Thursday, 19 February 2009

Training the Showmanship Horse

Training: Training the showmanship horse is a relatively easy task. However, some people receive sub-par results because they lack repetition. Repetition (doing it the same way, over, and over, and over) is just one piece of the puzzle that makes a solid showmanship horse. There are six basic maneuvers that your horse should know; walk beside you, trot beside you, stop beside you, set up, back, and the pivot. Other maneuvers such as the 180 degree turn, the pull turn, etc. are all variations of what I consider to be the basic maneuvers. I like to start my training off with a regular rope halter and lead. For precision training I move to the war bridle.

Before some of you go frothing at the mouth and peeing in circles on the carpet screaming “abuse,” I am not talking about the war bridle you typically see to restrain a horse. I take a simple lariat rope that I have cut to the appropriate length. Next I make a medium loop with the lariat and put the “small loop on the rope” on the offside (to the right). I then pull the excess slack from under the medium loop (that I made) through the top of the loop; thus, making a halter that has an attached lead. The war bridle works off poll, nose, and chin pressure to help teach your horse to give to very slight cues. However, you DO NOT EVER JERK on the war bridle. This tool works off the most sensitive areas of your horse’s head. If you start jerking, your horse is going to show you how pissed he can get. Some horses simply cannot handle the war bridle. They resist, rear, strike, etc. While most any horse can learn to accept it; if you have never used a war bridle I strongly suggest you only do so under the guidance of a KNOWLEDGEABLE horseperson who can use one EFFECTIVELY. Let’s get down to business.

The Walk: The first thing that I expect my showmanship horses to do is to walk beside me. Not half an inch in front of my shoulder… not two inches behind me; I want their throatlatch at my shoulder ALL the time. Relatively simple right? I challenge those of you that do not do showmanship to go to the barn, put a halter and lead on your horse, and walk out of the barn with your hand holding the very end of the lead. I would venture to say that more often than not your horse was either in front of you (it doesn’t matter by how little or how much) or behind you (same thing). A horse that cannot rate himself to keep his throatlatch at your shoulder at all times is not going to get you very far in the showmanship pen. You shouldn’t have to “pull, tug, or bump” your horse with the shank to get him beside you if you have done your training right.

Teaching the horse to walk beside your shoulder is very simple; it just takes repetition. I start from a standstill. When I first go to ask the horse to walk I over-exaggerate and lean forward with my shoulder and gently pull the lead forward. Once he takes the first step I begin walking. (In showmanship, the horse should always take the first step, but only after you have given him the cue to do so.) I walk a couple of steps, stop, and praise him. Then I repeat the process until he starts to get softer on the cue. Once the horse starts to recognize that when your shoulder leans forward it means go, do not use your hand to gently pull him forward anymore. Make him look for the cue from your shoulder. However, you still want to exaggerate your shoulder forward since you are no longer giving him a cue with the lead. Example, I will exaggerate my shoulder forward, keep my hand still, and wait for the horse to take the first step. I walk the horse a couple of steps and stop and praise him. At this point I am not worried if the horse stays perfectly beside me when he’s walking. The point of this method is to teach the horse to watch your shoulder for the cue. When the horse gets to the point where he is recognizing your exaggerated shoulder cue within about a second; I start to exaggerate my shoulder less and less each subsequent time I ask for the walk. Eventually, the cue will be virtually invisible to the spectators and your horse will be in tune enough to know exactly what you are asking. As with any method, your horse is not going to complete all these steps in one day. This is something that needs to be worked on every day, for about fifteen minutes, for two weeks, until he becomes solid. When starting a showmanship horse I pick one maneuver to work on, and get them solid on that maneuver before I start teaching other maneuvers. Only after teaching all the maneuvers correctly do I start using them together for a pattern. Now let’s incorporate the stop.

Stopping: How well does your horse stop? And, I don’t want to hear “really good, all I have to do is say whoa.” The judges don’t want to hear you out there blabbering commands to your horse during a pattern. Your cues should be invisible. Your hands should not move, and your mouth should be kept quiet. Showmanship should be like dancing with your horse. So how do you teach the horse to stop at your shoulder without saying whoa or using your hands? Two words… body language. Now that we have a horse that will walk off a body language cue, the stop is just as easy to teach. Ask your horse to walk about ten strides. 3 strides before you know you are going to ask the horse to stop, mentally prepare yourself. Think about stopping. When you get to the point where you are ready to ask, gently pull downward on the lead rope, say whoa, exaggerate your shoulder back, and plant your feet… in that order. Then, turn and face the horse with your toes pointing towards his right front foot. By doing this you are telling him that he has to stay planted. When you are ready to move again, you will go back to your original position beside his throatlatch, give him the shoulder cue, and walk off. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Once he starts listening to your body language, do the same thing; except this time don’t pull downward on the lead. Just say whoa, exaggerate your shoulder back and plant your feet. The horse may take a few steps to stop this time. If he does, remain facing forward, and gently pull back on the lead rope until the horse is stopped and standing with his throatlatch at your shoulder. Then repeat this exercise until he learns to stop from the verbal and shoulder command. Once he’s solid on this, eliminate the verbal command, using only your shoulder and your stopped feet to stop him. Likewise, when he’s solid on this, start exaggerating your shoulder less and less until the cue to stop becomes invisible and he’s stopping accurately beside you (not in front of or behind you) when your feet stop. Now, just because you are not exaggerating your shoulder anymore does not mean that you don’t use your shoulder at all. You will always lean slightly forward for the walk and slightly back for the walk. You just have to make sure that he is watching and listening to your shoulder cues and that you are not over-exaggerating the cues. No one wants to see over-exaggerated cues. Keep it professional.

