A Horse-Showing Medley

Horsemanship patterns today draw from a variety of western events.

Horsemanship spectators at the 2011 AQHA World Championship Show were treated to decidedly different patterns than in past years. Cones were sparse, circles were fast, and during turnarounds, many riders nearly paid tribute to reiners. This is a new era of horsemanship, and riders are rising to the challenge. Two AQHA Professional Horsemen and AQHA’s director of judges shared their insight on today’s horsemanship patterns and the challenges they present.

Patterns for a New Decade

Horsemanship patterns at the top levels in 2011 included elements from a variety of western events, says AQHA Senior Director of Judges Alex Ross.

“I believe the maneuvers in horsemanship patterns should simulate various maneuvers a rider could experience in a variety of other western classes,” Alex says. “For example, we have circles and turnarounds like a reining horse, lead changes like a western riding horse and the basic walk, jog, moderate extension of the jog and lope like a western pleasure horse. The stop and back are maneuvers included in many western classes.”

Every pattern posted at the 2011 world shows included a footnote: The drawn description of the pattern is only intended for the general depiction of the pattern. Contestants should utilize the arena space to best exhibit their horse.

And use the arena, they did. With perhaps two cones in the preliminary patterns and none in the finals, the patterns challenged riders to find their own way to present their horses well.

“Patterns are drawn to allow the rider to demonstrate their level of horsemanship,” Alex says. “They can do so by laying out an accurate pattern while showing off their basic horsemanship skills, seat, upper body, lower leg and proper use of their hands and legs.”

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Pioneering the Arena

Alex’s goal in drawing the patterns in 2011 was to encourage riders to navigate the empty space at their discretion.

“I try to draw large patterns so the judges can properly evaluate the basic riding skills of the rider while the riders are performing various maneuvers,” Alex says.

AQHA Professional Horseman Robin Frid was pleased with the patterns assigned to the 2011 horsemanship riders.

“I’m a fan of the patterns encouraging riders to use the arena to the best of their abilities,” Robin says. “I think that freedom is important because different horses are going to be able to do things different ways. If you have a shorter-strided horse that couldn’t run as fast as another horse, the rider was really able to create a smaller picture to suit the horse, and it didn’t affect the end result. AQHA is allowing people to use the arena and use their minds to best suit their horses, versus forcing everyone to do the exact same thing.”

On the flip side, AQHA Professional Horseman Brad Jewett appreciated the liberty his clients had working with larger horses in the arena.

“The 2011 amateur world champion in horsemanship (The Heat Seeker) was a very big horse,” Brad says. “I think these patterns are allowing more horses the chance to win the class. If you have a little pattern set up with two strides and a change of gait, that’s harder for the bigger horses to complete. So by changing the pattern, AQHA is allowing more horses to be competitive and showing more versatility in the Quarter Horse again.”

Strong Riders Rule

Historically, patterns at the world show level have been intricate, highly technical and difficult. Alex says the preliminary patterns in 2011 were softer but still challenging, and the patterns drawn for the finals were increasingly difficult.

Robin says previous preliminary patterns tended to reward highly trained horses rather than strong riders, and the riders who returned to the finals were often tripped up in their performances.

“I think AQHA is trying to find stronger riders in the preliminary patterns,” Robin says. “We seemed to get really great horses into the finals, but some of the riders couldn’t quite handle that finals pattern. I think we’re getting strong riders into our finals, and then we’ve having extremely challenging patterns that are really testing those great riders. I think that’s what we need. I think we need to get our strong riders, and not just out well-trained horses, into the finals.

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Stop and Focus

Robin was intrigued by the inclusion of hesitations in the amateur patterns.

“I loved the hesitations – I thought they were great,” Robin says. “And they did exactly what they were supposed to, in my opinion. Many riders do a lot of things when they stop on their own, and they don’t even know they’re doing it. If they have to stop and sit for a period of time, they might want to adjust their seat in the saddle – which is a horsemanship fault. The hesitation is designed to see how the riders are sitting in the saddle and if they can hold the position quietly before moving into the next maneuver. I thought that upped the level of difficultly quite a bit in those patterns.”

