do the same thing when you’re about to compete to remind him.

A trainer allows an antsy horse to lower its head to avoid pattern anticipation
Teach your horse to take a breath and lower his head before beginning your pattern. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

“I’ll roll my legs on the horse’s sides as support, and he’ll lower his head and take a breath,” Jirkovsky says. “At home, I’ll reward him and rub his neck and let him relax as a reward.”

Meet the Trainer

Sandy Jirkovsky is an APHA, AQHA, NRCHA and NRHA carded judge, an APHA and AQHA Professional, and a multiple APHA world champion competitor. She is located in Whitesboro, Texas.

This article about how to avoid an antsy horse and anticipation in a pattern class appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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