Once your horse has a solid understanding of your shoulder cues to walk and stop ACCURATELY, begin adding the walk and stop together to achieve perfection. If your horse is truly listening to your shoulder, he has now figured out that he has to watch your shoulder for the next command and that he is to walk beside you and stop beside you EVERY time. He will begin to rate his speed with your speed in an effort to keep up with your shoulder. Beware… if you work showmanship and ask for all the maneuvers perfect then let your horse dick around going back to the barn or just because you are tired, you are going to undo what you have just taught him. These maneuvers should become second nature to him. My horses are expected to walk and stop off my shoulder NO MATTER WHAT I’m doing. If I’m leading my horse to the barn from the pasture and I trip and fall, that horse better stop and stay planted until I’m ready to move. You are now seeing where showmanship plays a role in ground manners and safety.

The Trot: Again, the trot is another simple maneuver to teach. I teach the trot much the same way as I do the walk. However, I add a voice command. I start from a standstill, exaggerate my shoulder forward, gently pull the lead, and give a short quick smooch. (I don’t like to cluck in the showmanship pen because I cluck louder than I smooch!). Once the horse picks up the trot I release the pressure on the lead, quit smooching, and keep my hand in the same place. I then ask for the stop. Once again, I work the exercise until my cues become invisible and the horse goes effortlessly into the trot from a standstill. I don’t want 2 or 3 steps at a walk. I want an immediate trot. The only exception for voice commands that I have is for the trot. Since my shoulder cue is the same as the walk cue, I use the short, quick, and quiet smooch to ask for the trot. This way, when I am in the pen and my horse is listening to my shoulder if I give her a short, quiet smooch, she knows it’s time to trot and she doesn’t get confused between the walk and the trot. Make sure that when you ask for the stop, you get a stop and not three or two walking steps and then a stop. The horse should trot off perfectly and stop immediately from the trot perfectly. If you let them take a walking step they are going to get lazy and your transitions will be sub-par. Now let’s move on to the pivot.

The Pivot: This is often the hardest thing to teach a showmanship horse and often one of the most improperly taught maneuvers. Why? Because many people attempt to push the horse backwards into the pivot. The pivot is a forward motion and should be taught as such. When you push a horse backwards into the pivot they will often pivot on the left hind foot and/or cross the left front foot behind the right front. This is incorrect and one of the main reasons why people get frustrated with the horse. Additionally, the pivot should be taught in steps. If you go out there and ask the horse to pivot the entire 360 degrees without showing him how, you are asking for confusion.

Keep in mind that when teaching this maneuver, the horse’s entire head, neck, and body should be straight. If the horse bends his head and neck around, the slower his front feet are going to be in crossing over, making the pivot slower. Points are also deducted for a “crooked” horse. To teach the pivot I start from a standstill, (obviously), with the right hind foot slightly behind the left hind. (This is for ease of teaching. When you are in the class, you will more than likely have to pivot from a squared position). With my left hand I take the lead rope and gently pull forward and to the left, and simultaneously press my right thumb into the shoulder to ask them to move away from the pressure. I press with the thumb and take a step towards the horse’s right front foot. (Note: I do not walk directly towards the horse as this will give him the cue to take a step back and away from me. My toes are pointed towards the right front foot and I take a step towards the right front foot to tell the horse to move to over). If the horse starts to cross his left front foot behind the right front, I pull forward again. The left front has to cross over the right front. I also only ask for two steps at a time. The horse will not be able to pivot correctly in the hind end unless he is crossing over correctly with the front end; therefore, I concentrate on teaching the horse to properly cross his front legs first. Each time the horse tries to cross his LF behind the RF, I pull him forward and push him over with my thumb then release the thumb pressure. If you leave the thumb pressure on them they will start leaning on your thumb rather than moving away from the pressure. Once the horse has mastered crossing over in the front correctly, I start concentrating on the hind end. As with the front, the left hind foot needs to cross over in front of the right hind foot. The difference here is that the right hind foot needs to stay planted. Do the same thing you did while teaching him to cross over in the front. Ask for 2 to 3 steps and let him rest. If the left hind foot gets behind the right front foot as he’s moving, pull him forward to where the left hind foot is in front of the right hind. Once the horse figures it out, take away the thumb pressure and just pull forward if he starts “backing into” the pivot. The slower you go, the faster he will learn it. Eventually, you ask for more and more steps until he completes the 360 degree turn correctly. When you get to perfection, you will be using your right hand to maneuver the horse, not your left hand. Your horse should be solid enough with your shoulder cue that when you walk towards his right front he knows it’s time to pivot. Likewise, your horse should watch your shoulder for the cue to stop the pivot. When you plant your feet, he should plant his… not continue on with the pivot.

