Horse-Showing Help: Halter Horse Line-Up

Horse-Showing Help: Halter Horse Line-Up

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Kathy Smallwood offers tips for optimizing your line-up in a halter class.

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Your horse is fit and shiny. You walked him into the show pen and tracked him past the judge. Now, you’re headed to the line-up. Will you be ready? Will your horse look his best?

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Kathy Smallwood, of Pilot Point, Texas, says to stand up your halter horse based on his conformation as an individual. Honestly appraising your halter horse based on his conformation as an individual will help you do a better job of positioning him so that he looks his best to the judge.

Down and Dirty

“When you track your horse past the judge, hard ground isn’t ideal,” Kathy says. “But it is best for setting a horse up.” The problem is, it’s not that common. Often, arena dirt has been worked up right before the halter classes start and, more than likely, will be soft and deep.

“Once you get to the place where you’re going to stop, turn toward your horse and watch the right hind foot, which you’ll set first,” Kathy suggests. “The idea is to have that foot land straight. But, if it doesn’t, keep forward motion for one more step and help the horse land straight by using the lead shank.”

“If the foot tends to splay out, I’ll bring the horse’s head toward me when he takes that final step,” Kathy says. “If that foot wants to toe in, I’ll turn the head horse’s head a little bit away from me. Then, the foot should come down straight and level.”

Once that foot is set, Kathy says it’s fairly easy to set the left hind foot to line up with the right by encouraging the horse, with the shank, to move his left foot forward or back. Once both hind feet are set, and the horse is standing still, Kathy says to take a moment and study your horse’s feet to make sure they are level. With some types of arena dirt, one foot might sink in deeper than the other. In that case, you might have to move your horse to reposition his feet.


Be sure you set up the horse’s hind legs so that the position is conducive to helping him looks as correct as possible. Starting with the hocks, evaluate their natural tendencies. Ideally, an imaginary plumb line should drop straight down from the back of the hip to the back of the hock to the back of the pastern and then to the ground.

But, not all horses are perfect.

“Most horses have hocks with a little bit of fault to them,” Kathy explains. “For example, a horse that is sickle hocked tends to form more of a sideways “V,” with its hocks trailing out behind.

Here are some tips for setting the hocks:

“If you set a horse like this with his back feet too far up underneath him, he’s not going to make his hocks look straight down. Instead, it’s going to emphasize the fault in his hocks even more. Try to keep his feet as close to that plumb line as possible.”

Why follow the plumb-line principle? Even with good hocks, Kathy says, “If a horse is set up with his feet and hocks out too far behind him, it drops his back and makes his topline look weak. It also makes the croup shorter. And the stifle will not look as wide.”

Width between the hind legs should also be taken into consideration. Kathy says to make sure the horse’s hind feet are not too far out or base narrow. Most of the time, they should come straight down from the horse’s hip.

Setting the Front Legs

“The horse is more likely to need adjustments with the front legs,” Kathy says. “The back feet aren’t usually much of a problem. But in front, a horse will usually toe in or out. One foot might be club-footed, a horse might be over at the knees or calf kneed.”

Remember that you can’t fool a judge, and you can’t totally hide imperfections in conformation, but you can minimize the fault so that it doesn’t holler, “Hey! Look at this!”

When setting the front feet, Kathy doesn’t like to use her foot to smooth out dirt unless she absolutely has to, because it’s such an obvious move. But, occasionally it becomes necessary.

“Sometimes, when you start to set your horse’s front feet, you’ll find that the dirt is deeper under one foot than the other,” she says. In most cases, the foot won’t just sink level. Either the toe or heel will go in deeper, causing that entire front leg to look off.”

“That’s when I will pick up the front foot, use my own foot to smooth down the dirt, then replace the horse’s foot onto the smoothed surface,” Kathy says.

With a horse that’s pretty correct, Kathy says, “You want those legs to come straight down, pretty much the same way you would with a good-hocked horse. Looking from the side, follow the imaginary straight line. However, if a horse is long backed, Kathy will set his front legs an inch or two behind the line. “By having his legs camped under just a tad, it creates the illusion of a shorter back,” she says.

