An AQHA judge describes the psychology behind showmanship classes.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”