Squaring up: Another thing that is often taught incorrectly! Your horse should be taught to square up around his pivot foot, the RH. To get the horse soft to your cues, ask him to stop with his right hind behind the left hind. You should be facing the horse with your toes pointed toward his RF foot. Next, I take my right hand and gently pull the horse forward, only letting him move his left hind foot forward. Then I push back asking him to move the LH back. I do this over and over again until I am sure that with the gentlest of pulls or pushes he is going to move that left hind foot where I tell him to put it. Next I start asking him to place his left hind foot directly beside the right hind. I like to keep about 2 to 3 inches distance between each hoof. Use your judgment. Since the horse is soft enough to the “move your foot forward and back cue” it will begin to take less and less pressure to get him to place his foot correctly. Eventually, the horse will become automatic. When you stop and turn and face the horse he will square his hind feet without cue. This is when you start working on the front feet. You do the same thing with the front feet as you did with the back feet. Your horse needs to have his RF foot planted and his LF foot needs to be placed around the RF. By this point my horses are usually so soft to the cue to move feet that I can *just barely* jiggle the lead to get the LF foot placed. It usually takes me two weeks of working every day to get the horse to square from my body language. Meaning, when I turn and face the horse with my toes pointing toward the RF foot, they square up with no cue from my hand or lead. In the pen, the horse is expected to square up within three seconds. Any more than that and you are wasting time and you will have points deducted accordingly.

Backing: A correct back up can determine a winning or losing pattern. The horse’s head should be level with the withers, on the vertical, and he should back with no pressure from the lead. When teaching the back, I want it perfectly straight. There is nothing worse than watching a “big booty back-up” in the pen. (You know, the one where the horse swaggers his hips side to side and goes as crooked as a politician). First, I test my horse to see which direction he sways his hips to. I then put him next to a fence. If he sways his hips to the right I want his right side next to the fence. When you ask for the back, make sure that your body is pointed straight. If you are angled towards the horse in any way he is going to back away in that direction. If your body is straight, he is going to back straight. If you are angled away from the horse, he is going to back into the area that you are angled away from. I then take my right hand and gently push the horse backwards with the lead while walking towards him (keeping my body straight and my shoulders squared). When I release the pressure, he knows to stop. I do this over and over. Each time I use a little less pressure on the lead. Eventually, the horse will learn that when I take a step toward him, he is to back up with NO pressure from the lead. Keeping your body straight and teaching him to back along a fence will help to ensure that he is backing straight.

Showmanship is all about body language. Not your hand movements and not voice commands. Your horse should stay with you at your shoulder, and watch for your body signal to stop, square, back, etc. Once your horse is solid on these maneuvers, try incorporating them together. If he is lacking in a maneuver, go back and give him a refresher. I generally spend two weeks teaching and perfecting EACH maneuver until I am sure I can use them together with perfection. Then and only then do I start working on patterns. I typically work on all maneuvers and patterns for about 15 to 20 minutes per day to make sure my horses stay fresh. When I want refinement in my maneuvers I will use a war bridle. It gives the horse that extra “light bulb” moment when they think “oh yeah, I remember this”! Keep in mind, I ONLY work in the war bridle if the horse is lagging. I don’t want them to get dull to the pressure.
And… since this post was so long, I will cover show grooming and patterns at a later time.


smottical said...

Thank you for going into such detail with the body language aspect of showmanship. I think you clarified several points I've been trying to get across to my filly, but perhaps without enough consistency. Here's another showmanship article I found helpful. It also has a video, which might help people understand what a finished showmanship horse should look like. You should take a video of you and Gert and put it up here!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know, very nice post! ;)

success in the pen said...

As soon as Darla and I can coordinate our schedules we will be getting some video. Good article smottical. Anything else you guys would like to see covered?

smottical said...

How about clipping, banding, and show grooming? I know you already did a lot of the writing on your show grooming thread, so you could just consolidate some of that information on here. Sometimes it can be hard to dig up old posts on the forum, but we'll always know we can find useful information here.