Some halter horses are extremely wide-chested. Kathy says that if a handler makes the mistake of trying to set this horse’s front feet too close together, the horse will end up shaking on his legs and not stand as stable. He will be uncomfortable and will want to move.

A horse that is over at the knees also tends to be a little shaky. Smallwood will set his front legs an inch or two forward of the line, in order to relieve tension.

Offset knees also require special attention when setting up the front legs.

“Especially on softer dirt, I find that a horse with an offset knee will tend to look pigeon-toed,” Kathy says. “In this situation, I set the right foot off the shank, placing it as straight down as possible, when viewing it from the front.” But, if she feels it needs to move slightly in or out to compensate for the illusion of either knee being offset, she can change the position with hand pressure on the horse’s withers. She drapes her fingers over the horse’s withers and pushes on the right side if she wants the horse to move that foot toward her. If she wants the foot moved away from her, she will push on the left side of the withers with her thumb. Kathy always works from the left side of the horse.

Adjusting Distance

Imagine a ruler placed flat on the ground between the horse’s front and back feet. When comparing the widths, it looks best if there is no more than an inch or two variance. Yet when a horse is extremely wide-chested, the distance between the front feet is naturally going to be greater.

Kathy says in order to even things out a bit, widen the stance of the back feet by one or two inches. If you know your horse needs to be set up this way, place the right hind foot first, as you would with any horse. But then, when you set the left hind foot, use the shank to push the horse’s head away from you (to the right). This will cause the left foot set down a little wider.

Head, Neck and Topline

There is a misconception that stretching a horse’s nose and neck extremely far forward, and keeping them low, will make the neck look longer and the throatlatch smaller.

“The throatlatch will look thicker and the neck will appear lower at the base,” Kathy says about the technique. “It will also make some horses look ewe-necked and can cause the topline to drop.”

It also takes weight off the horse’s body and shifts it to the front end. This takes away from the desired look that a horse has when he’s standing strong with his weight properly distributed.

Kathy feels that the best look comes from elevating the horse’s head and neck, then tipping the nose a little off the vertical. The word “elevate” doesn’t mean raising the head to the sky. It simply means bringing it up to a position that looks best for the horse as an individual.

One way you can check for your horse’s best position is to have someone else set him up and experiment with different levels, as you stand back and watch. Or, you can hold the horse yourself while someone videotapes as you raise the horse’s head and neck. Photographs will also work. Study them and see where the horse looks best. You can make a mental note of where your horse looks best. You can make a mental note of where your horse’s chin should be in relation to your body and use that as a reference point in the show pen.

When the head and neck are positioned properly, the next trick is to keep the horse looking straight ahead.

“There should be a straight line from the poll, down the neck and back to the top of the tailhead,” Kathy says. “If a horse looks off to one side or another and cocks his head, it can create some bad illusions.” The neck will look shorter on one side. The base of the neck will look lower. And, because all the weight is being shifted to that side, the front leg might shake, or the horse will go over at the knee.

To keep a horse in position, Kathy suggests standing slightly off to one side, near the horse’s nose. Standing directly in front of a horse is dangerous, in case he rears or strikes. Positioning yourself way off to the side of the horse’s head might inadvertently pull him toward you, rather than staying straight. Kathy also cautions that you shouldn’t crowd a horse’s head. “If you get into a horse’s space, he’ll start to nibble on you and be distracted by what you’re doing.”

If you’re positioned properly, the horse will stay still and alert. It also gives the judge a better look at the horse. If the judge is looking at the horse’s left side, the exhibitor doesn’t have to change sides to stay out of his line of sight. All too often, if a person makes a big move to get out of the judge’s way, the shank is accidentally moved and the horse steps out of position when he feels the pressure.

Have you wanted to try something new with your halter horse? Broaden your horse-showing horizons to showmanship! Download AQHA’s FREE Showmanship Basics ebook for the secrets to performing a perfect showmanship pattern.