The Need for Speed

Patterns lately have encouraged a difference in speed from one maneuver to the next, especially in circles and turnarounds. Brad says with the inclusion of speed, judges are looking for a rider who is actively guiding the horse.

“They’re wanting to see a rider who is truly not just a passenger,” Brad says. “They want to see the rider who can maneuver their horse through the pattern with smoothness and feel. Not just a horse with a bunch of buttons. With speed control and a number of spins, they can see if the rider is staying with the horse.”

Robin says speed is just another way for judges to seek out top pairs in horsemanship classes.

“The patterns are getting a lot more technical,” Robin says. They’re being executed with more speed. If you think back 15 years ago, the horsemanship horse couldn’t spin fast at all. I’m not saying they spin like reiners, but they spin fast now, and they’re spinning fast and correctly. And the ability to run fast and slow down – it really wasn’t there before. It was never asked for. But now that they’re needing more things to challenge riders, because the riders and horses are getting so much better, speed is one way to challenge them.”

Stepping Up Your Game

Intimidated by the horsemanship patterns posted at the national level? Robin and Brad share advice for riders to improve their performances on patterns similar to the ones at the world shows:

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    • Ride one maneuver at a time. Robin encourages riders intimidated by difficult patterns to break the pattern down and concentrate on getting from A to B, then B to C, instead of lumping the pattern together in its entirety.

“Ride for the level you are at,” Robin says. “Learn to do the pattern right, but realize the drawing is just a depiction of what the judge wants to see.”

    • Top speed isn’t essential. Just because the pattern says to do a large fast circle, it doesn’t mean you have to run faster than anyone else to do well, Robin says.

“If you have to do a large fast circle followed by a small, slower circle, just be sure the first circle is larger and slightly faster than the other one,” he says.“If there’s something you can do to make your pattern a little easier for yourself and stay within the guidelines of the pattern, you can do that.”

    • Challenge yourself. The show pen isn’t the best place to test your skills on a difficult maneuver. Both Robin and Brad encourage their clients to rider faster and harder at home, tackling tough patterns and honing the finer points of horsemanship.

“If you don’t challenge yourself, you won’t be prepared,” Robin says. “When we are preparing at home, we practice 10 times harder than what we think we’ll see at the horse show.”“I always emphasize position, and I want my riders to know the correct position for their horses,” Brad says. “I want my riders to be educated about what they’re asking of their horses and why they’re asking.”

    • Check your speedometer. Adding speed to your performance is tricky. Robin tells his riders to consider two questions as they determine how fast they should perform their patterns.

“You need to learn how fast is too fast,” Robin says.“I have my riders ask themselves ‘too fast is the point I can’t sit (correctly) and the point (at which) I can’t control my horse.’ That doesn’t mean you don’t push the limit when you’re warming up. The only way you learn to go fast is by going fast and learning how to control it.”

    • Every pattern has a feel. When patterns are left to the rider’s discretion, Brad encourages his students to look for ways the pattern fits together and increase the level of difficulty in ways that they can control.

“All patterns have a feel to them,” Brad says.“There are parts of the pattern where judges are going to want to see it pretty and soft. It’s like a dance. I want to see harmony between that horse and that rider.”

    • Emphasize your horse’s positives. Maybe your horse isn’t comfortable flying around the arena at top speed, but he has a killer lead change. Robin and Brad suggest finding your horse’s best maneuvers and pushing the envelope in those areas, while simply performing other maneuvers as correctly as possible.

“If your horse lopes really slow, then that’s the part you’re going to emphasize in your pattern,” Brad says. “Some horses spin really hard, some horses stop really well. If you’re fortunate to have a horse that does everything well, then great, but if not, emphasize what your horse does well. Other than that, just make sure you’re staying correct and out of trouble.”