Showmanship Psychology: Winning Mindsets

Showmanship Psychology: Winning Mindsets

Attitude and body language can positively impact your performance in showmanship patterns. AQHA judge Holly Hover shares insights.

Jojo Roberson and The Greedy Ghost in AQHA youth showmanship (Credit: Bee Silva)

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AQHA Professional Horsewoman and judge Holly Hover 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.

“In showmanship, you can steal the class with your personality,” says Holly, who trains and coaches all-around competitors in Cave Creek, Arizona.

Exhibitors come out on top when they appeal not only to the critical eye – in terms of mechanics – but also to the more artistic eye, showing confidence, poise and flair.

Get Inside the Judge’s Head

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.

“On the other hand, adjectives and adverbs show you a judge is more in tune to detail. If 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.”

Showing Your Horse

Practice Makes Perfect

Holly says mechanical practice is the only way to start in showmanship. If you forget parts of the pattern, it’s a flaw that no amount of confidence or style can make up for.

“The only way to get confident is by repetitively doing the patterns right,” she says.

Body Language

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.

That said, “I encourage my exhibitors to look the judge in the eye, smile and enjoy what they are doing.”

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.

“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. I have seen people change their priorities from going to the show just for the party to instead 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.”

Control the Controllable

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 of 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.”