Showmanship Psych

AQHA judge Holly Hover gives advice on the psychological and physical preparations for a showmanship class.

An AQHA judge describes the psychology behind showmanship classes.

Tony Anderman showing at the 2011 AQHA World Championship Show in showmanship
Tony Anderman and Goodness Im Green at the 2011 AQHA World Championship Show. Journal photo.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Holly Hover of Cave Creek, Arizona, became an AQHA judge in 1988. She judges AQHYA and AQHA world shows, and has judged internationally throughout her career. She’s a professional horse trainer who coaches amateurs and youth showmen with a focus on all-around competition.

One of her amateur showmen was Sarah Marold, All American Quarter Horse Congress versatility champion and reserve all-around amateur at the AQHA World Show.

Holly has helped transform many exhibitors into showmanship champions with her collection of showmanship psychology tricks. Her tricks include handwriting analysis, dressing for success, body language and positive thinking.

Handwriting Analysis
“The first thing we do when we get to the show is look at the pattern,” Holly says. “If someone hand-scribbled ‘Showmanship – walk in, circle around, walk to the judge, walk out,’ it’s obvious to me this judge is not a stickler for detail. He’s wanting you to get in there, get the job done and get out. So do exactly that. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

Your AQHA or AQHYA membership does much more than bring you together with other horse enthusiasts.

“On the other hand, adjectives and adverbs show you a judge is more in tune to detail. If I write ‘Walk straight to the judge,’ I’m telling you right there I’ll be watching whether your horse walks straight. If I write ‘Back four steps,’ you can be sure I’m going to count them.”

Another tactic Holly suggests is copying the pattern down when you first get to the show. Just the act of writing it down will help commit it to memory.

Dress for Success
“You can tell a lot about judges by the way they dress,” Holly says. “If a woman (judge) is dressed conservatively, you can bet she’ll appreciate that in a showman. If a woman comes in wearing bright colors, obviously she likes them or she wouldn’t be wearing them. As a rule of thumb – and there are exception to this – I think men judges will accept and appreciate a fancier look.”

Holly explains that showmanship exhibitors have to dress up more than in horsemanship. She admits fighting the new fancier looks but she and Sarah had to eventually give in and trade in the old starched jeans for purple polyester pants and a shiny, floral jacket.

“Same girl, same horse, same patterns, different clothes, and she suddenly stated winning,” Holly shrugs. “I think we got a look that was between conservative and flashy. That’s what I suggest now, finding a median style that’s going to appeal to most every judge.”

Showing Your Horse
Exhibitors who give Holly the impression that are showing themselves and not their horses are not going to earn any points.

“Don’t set your horse up, then tip your shoulders toward me. Your feet, hands, head and shoulders should direct attention to the horse. Only your eyes should acknowledge the judge.

“I see a lot of people go through this routine where their eyes go to the horse’s ears, shoulders, feet and tail, and then they cock their head toward me, and it is so synthetic. Just check your horse,” Holly says.

The Power of Positive Thinking
“As a part of positive mental attitude, when you inevitably make a mistake, don’t chastise yourself. Just figure out what you’ll do differently next time, and do it in a positive way. Instead of saying ‘I blew it. I dropped my hands,’ say, ‘I could help my horse turn better if I’d lift his head.’ The great thing about showing horses is there’s always another day – even with the World Show, there’s always one next year.”

Plus, your AQHA membership gives you discounts on many corporate partner products and the award-winning America’s Horse magazine! Join today.

Holly says her students are trained to think, “I’m going to do my best,” instead of thinking about who they’re out to beat. “I think it is counterproductive to have a rival,” she says. “I think you lose sight of the whole picture if all you’re thinking is ‘Beat Suzy.’ ”

Another part of Holly’s program has surprised some of her younger clients.

“They get a big surprise. If you aspire to be a world-class competitor, you have to think of yourself as an athlete, no different than a skater or gymnast. You have to be healthy, get enough sleep, eat right and feel good. You can go to a movie or party and stay out all night at home. I have seen people change their priorities from going to the show just for the party to saying to me, ‘I need to get to bed early because I need to get up and work my horse.’ When that revelation happens, you’ve got yourself a showman.”

