Sharper Image

It’s no secret that horse show judges favor riders who exude confidence.

Look the part of the confident equestrian with advice on visual appeal from AQHA Professional Horsewoman Gretchen Mathes.

Jessica Johnson wears a more traditional style outfit for the hunt seat equitation. Journal photo.
Jessica Johnson wears traditional gear for hunt seat equitation. Journal photo.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

It’s no secret that horse show judges favor riders who exude confidence and convey strong communication-based partnership with their horses.

To present themselves as relaxed but attentive equestrians ready to take on the challenges of a class, youth riders must convince judges they understand the nature of their event and how best to position themselves in the saddle for effective commands.

Connecticut trainer and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Gretchen Mathes spends much of her time molding novice riders into picture-perfect competitors. As an AQHA judge, Gretchen knows that posture, body position and tack and clothing all play a part in creating a young showman’s image. She doesn’t let her student make the same presentations mistakes she saw in show rings throughout North America and Europe.

“It should look like you spend hours every day riding that horse,” Gretchen says, “and that you’re in the best position to tell the horse exactly what you need to.”


In either western or hunt seat, a rider should be balanced, sitting straight, with his ear, hip and heel in a straight line perpendicular to the ground. If you have a habit of getting behind the horse’s motion, reacting to a horse’s movement rather than moving in rhythm with the horse, overcome that tendency through training.

Before hitting the show ring, work on keeping your body position, shifting only in tune with the horse’s rhythm.

The “Selecting and Showing Hunter Under Saddle Horses” DVD provides a wealth of information about what makes a good hunter under saddle horse.

The judge’s impression of a rider often begins with the face and head positioning and, as in all other riding categories, if it isn’t natural, it isn’t right. In both western and hunt seat events, the ear should be in line with the middle of the shoulder. Avoid sticking your head forward in an attempt to look determined and focused, since it puts your shoulder out of position. Make any necessary head movements appear natural.

Hands and Reins

“If I had just one complaint about what I saw as a judge, it would be about hand positioning,” Gretchen says. “I see so many people showing with horrible hands.”

In western classes, the upper arms should be in line with the upper body, with the forearms at slightly more than a 90-degree angle. A rider’s elbows can be just forward of the sides of his body. The free hand and arm should mirror the positioning of the rein hand and arm.

Keep a soft but direct rein and use the imaginary box as a guideline to rein length. The imaginary box is a six-inch square right in front of the saddle horn.

“Try to keep that rein hand inside a box about six inches by six inches and extending straight up,” Gretchen says. Your reins should be short enough to allow you to direct you horse without moving your hands outside the imaginary bounds.

In hunt seat, create a definite line running from your elbow to your hand and to the corner of the horse’s mouth. Your hand positioning should feel loose and natural, not stiff and rigid. Avoid cocking your wrists inward, which forces your elbows out, and make sure your hands aren’t too far back. There should be little rein slack in hunt seat events, with the rein forming a nearly direct line from the rider’s hand to the bit.

Hand positioning shouldn’t vary with gait, but it is acceptable to ride the rail on a slightly longer rein than you might use in pattern work.

The “Selecting and Showing Hunter Under Saddle Horses” DVD will allow you to learn from the best, AQHA Professional Horsewomen Carla Wennberg and Leslie Lange.

Tack and Clothing

“I like simple stuff, so plain, clean tack that fits your horse is just fine,” Gretchen says. “It doesn’t have to be covered with silver. That’s not the point of horsemanship. The point is how well you ride and communicate with your horse.”

The coloring of the tack – saddle, bridle and breast collar – should be similar, if not perfect, matches. There have been crazes over light-colored western tack, but before dropping thousands on new show equipment, remember that routine cleaning and sunlight will darken leather, meaning that you’ll have to make repeat trips to the tack shop every few years if you want to follow the fad. Instead, Gretchen advises, keep it simple and put saddle fit above the momentary fashion.

In hunt seat, the look is conservative. English tack should be russet (a reddish-brown) or Havana brown, as dark as possible. If you buy new tack, be sure to oil or stain it to get the dark look hunt seat dictates.

As for clothing, avoid the temptation to wear a Technicolor shirt or hunt jacket meant to seize the judge’s attention. Western clothing should be simple, with colors tying together. Hunt seat attire should be traditional. Jackets should be tailored for a proper fit and in a standard color such as navy blue, hunter green or charcoal black. Breeches should be gray, rust or khaki. Black field boots or brown jodhpur boots are the best bet in hunt seat events.

