Tips on Improving Your Western Showmanship Skills

The skills needed to show at halter also ensure that your horse will be well-behaved and responsive around the barn.

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Western Showmanship Skills
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

You’ve seen sleekly groomed western showmanship horses with expert skills move in sync with their handlers while outfitted in halters with shining silver. The horses stand at attention with their legs in perfect alignment. They walk, trot, pivot and stop with perfect cadence. Teaching your horse to move this way takes practice, but it can help you develop a partnership—one where you know your horse will cooperate no matter where you lead.

Top trainer Shaun Gloude, of Franktown, Colo., takes her clients to American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) World Championship Shows and is known for teaching with precision. Here, she describes what it takes to excel in showman- ship. You can teach your horse to move at your pace, stop, set up and pivot to prepare for every- day grooming or to work with a veterinarian or farrier. As you work consistently, your horse will understand your cues and offer his respect.

“Teaching a horse to respect his handler and perform certain maneuvers from the ground up is key,” says Gloude. “A confident, well-trained horse will exhibit good ground manners. He’ll allow the handler to control his every move. This control does not happen overnight. It could take months and some- times years. But once achieved, you will have earned a high level of respect from your horse.”

Western Showmanship Skills
Make sure your horse will walk beside you in a straight line at the pace you decide. This also comes in handy when trotting for the vet or walking past other horses. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Walk This Way

SHOW-WORTHY MOVE: Your horse should walk next to you and move at the pace you decide. Make sure that your horse can walk in a straight line. Stand at your horse’s left side and extend your hand forward while applying pressure to the lead.

Your horse should move off freely when you ask and move straight forward in the direction you point. If your horse wants to bend away from the straight path, walk along a fence or alongside a ground pole to keep a straight line.

Next, increase your go-cue pressure, and as you start to jog, you should cue for the trot. If your horse resists this cue, don’t make eye contact.

Your horse may move to the side. Instead, keep your eyes forward and keep contact until your horse trots. Once he’s in the gait, keep moving, but make sure not to keep pulling. Releasing pressure serves as the reward for your horse picking up the trot.

AROUND THE BARN: You’ll want your horse to focus and move at your speed when you’re moving through a stall door or gate. It’s also important that your horse will walk straight past another horse when needed. Plus, if your horse can easily trot on command, your veterinarian will appreciate this skill during pre-purchase or lameness evaluations.

Stop and Pose

SHOW-WORTHY MOVE: When it’s time to stop, say “whoa” to alert the horse that he should stop in a straight line with his legs squarely beneath him. Once he’s stopped, turn to stand facing his left shoulder. Make sure you’re never directly in front of your horse to ensure that you can’t be run over.

Better Showmanship
Teach your horse to square his feet after halting. This requires intricate cues that can take years to master—don’t give up! Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

To square your horse’s legs, move your right hand gently toward your horse’s right hind leg. Holding the lead rope while pointing your hand at the hoof that you want to move cues your horse with halter pressure.

Once the right hind foot is positioned in line with the left rear, praise him. Your horse will gain confidence from the praise and will learn your intricate cues. Make sure your cues are consistent each time. Ideally, your horse will stop and set up easily with little to no movement from your hand. Work up to this with repetition.

The perfect set-up is not trainable overnight. It may take years to develop this as one of your western showmanship skills. Once the horse is trained with consistency, proficiency will follow.

AROUND THE BARN: You’ll need your horse to stop and be patient as you open a gate or do any small chore. Your horse will need to stop and set up nicely for farrier appointments and to stand balanced as you pick his hooves.

Round and Round

SHOW-WORTHY MOVE: In a show, your horse must keep his right hind foot still during the pivot turn. Your horse will need to turn 360 degrees in most show patterns.

Better Showmanship
Showmanship calls for a 360-degree pivot around the hind end, which comes in handy while maneuvering in tight spaces around the barn. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

To cue for this, turn your body to face your horse’s jaw. Your horse will move his shoulders away from your body, pivoting to the right. As the horse starts to grasp the concept, ask for a sharper turn. Lift your right hand to shift the horse’s weight to his hind end.

AROUND THE BARN: Knowing that you can pivot your horse will help you make tight turns in a wash rack or anywhere you may need to turn sharply.

“A handler that fully develops each of these skills in their horse will have a horse that is rewarded by the judges as well as appreciated at home,” says Gloude.

Thanks to Lexi Radic and Incredibly Natural for assistance with these photos.

This article on western showmanship skills appeared in the February 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; registered AQHA gelding, Charlie; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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