The Edge
To have the competitive edge in any horse show event, you have to look through the eyes of the judge. “Realistically, you’ve got about 30 seconds to make it or break it,” Holly says. “I would never go into the ring with a deficit – something I can control. I can control my clothes being clean and my hair being neat, my horse being fit, clean and clipped. I can control my knowledge of the pattern and knowledge of what the judge may or may not like. Go in with a loaded gun, and if the chips go your way, great. There’s a lot of luck involved. But you can increase your luck with confidence and a lot of work at home.”

41 thoughts on “Showmanship Psych”

  1. so when she says just ‘check your horse’ when setting up infront of judge, is she saying to set horse up and then not look at the judge? im a little confused on that part

  2. She means it shouldn’t be a robotic motion of feet, head, judge. As you finish your crossover just glance down at your horses feet with your eyes and return your attention to the judge. This is a much more natural and crisp look than all the head tilting and moving and will ultimately be appreciated as well as noticed by whomever is judging. Hope this helps 🙂

  3. I know this is such a nit-picky item in showmanship, but I would appreciated any opinions.
    I personally love showmanship and have done very well in classes, but I don’t have a “Julia Roberts” or “cheerleader” smile. I notice most men don’t seem to smile but for us women it seems like a must. My mouth will only stretch to a lippy smile, I have tried practicing in the mirror many times and since I have small teeth and a small mouth, I’ve come to the conclusion that my lippy smile is the most pleasant expression that I can get my face to do.
    My question is, do you think judges prefer those people with a “cheerleader” smile?

  4. I too enjoyed this article. Holly I would like to know what you think of the people who when trotting with their horse look like they are going to fall over as they lean so far forward or they hunch down like they are going to sit in a chair. It looks so silly to me almost like it is a fake person trotting beside the horse. I always tell my students to go along in a natural gait with their horse.

  5. Never hurts to be a size 2 and pretty…I think there should be showmanship classes by weight. You weigh in with your halter and then go. Hard to compete in an ammy class as a 30, 40, some year old that has some kids when you’re with 20 year olds. And may I had to it that I think the whole concept of leveling would have been just as easy if they had just lowered the select age to 40 or 45. And it does matter how big you are. We are all human, and whether or not we will admit it, it is human nature to find a young, skinnier pretty competitor appealing over an old wrinkled fat lady. I can’t wait to be 50…

  6. Ha Sabrina, loved your comment! Bea if the judges are judging you on your smile….they shouldn’t be judges! Put some lip gloss on smile and show off that horse. Your maneuvers and technique is what counts NOT your looks.

  7. I really like this article! Bea, don’t stress over your smile 🙂 I remember the week I got braces I had a big quarter horse show… I couldn’t smile right, so I just grinned with a closed smile. I won my class and it felt great to not worry about how the judges thought about my smile. Now I don’t really notice and I go in with a natural smile because I am having fun.

  8. Sabrina….I was 40 when I won Reserve World Champion Amateur Showmanship at Halter in 1998. However, you are right…..the World Champion just came out of the youth ranks and it was her first year as an Amateur. You have to show because you love it…and you can’t use your age as an excuse. And Holly has some great points…..she certainly has her opinions and I respect that.

  9. I liked this article as an 4-H advisor for 10 years and a horse show mom the details are the important things!!! For the person without a smile there are more than one way to smile do it in your body posture and your eyes Try it.. For the heavy person you have just as good of chance as a small person if you complement your horse meaning… Have fun go in with a winning personality and show off all the work you have done with your horse and everyone remember the competition is so close little Details get the bonus points!!! Good luck to all and remember anyone can win at showmanship!!!

  10. my daughter who is now an am (sorry to see the youth yrs gone) is just under 5 feet = she lacks confidence in showmanship more so than her riding because of her height! I keep telling her it doesn’t matter how tall you are! She does really well in all her classes – any thoughts on how to make her more confident?

  11. Lynn- I myself am just over 5′. Walkin in at 5’3″ during competition is VERY inimidating- I had my first show last year- and compared to the supermodels (5’8-5’10) and my little cow pony (14.3 hands) next to their 16h. monsters we stuck out like a sore thumb. However I still placed- reguardless…it’s what I love- explain to her if it’s what she loves, let the love shine through, and no matter how tall or short she is, her love for the sport, her competitiveness and athleticisim will show through! Good luck all and hope to someday see you all in the ring!
    Happy Showing!