If you feel the need to wear jewelry in a class, Gretchen says, keep it simple and opt for a small earring or pin. Leave distracting accessories at home.

24 thoughts on “Sharper Image”

  1. This horse is way overbent in the bridle. The face is supposed to be on the vertical. Why show this picture, just cause the clothes are ok, the neck and head are not ok? Or are they for the AQHA?

  2. if you read the caption, the point is to show the clothing…not the horse. As long as they work together as a team, it really does not matter.

  3. I see a horse working behind, and comfortably moving, picture might have been snapped right at the wrong time, maybe the horse’s head swayed behind for a moment. I know my horse, even while in gait moves his head around a bit. Pictures caught at the wrong time can make a horrible uproar but overall I think it is a very very beautiful photo, and a very very good article.

  4. its Hunt Seat Eq. The horse isn’t judged harshly. Its the rider that is. So you will see horses who ride on a shorter rein like this to show more control and get more precise movements

  5. It may be she’s in an eq class and a shorter rein is allowed in pattern classes. If it were a hunter under saddle class, she would not be placed.

  6. She’s in an eq class and showing CONTACT with her horse! He’s not over bridled and better yet, he’s not looking like a western pleasure horse w English tack that seems to be the norm now in the hus classes. Jessica Johnson has the most correct eq position of any rider exhibiting in that class today. When any of those who criticize are able to ride-and WIN multiple World Championships in the class-like she does, then we will listen to your opinion.

  7. This is Jessica Johnson a multiple world champion showing in hunt seat equitation. It is perfectly ok to have more contact during the pattern than during a rail class. Go on and watch her winning run at the 2011 world show and you’ll see a beautiful and effective rider showing a big and forward horse in a very intricate pattern. Not every horse is a super broke super slow western horse!

  8. I agree that this horse looks great and is being ridden very correctly for HSE; however, the first commenter is correct. When you read the AQHA rulebook, it states that a horse traveling with its nose behind the vertical should be faulted and placed behind the other competitors for HSE, and disqualified for Horsemanship. That’s the rulebook. Clearly, that rule needs to be re-considered, as we are seeing more and more people riding great patterns, and winning at the highest levels with headsets that (while more correct) are technically deserving of faults according to the rulebook. It’s not fair for newer competitors who are trying to follow the rulebook and then see something else entirely winning in the ring.

  9. Lori, keep your hat on. We get your point, and she does show excellent position. However, I agree with Allie that the horse does deserve faults according to the rule book. Anyone who has shown extensively has seen fads come and go, no matter what the rule book says. I would seriously recommend not being so defensive and open yourself up to learning a little from others also.

  10. This horse and rider combination is a three time back-to-back ammy HSE world champion. Maybe the rule book needs to be revisited.

  11. I agree with Allie, Vicki & Liz. The AQHA rule is what should be revised. The rider is riding her horse correctly, but it’s the rulebook who states that she is not. If the judges thought the horse being ridden consistently behind the verticle was permissable, then why have a rule that states it is not? What about the rides that attempted to ride the class by the rules when they may have had a better ride had they kept their horses behind the verticle?

  12. Vicki,
    This is s snapshot of a split second of a two minute ride. I would hope that you would watch her winning run before you make accusations of penalizing. I bet if I were to take a picture of the winning pleasure horse or HUS horse I would see their poll too low for a split second. These are horses not robots. Why Lori gets upset is that there are people trying to make a better quality of horse and rider out there and it is people like you that quickly judge from your computer screen and cut down years of hard work.

  13. From the Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations for AQHA: Section 475B, paragraph (a): “The poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers, to allow proper impulsion behind”
    This horse, through “subtle cues and aids” from his rider is traveling thus. And for those being so vociferous regarding rule changes, if you are an AQHA member, the deadline to suggest rule changes is Dec 31. If you’re going to bemoan the regulations, please submit a change for consideration. If you dont submit a change, then you’re part of the problem. Please don’t judge any rider (or person for that matter) based on a single snapshot. As others have suggested, watch the video-any video of Jess riding-then try and replicate her equitation. Yea, good luck with that!

