How to show like a pro, with tips from AQHA Professional Horseman Mark DeFreece.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression.
A cliché, yes – but true.
While getting your halter horse in top show shape is key to his success, many competitors overlook an equally important factor of the equation: the showmanship aspect of halter. You’ve got to know how to best show your horse to the judge, so that the judge can examine – and appreciate – your horse’s “best side.”
AQHA Professional Horseman Mark DeFreece of Whitesboro, Texas, has been training and showing halter and performance horses since the early 1980s, and he uses his AQHA judge savvy whether he’s standing at the end of the lead shank or behind the clipboard. Here are his suggestions for the best way to show off your halter horse.
In halter classes, it’s not necessary for the human competitor to dazzle the judge; that’s the horse’s job. The showman’s appearance should complement a well-groomed horse with an air of professionalism.
“The showman’s first impression to the judge is by means of his attire,” Mark says. “The best impression can be made with a clean, neat appearance.”
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For clothing, Mark’s motto is simple and clean. Blue jeans, nice boots and a button-down shirt score as appropriate attire – for both male and female competitors – at weekend shows. Large shows, like circuits or the AQHA World Championship Show, may entice competitors to dress up, but Mark still stresses simple colors and quiet prints. Clothing can be dressy without distracting a judge’s attention away from the horse.
For the horse, first impressions are made by looking at the judge through the halter, so halter fit is immediately significant. A correctly fitted halter lays tight against the horse’s head, close behind the ears and close to the throat. Sizing is essential; the noseband should lay flat halfway between the muzzle and the eye, and the silver plating and buckles should follow the line of the leather.
The overall appearance of a well-groomed halter horse mirrors that of the showman: simple and clean.
Traveling to the Judge
Judging begins with the horse’s walk to the judge.
It is the showman’s job to keep the horse under control, alert and traveling in a straight line, to give the judge the best opportunity to examine the horse’s soundness, muscling and balance.
“You need to get your horse traveled to the judge as quietly and as mannerly as possible,” Mark says. “I don’t mind one jumping and bucking a little bit when I’m leading to the judge, because it just tightens up the horse’s body and makes him look better, but he must not be a danger to himself or to the judge when he’s traveling.”
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In the Lineup
Alertness and manners in the lineup both depend on the showman’s ability to control the horse’s body and mind.
“Being able to set your horse up with the halter – with your hand on the lead shank only – is preferred to moving their feet with your hands,” Mark says, who suggests leaving 10 to 12 feet between horses in the lineup. “It’s a lot quicker if they set up from the halter, and it shows you’ve done your homework.”
To set up his horses, Mark teaches them to plant the right hind leg, move the left hind leg even with the right and then adjust the front feet. For an even, balanced stance, the horse should “stand on the corners of his body.” Each leg should be squarely under a “corner” of the horse’s body, as opposed to being spread too far apart or crowded too close together.
After setting the legs, Marks usually lets the horse relax, and brings him to attention when the judge is two or three horses away. To bring the horse to attention, Mark suggests finding something for him to focus on, in your hand or across the arena. Ultimately, however, the charisma is up to the horse.
You and the Judge
Mark suggests watching the paths judges walk around other horses in the class, so you can anticipate where you will need to stand when the judge gets to your horse.
“You want to stay on the opposite side from the judge, to keep the horse exposed to the judge,” Marks says. “Stay alert to where the judge is at all times, and move no more than twice while the judge is inspecting you horse. You won’t be distracting to the judge or to the horse, and your horse will stand more quietly and more alertly.”