  12. Wow—I’m very taken back by all of the response to this article. It has to be at least a decade old!! I still stand behind the basics of showmanship. I.e. Be prepared,be natural and show your horse!! Be wary of trends and hold tight to tradition. Practice…confidence…execution of the maneuvers. It really is just that simple!! I have enjoyed everyone’s comments and enthusiasm!! Showmanship can be anyone’s game if you make it your own!! Enjoy!!! HH

  13. Gypsie, I’m 5’4 and My showmanship horse is a 15hh cutting-bred gelding. Me bringing him into the ring with big massive 16hh horses is intimidating. He’s 3 years old at that, so you could see the nervousness in his face too. I placed first in all my showmanship classes, I have never done showmanship until this year, and I ended up being 4H provincial champion. Its kind of cool, the confidence boost you get from it.
    Don’t be worried about how big your horse is.
    Any tips on teaching a turn?

  14. Hi Holly….Great article. Curious about your response to the question regarding people hunching down as they run beside their horse and taking short choppy strides….What is your veiw on the pull turn?

  15. Hi Susan, The pull turn has been officially retired as of Jan 1 2012. No more pull turns allowed !! As for the over exaggerated perch,slink and run—I think it goes without saying that it is not a credit earning maneuver. It is a ‘style gone bad’ trend that somehow snuck it’s way into mainstream showmanship. I have never judged with a person who rewarded this. Always remember that all parts of a pattern are reflected in your final score. Many times an exibitor with an artificial presentation is flawless elsewhere. Don’t get caught up in mimicking the trends—-stay the course with basic,classic showmanship!! We can only judge what we see and what we see is not always what we are looking for! Make sense???? HH

  16. Just my two cents…with as competitive as the ring is, I think it is a shame that pull turns were retired. Yes, it is taught that you always push the horse away from you for safety, but, seriously, when it was allowed, it was surprising how many top competitors/horses, well, just plain couldn’t cut the mustard. The ones who could nail it without hesitation – those are the folks that knew it could be asked of them at any show and do it with confidence.
    I also am not fond of the patterns being given days or weeks in advance of the show. Yes, I think an exception can be made for Congress & World perhaps, but at a local level, I think it just takes something away to being able to get a pattern, keep your cool, and pull it off flawlessly…not because you & your horse rode the snot out of it before the show. But I suppose giving the pattern ahead of time has helped to increase numbers because people felt more confident in entering the class. Just a shame they had to get confidence by that manner instead of just owning it in the first place.

  17. I AM THRILLED THAT THE PULL TURN HAS BEEN RETIRED!!! Like what was said, we teach our kids to push rather than pull for safety reasons. SAFETY is the word. Turning a big 16 or 16+ onto a child always gave me shivers. In case you haven’t felt it, it hurts when a horse steps on you. I hated the pull turn just as much as I hate dropped stirrups in Select Hunt Seat Equitation. We’re too old for that nonsense and possiblity of slipping off and getting hurt. Just my opinion. Holly great article. I have always respected you as a judge, you’re awesome.

  18. Many thanks for this article and replies from the smaller, older people with smaller horses. I have just sold my 16hh appendix mare in favor of a 14:2 reining type gelding, and was thinking showmanship was a lost class. I also appreciate the comment about the more conservative classy clothes. The toned down bling look accents professionalism and training not how much money can be spent on clothes and tack. A very good friend of mine once showed at a national competition in a brand new much more expensive saddle (than he usually had). Well you guessed it, the ride didn’t go well. The judge told him that if he had spent as much money on training as he had on his saddle, we might have won the class!LOL