  14. yes, this is AQHA to whoever responded with that. With that in mind the hunter stand point minus the under saddle as us hunter people do not associate with the under saddle people as we like our horses to be in a nice round frame such as Jessica’s horse above we HATE to see horses head on the ground dragging like that’s natural? You are horse can be behind the bridle for not more than 10 strides. I would say she was getting ready to transition plus she has a pelham in the horse thus more leverage. But kudos to her for keeping him up and round not down, hollow, and fake. At least she can ride an actual trot instead of a jog like most hunt seat riders do. Go take a look in the actual hunter ring. You will see more of riding there.

  15. Coming from both a USEF and QH background, I cringe when I watch most HSE riders. Jessica is a breath of fresh air because she understands and can correctly push her horse into a correct frame. HSE is supposed to be a gateway into riding over fences. With her position and the fact that her horse is moving off of his hind end, rather than plodding around on his forehand like most QH are apt to do, I would bet that this horse is a blast to jump around a course and that he has a ton of scope.
    Don’t even get me started on that wierd posting thing that HUS riders do.

  16. That photo is a split second in time from a video called “The Winning Run”. It’s not called “The Perfect Run” because there is no such thing. And who is to say that the moment wasn’t penalized by the judges? Until you know what the judges are thinking, you are just speculating. All in all, the judges concluded that it was the best ride, on that day, and that’s all they are required to judge. Singling this moment out as the downfall of AQHA hunt seat equitation is a little harsh. There’s a lot to be learned from that video.

  17. Everyone is getting really upset when the point of contention is NOT that anything is wrong with the way Jessica is riding! In fact, what she is doing is GREAT (obviously she has the hardware to prove it)!! The issue is that AQHA’s rulebook, on P 150 (online download) states that “•over-flexing or straining neck in head carriage so the nose is carried behind the vertical” should be “severely faulted.” When you watch the winning run, for the second half of her pattern, her horse’s nose is behind the vertical. Which, once again, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, just that it shows the AQHA rules committee needed to reconsider that rule. I have spoken with Alex Ross and he has indicated that for 2012 it will no longer be a “severe penalty” but rather a “minor penalty.” I question why the rulebook should call it a penalty at all. It’s simply a matter of AQHA being clear on expectations so that all judges and riders know how they can/should ride the HSE.

  18. I believe it is how you have interpreted the rule, over-flexed and straining with a result of the horses head behind the vertical. On the winning run, I would hardly qualify that as straining or over flexed. The beauty of being a judge is using horsemanship skills, knowledge, and intuition, and that is what I believe is what those knowledgable judges did on that day. I will back up what Lori said, instead of using a very public forum to air your problems with the rulebook, write a letter as a proposed rule change that will be submitted to the correct committee and it can be handled in a much more meaningful way.

  19. This is a terrible snapshot to use for any article pertaining to positioning. The horse is terribly over-flexed for any discipline, her left shoulder is protruding forward and her right hand is dropped. However – this is an elegant, very correct horse and rider team that should not be judged by this photo. The error here is not with the horse, rider or industry, it is with the article’s editor.

  20. This horse is NOT over bridled for the equitation classes. Yes, for hunter under saddle that would be penalized. She obviously hasnt won the worlds the last 3 years if she doesnt have a decent horse and can ride very well. She has control of her horse and contact with his mouth. This is absolutely an acceptable headset for equitation.

  21. I know the AQHA world is harsh, but everyone here is missing the point. Yes it is a some what bad picture, but there are bad pic’s published everywhere. The editor should have taken a different pic, and not posted this one. But everyone on this forum is missing the point of the article. The point is this women who is so kind to share information with out charging you an arm and a leg, (she obviously has the right to because of her titles). She is giving you vital information that you should be rushing to the barn and arena to try, not sit on your computer and pic apart, which I would think a person such as a world champ like her could only be qualified to do! So please take the article and give it to a youth, or an amature, or use it for yourself. But don’t sit on your computer,and pic apart a wonderful team of horse and rider. I understand if you want to comment.. but be positive… don’t be a Negative Nancy when some one is trying to help you! 🙂 Now I’m going to the cold outside arena to give this info a try to make myself better!

  22. Anyone who shows AQHA knows that most AQHA judges pay no attention to the rule book anyway. If they did, most of the horses that are being placed in the western pleasure classes would be getting the gate instead.

  23. So true S.
    Overflexing or “Rolkur” is frowned upon, no matter what the disipline, just as being above the bit is undesirable too.
    You will see a lot of this in dressage. Put’s a lot of strain on neck and back muscles. Should be penalized.

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