Halter Horse Expression: Training and Showing How-To

Halter Horse Expression: Training and Showing How-To

Some insider tips on getting expression from your horse in the halter ring.

halter horses line up for inspection (Credit: Journal)

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“Expression is not just about getting a good ear set,” says AQHA Professional Horsewoman Kathy Smallwood of Pilot Point, Texas. “It’s the horse’s total look, just like with a person.”

Kathy has spent a lifetime raising, training and showing American Quarter Horses in everything from showmanship to pleasure driving. She has led many a homebred world champion halter horse through the ring.

“A good halter horse really has natural expression,” she says, and expression can make the difference in placing in a close halter class.

For Kathy, good expression for a halter horse is a horse with his ears forward, his eyes alert and looking ahead, and the neck up.

“I like them to pick their heads up and move their heads out at the same time,” she explains. “It’s up and out, a ‘looking through the bridle’ type expression.”

It’s what she calls the “wow” look, and here are Kathy's tricks to get it.

Training Halter Horses at Home

I like to use a couple of different ways of getting expression on each horse.

  1. You have to test these tactics at home and see what works best.
  2. But don’t practice it too much!
  3. Keep your horse fresh; that’s the only way you can keep getting expression in the ring.
  4. If you overdo training for expression, what you end up getting is a lack of expression.

Halter horse expression is not like riding to get a correct lead, where repetition is better. If you try to get expression too many times, the horse gets dull.

Tools for Getting Halter Horse's Expression

At home, give the horse a peppermint and be sure to unwrap it right in front of him so he associates the noise of the wrapper with getting the peppermint. Then, when you go in the show pen, put a little bit of the peppermint wrapping in your pocket, and when you want to get expression, take it out and crinkle it through your fingers a little. It’ll get the horse’s ears up, because he’s looking for that peppermint.

When you’re done showing, and you’re about to go out of the ring, give him the peppermint. Otherwise, he’ll lose interest.

Make sure the horse learns he gets the peppermint only at a certain spot. Don’t let him push on you and come looking for the peppermint. You want him to stay out of your space.

Sometimes I use something that makes a small noise. For example, a small comb, which I hold up and just run my thumbnail down through the teeth of the comb.

Small breath sprays
I also use those very small breath sprays. Come in close to your horse’s nose with your hand, give a quick spray and quickly move your hand out. That makes him follow your hand with his eyes. When your hand goes out, that’s when he’ll give you that “wow!” look. You don’t want to practice it too much, because horses get wise to it.

Lead shank
Some people will take a strap or the end of the lead and wave it in front of the horse’s face. I don’t like that. A lot of times, people will do that when they get nervous. Nine times out of 10, if you really watch, you’ll see the horse’s ears actually go back. They don’t like that strap waving constantly right in front of their faces.

If I’m using the lead shank to get the ears up, I take a little bit of the end of the shank with my left hand and hold it up and just bring it up and away from the horse. That can get the horse to prick his ears and look where the lead shank is going, following the movement of your hand.

Don’t let horses chew on the lead; that’s a really bad habit. They’ll always bite at it and grab it, and they’re not going to hold their heads still (for the judge).