  19. Love articles on Showmanship! Thank you Holly for article & additional comments. My mantra for 2012: Be prepared,be natural and show my horse, hold tight to tradition, Practice! I hear score sheets may be available in 2012 so we can see the plus/minus for our go. That will be so helpful!
    Regarding comments on height, weight, age…basketball players want to be taller, pitchers wish they were younger. Showmanshipers are athletes too with all the trotting/circling we have to do! We must work with what we’ve got & do it because we love it. I love the challenge of trying to figure out as a 50+ person, how to continue to do well in my Novice classes alongside 20-somethings, it’s tough! Regarding lowering the Select age- no way! Something happens to your body at 50+ and I would not want to compete against my old 40-yr old self. Joints don’t hold up as well & you don’t bounce back from injuries as quickly. In CA, Select classes are much larger than Amateur-there’s talk about raising Select age or increasing qualifying points for Select. Lastly on $$ clothes -I’ve shown successfully in gently used custom or inexpensive Hobby Horse for years. I was Select before I got my 1st “custom” outfit. I look for well made clothes that can be tailored & compliment my horse & figure.

  20. Perhaps lowering the select age is not the answer, then why not just have ran concurrent with adding the 30-49 division, as they are broken down by aqha for national rookie titles?
    It is great that in CA the select classes are large, but they are quite pitiful in our area, even in adjoining states. Most of the times they cannot even hold a select class and they have to ride with the ammys in our area. Seems like it defeats the purpose of having it if they just have to ride with the ammys anyway because we can’t get enough entries to make points in select(at least where we are). We need some CA folk to relocate to our area…
    On yet another note, I think it is time AQHA starts thinking about addressing the HUS horses. Personally I love TB’s and appendix horses but lets be honest: The modern day HUS horse IS a TB. I have one at home that has no AQHA on her papers. Yes, they are technically registered as AQHA, but they are TB’s. What happens when you get a nice QH, as Rhonda stated above, that happens to be an exquisite mover, a big mover for their small stature, but you’ll never see them in a HUS class. I don’t know how you correct it at this point since we’ve bascially bred the QH out of the HUS horses, but I think it would be refreshing to see some real QH’s show in a HUS class. Furthermore, I had had an AQHA judge tell me at a AQHA show a few years back (which by the way was a 4 day show which cost me a lot of hard earned money to compete at), and when in the hunter hack class the judge had mentioned, “your pony did a great job” HELLO!!! My ‘pony’ was 15.2. One of the folks on the sideline was overheard saying ‘look, she’s riding a dachsun amongst greyhounds!’ well isn’t that the dang truth. I was riding a QH against TB’s.
    I do agree, Marian, I don’t think fancy saddles or expensive clothes are always best. Fit & figure flattering/complimentary to the horse are most important. If you don’t have that, well, no amount of expensive clothing can make it better. I’ve noticed that as I get older I tend to want to be more ‘simple’. This is only my opinion, but it always puts me in awe when I go to berry fit booth at congress and look at the clothing for the larger women. Some of the designs they choose I wonder what where they thinking. Putting big designs on the chest which I don’t need looking any bigger or making sharp corners almost pointing right to the butt which in my case doesn’t need any pointing out, or the big designs right on the stomach area, again, I need to minimize these areas, not point them out! I wear a body shaper even at my size and I’m probably considered relatively standard size, But would it kill some women to consider buying a body shaper to smooth out the spare tires on their spandex western tops? Glad to see hobby horse started selling these in their catalogs…some women needed to know…LOL

  21. Showmanship is my daughter’s favorite class of all times and her and her horse have become quite good at it. I shared your article on my facebook and have already gotten some positive responses. Also, my daughter was celebrating the fact that no more pull turns. Thanks for this article and your advice.

  22. Why is the pull turn listed in the 2012 AQHA Rule book if it is not an allowed maneuver as of Jan 1, 2012?

  23. Okay…..Just had the “pull-turn” question clarified by Jackie Krshka. It has been recommended to the judges that the pull-turn not be used in 2012 pending it’s official removal from the rule book in 2012. Thank you Neil for bringing this to our attention!! HH

  24. To further clarify….rules voted on at the 2012 AQHA convention will be reflected in the 2013 rule book.

  25. Holly,

    Are you saying when you finish your setup, and are showing, you don’t turn your head look to the judge, just an eye glance?

