3 Grooming Mistakes to Avoid in Halter Horse Classes

3 Grooming Mistakes to Avoid in Halter Horse Classes

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Kathy Smallwood troubleshoots common mistakes with banding, poorly fitted halters and dirty, dusty horses.

groomed halter horse shows at the Youth World (Credit: Bee Silva)

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Article and photos by Abigail Boatwright

First impressions are everything. The moment you step into the show pen, you are being evaluated by the judge. And it’s not just about your performance in the saddle or at the lead. Seemingly minute grooming details can actually affect your placing, particularly in a class like halter, where the horse’s physique needs to be shown off to its best advantage.

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Kathy Smallwood weighs in on the grooming snafus she sees the most – and how to fix them.

For many judged events, the basic grooming of the horse is the same.

“You want the horse clean, clipped, the halter fitted properly and the feet polished,” Kathy says. “You want the horse to have a ‘wow’ look about it. Cleanliness is the most important thing.”

Poor presentation sends the wrong message to the judge, Kathy says.

“It tells the judge that you don’t care,” Kathy says. “That you don’t really want to be in the class because you don’t care about your horse. If you want to win, it’s just like in any type of competition, whether it be baseball or anything else – you want to go out there with the look that you want to win.”

Wonky Banding

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE: Loosely banded sections, sections that may stand up, sections with noticeably different widths, missing bands, a too-long or uneven mane – all of which lend a messy look to the mane.

WHY IT’S BAD: At best, a poor banding job fails to show off your horse properly. Kathy says a good banding job shows off the horse’s sleek neck, which is helpful in a class like halter.

“You want to have the mane neatly banded so that it sits down against the horse and the bands are even – it just gives the horse a better neckline than a horse that is improperly banded. If you don’t band the mane properly, it also shows the judge that you don’t take pride in your horse.”

HOW TO FIX IT: Kathy says there are several YouTube videos available that can help teach you how to band. Or you can hire someone who knows how to teach you. At many horse shows, you can also hire professional banders.

Make sure that in addition to banding your horse’s mane properly, that the mane is also trimmed to the right length that will look good for him. That length is different for each horse, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 inches long for Kathy’s horses.

“Keep it neat,” Kathy says of the mane ends. “You want it to lay down – don’t scissor it straight across.”

You might also have to thin the mane a bit to encourage it to lay down. Kathy says your horse’s mane will look best after banding if the mane was of even thickness before you started.

“I will pull the areas that are too thick to create a consistent thickness throughout,” Kathy says. “It takes practice, but I use a small men’s comb, rat back the thick area and then wrap the remaining hair around the comb and pull (downward) to pull the hair from its roots. Do a small amount at a time to ensure you don’t take too much or irritate the horse.”

Choose a color of band that suits your horse’s color. For halter, a chestnut mane should have a chestnut or dark brown band, a black mane should have black bands, and a white mane should have white bands. White bands on a darker mane are OK for riding classes, but not halter.

“In halter, it distracts your eye,” Kathy says. “It’ll put a false topline over the neck with a light band.”

To keep bands clean and tidy, put a mane tamer, or sleazy, on your horse. Here are tips for ensuring your horse's sleazy fits.

Bad Good

Poorly Fitted Halter

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE: A show halter that is too loose, too tight or adjusted unevenly.

WHY IT’S BAD: A halter that isn’t adjusted to the horse can negatively influence what the judge sees.

“A poorly fitting halter is just like poorly fitting clothing on a person,” Kathy says. “It will make the horse look sloppy, and a halter that’s not properly fitted to your horse’s head can make a good-headed horse look like a bad-headed horse. If it’s sitting down on the nose, too loose over the nose piece, it’ll make the horse’s head look longer.”

HOW TO FIX IT: Using all the various buckles on the halter, adjust the halter until it fits correctly on the horse’s head. While a looser halter is fine for everyday use, the show halter should fit snugly to enhance the horse’s bone structure.

“It should be snug enough that you could get one or two fingers in between the noseband as it goes around the horse’s muzzle,” Kathy says. “You don’t want it too loose. A good shape of the halter and a properly fitting halter is more important than the brand of halter you use.”

Make sure your chain is clipped on the off side, at the cheekpiece, with the clasp pointing outward so you can easily unclip it in an emergency. The chain can run through the noseband ring and under the chin, and in halter, it could go over the nose.

The silver on the chain should be clean and bright. Kathy says if the silver coating is flaking off, it’s time for a new chain.

Continue reading professional tips for correct leather halter fit.

Bad Good

Dirt and Dusty

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE: You might have groomed your horse as you got ready for your class, but if he got a second alone, he might have rolled, rubbed his head or body on the stall walls or dipped his oiled nose in the dirt.

WHY IT’S BAD: Because the first impression is so important, a clean horse is more likely to get the judge’s nod of approval. Conversely, a dirty horse conveys a highly visible lack of preparation on your part.

HOW TO FIX IT: A gleaming horse actually starts with diet, says Kathy. That’s enhanced by grooming and then adding a last bit of luster to the coat before you show.

Start with a clean horse at home. Giving your horse a bath, vacuuming and grooming before you set out for the show goes a long way, she says.

“Make sure you have all of the dirt off your horse,” Kathy says. “If it’s warmer, I like to give a bath at the show, too.”

Clipping a horse’s face and legs closely will help reduce dirt sticking to the horse and contribute to an overall clean look. This clipping includes the bridle path, and nose and muzzle, which she shaves with a razor the day of the show. (Download our free guide for clipping halter horses.)

Oil on a horse’s muzzle and around the eyes can enhance the horse’s bone structure, but it also attracts dirt. Before you go into the pen, wipe your horse all over with a rag to remove any last-minute bits of dirt. Especially the nose. And brush out the tail. If it’s fly season, a good coat of fly spray is also important.

“If your horse reaches down and puts her nose in the dirt, make sure you clean it off before you go into the class,” Kathy says. “I even wipe the inside of the horse’s ears, too. Don’t go in there with dirty ears.”

Bad Good

Final Takeaways on Grooming for Halter Classes

GROOMING THE HORSE: Preparing your horse’s appearance for the show ring is not limited to your day-of grooming efforts. Kathy Smallwood says you need to consider your horse’s diet and routine health management at home as well.

“A perfectly groomed horse comes from a routine at home with a proper feeding program,” Kathy says. “Your feed and deworming programs are very important to get your horse glowing. You are actually grooming from the inside out.”

GROOMING THE EXHIBITOR: Kathy says that not only does your horse need to be fit and groomed properly, but you as the presenter need to be dressed with clean, well-fitting clothing, a well-shaped hat and clean boots.

“Also, the way you present your horse is important,” Kathy says. “You should walk in a very confident manner to show that you feel your horse is the winner. You want to sell your horse to the judge.”

About the Source: Kathy Smallwood

Kathy Smallwood

Kathy Smallwood is an AQHA Professional Horsewoman with more than 35 years’ experience training halter horses. She is a specialized halter judge for AQHA, the American Paint Horse Association and the World Conformation Horse Association. She has won multiple world champion titles and Congress titles in halter events. She conditions horses and coaches amateurs and youth from her facility in Pilot Point, Texas.