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 a former 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 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.
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.