  26. Thank you Holly for all your helpful comments, much appreciated! I’m disappointed at losing the pull turn, if it’s well executed it’s a fun maneuver, and doesn’t have to be unsafe. Maybe just eliminate it for the youth and novice exhititors?
    Interesting to hear everyone talking about the big HUS horses. My horse is 16.2, and is a bit of a challenge to do showmanship with as compared to the smaller horses. He’s good at it, but I think we have to work harder to make the pattern look smooth with his size. I’m 5.10, so we match up pretty well, but I do have to really trot to keep up! Keeps me in shape. 🙂

  27. Nellie, it just has to be a natural response to the judge. You certainly can turn your head if it’s not artificial or “cutesy”. Just show the horse,be confidant and correct!!! We are looking for horseman not “step ford” showman!!!! Relax and show that horse!! And don’t forget to have fun!!!!!! HH

  28. It is refreshing to see a judge giving great advice! I can’t wait til score sheets are available at the novice level! As a former teacher, I would love to know areas that need improvement!

    As far as ages, looks, etc., I don’t think they matter as much as all that. I’m 5ft tall, avg. weight, larger rear than I need and my horse is about 16h. I’m in my 40’s and already had knee surgery last year, so I physically have a hard time with a demanding pattern. The younger girls can put me to shame on some days. Just give me my Ibuprphen and I’ll get thru it. You know, I think some judges will always prefer Barbie over Strawberry Shortcake, no matter what their horse does. I have been beaten by Barbie when she did the wrong pattern, lol. But I’ve also beaten the Barbie when I didn’t think I deserved it. Basically, you pay for the judges opinion; plain and simple. I just don’t get my $100 Spanx in a wad about it. Love what you’re doing and the judges will notice.

  29. At a recent show, I happened to be the first in the draw for Amateur Showmanship when the judge through a twist in his routine. All morning he had been walking in the same circle for inspection, during my inspection after passing the rear of the horse he stopped and went back the direction he had started. Since I love showmanship and my attitude is that it’s a game, I burst out into a huge “gottcha” grin. The judge smiled back. And I won the class. Having seen how the big smile helps to win the class, I try to do it too but I’ve found my lips quivering at the start of some patterns. Can’t imagine that’s too pretty of a first impression! (And for those lie me, closely approaching select, body shapers do wonders for the bumps and lines you wish didn’t show.)

  30. Thank you for an awesome article! I just want to say to everyone not to worry about the size of your horse. If the conformation is good, and the horse is presented with excellent grooming as well as you the exhibitor, size shouldn’t matter. My daughter showed with a 15 h (if you round up!) horse and they won – a lot! She’s 5-2″ I think it looks great if a shorter person shows a horse that is of an appropriate size for them. I believe I also saw an adult woman showing a gorgeous smaller horse with a full mane. He was impeccably groomed. I think she won a reserve WC. We have to trust that over the long term, judges are going to give credit where it is due, no matter what size, color, age, etc. And Holly Hover is such a welcome example of that!

  31. What if you are a boy showing in showmanship and halter classes… how should a young boy be dresses? My son and I are just starting lead line and it is so hard to find a matching outfit for son and mother. And when he is out of lead line what then????

  32. Regarding sparkly outfits – I remember two years ago when a young lady that we know won the Youth World in Horsemanship in a solid black, tailored, button-down oxford shirt. It sure got everyone talking, but now you see a lot more conservative outfits on exhibitors. My daughter showed in youth on a wonderful, 15.3 hand mare. In the HUS classes, she would stick out like a sore thumb with all the “giraffes” in the class, but she always placed in the top 5, many times beating all of them because she had great conformation and movement. A lot of these horses are bred to be tall, but their movement is not that great. The good judges can weed them out.

  33. Mrs. Holly, I have shown to you before my horse is Sterling Version, I learned so much from your article. I love the idea of drawing the pattern to help your remember it!

  34. I loved this article, I’m an adult beginner and will strive to remember what was mentioned in the article as I grown in the show ring. Thank you!

  35. This is a great article! I show Miniature Horse’s but it is VERY similar to AQHA Showmanship. There are some great tips here, and the “perch, slink, & run” thing has come into the mini show ring…..I don’t see how they think it looks good, to me it looks fake which is exactly what we DON’T want in showmanship! I am saving this article for future reference! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *