A Horse-Showing Setup

Learn how to do the two-step showmanship setup.

Editor’s Note: AQHA Professional Horsewoman Charlene Carter has been training and coaching for more than 37 years, specializing in all-around events. She holds a judge’s card with AQHA.

With any event, if you don’t practice, you won’t improve. And no matter how much your trainer works on your horse, if you don’t work on your own timing and communication with your horse, it’s not going to happen in the arena for you. It’s certainly true for showmanship.

In reining, judges look for “willingly guided” control. It’s that lack of resistance that earns points.

That’s what you look for in showmanship – the ultimate goal is to get your horse to setup almost without being told to. It shows a communication you have with your horse that is almost telepathic. You get there only with practice.

As with anything, some horses have more natural ability to do showmanship than others. A horse that is really framed and balanced in his body will be better at it, as will a horse that’s not too nervous or too laid back. Some horses learn and retain information better than others.

But all horses can learn to do showmanship. The keys are patience, consistency and clear communication.

Starting Out

When I start coaching an exhibitor in showmanship, I start by having her walk the horse and watch for the horse’s front legs. I want to work on the exhibitor being aware of what the horse is doing. Just like in riding, you’ve got to know where all the feet are.

As you watch the front legs, watch for when the horse starts to commit to pick up his left front foot. As soon as you can tell that commitment has happened, that’s when you say “Whoa.”

Have you ever wondered what the judges are looking for when they place a showmanship class? "Showing to Win: Showmanship at Halter" illustrates the standards for the class and provides you with the information you need to practice, plan and successfully perform a showmanship pattern. Using unique graphics and video technology, this video also defines the scoring system and explains what AQHA judges look for in this class.

When you do that at the walk, your horse will stop with his left front foot forward of his right front foot, and his back feet will be just the opposite – the right hind will be forward of the left hind.

Then turn and get into your correct setup position – faced toward the horse, your shoulders parallel to the horse’s spine.

I teach an exhibitor to first push her hand down and straight back to ask the horse to step the right hind foot back, next to the left hind. Then, lift her hand up and back and ask the left front foot to move back in line with the right front. Ideally, in those two steps, you get your horse set. To see what this looks like, check out the image on AQHA's Pinterest board.

I don’t say “Whoa” after setting each foot. If you stay consistent with your hand movement – down to move the hind feet and up to move the front feet – your horse will learn which end you are asking him to move.

But if you just move your hand backward and forward with your hand in the same level position, your horse will get confused and won’t know if you mean the back or the front. I see that so often in the show pen.

Some trainers teach horses to do just the opposite; it doesn’t matter which way you do it, as long as you stick to one system. I push down to move the hind feet, because when you put your hand down it puts the horse’s weight on his shoulders and the front feet, and lifts his weight off the hind end so you can move the back feet. Then, when you lift up to move the front feet, it shifts his weight to the hind end and makes the front feet lighter.

When you start out, expect your horse to get close with his feet, not perfect. The more you practice, the more precise you will get on where you put each foot.

The more you work at it, the less you will have to physically move your hand to signal your horse. It will get to the point where you can just drop your hand an inch or lift your hand an inch, then move it back or forward an inch – all without pressure or vocal commands – and that horse will respond.

Step It Up

After you get the two-step setup locked in from a stop at the walk, start working with a stop at the trot.

Before you work at the trot, your horse must have it in his mind that he’s supposed to get his feet together when you stop. He also must be tuned in to your hand moving down signaling his hind feet, and your hand moving up signaling the front feet.

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As you trot to your stop, in the last two or three strides before the stop, ask for a little more energy, build your trot a little more, then say “Whoa!” to stop. If you do that, he will more than likely stop with his hind feet together. The added energy and motion will make his hind end gather up to stop.

Then all you have to do is lift up with your hand to set the front feet. If you’ve been consistent with your hand motion, he’ll know exactly what you want.


As a judge, I see a lot of mistakes made when exhibitors try to over- or under-correct their horses. When you’ve got a close setup, and you just need to move that foot a little, simply ask him to move it and as soon as you see it commit to come off the ground, stop asking. On the other hand, you’ve got to be clear to your horse how much you want him to move, so he’ll step far enough. Again, it takes practice so you know the feel you need with your horse.

The real key is to watch the spot where you want your horse to move his foot, and don’t watch the foot. You keep your eyes on the spot and your peripheral vision on the foot so you can time when to quit asking.

Remember, it is helpful to use vocal commands early in your training, but you should aim for no vocal commands in your pattern. I don’t know of a single judge who likes to hear vocal commands in a showmanship pattern, especially loud clucks or kisses.

The youth exhibitors that I take to the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show, I tell them to do 100 setups a day. That’s really not that many throughout the day. When they lead their horses out to saddle up, they can do 10; they can do more when they are waiting in line to longe or at the wash rack. That’s how they practice.

You are only going to be as good as you want to be. You can’t keep complaining that you can’t get your horse to set up – most people who say that are not spending the time doing it.

Even when you practice, you have to do it from a proper showmanship position – you can’t be standing there with your feet apart, looking around or down. You have to have correct body position because that’s part of how you consistently communicate to your horse what you are going to ask him to do. Every time you do something with your horse, your horse is learning; you are training him.

Once you train that two-step setup to your horse, he will do it on his own. Eventually, you’ll just stop and turn, and he will set up.

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