Fit the Horse to the Human

Top tips on introducing someone to this popular horse-showing event: halter.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

To say that 2010 Don Burt Professional Horseman of the Year Denny Hassett of Auburn, Kansas, has shown a few halter horses would be an understatement. So who better to ask the question: I want to start showing a horse in halter, but where do I start?

1.    Get the Fit

“I try to get to know the person and see how much experience they’ve had in the show pen,” he says. “If all they’ve done is ride and never trained a horse, then we just show them.”

Denny figures that the best way to start with a newbie to the show pen is to pair them with a been-there-done-that horse.

“I start them out with kind of an older horse that has some ring savvy to it,” he says. “The main thing you don’t want to do – especially if they’re amateurs or youth – is start them out with something that’s going to nibble at them or make them nervous right off the bat.”

Denny also gets a feel for what level the exhibitor should start at.

“With AQHA’s new leveling program, it gives more exhibitors choices for where they can start showing,” he adds. “The leveling program gives an exhibitor a better fit for his or her comfort and experience level.

“Regardless, I try to fit the horse to the program that people want to start out in,” he says.

Denny adds that he has several older people who have ridden for years, “but they feel like they’re getting to a point that they don’t enjoy riding at their age. They’d still like to show; they like horses. And they ask if I’ll help them get a horse and get started in halter.

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“Those people are pretty knowledgeable about the show pen end of it,” he says. “A lot of them, you can take them and show them how to

set a horse up two or three times, and they’re knowledgeable enough to walk right in there and do it. It just depends on how horse-oriented they are. It’s like people in sports like basketball, they can dribble, they can shoot, but they can’t jump or they can’t run. Or you’ve got some that can jump and they can’t shoot. Some have to work harder than others; for others, it just comes natural.”

2.    Yes or No to a Stallion

As far as choosing between a mare, gelding or stallion, “it’s totally up to the individual” as to which one to choose, Denny says. Of course, youth are not allowed to show stallions, but he has amateurs who enjoy them.

“One of my customers likes to show stallions, because she raises her own. She sees showing them as a great way to promote them as a breeding stallion,” he says.

As long as a horse is good-minded, broke and schooled, Denny sees no problem with amateurs showing stallions.

More importantly, Denny says, “When you’re looking for an individual for your client, it’s important that the horse has the ability to win what they want to win but yet also has the mind, and that the exhibitor looks good showing the horse.

“I want to make sure the exhibitor can go out and enjoy showing. You want them to say, ‘Boy, I’ll be glad when we can do it again tomorrow!’ ”

Regardless, Denny stresses that he wants those who are new to showing to start out handling a horse that is really broke.

“Then as we work with them for 30 days, we’ll see where they’re at and what kind of animal it’s going to take to fit them,” he adds.

3.    Halter School

If the exhibitor doesn’t have any experience showing in halter, Denny has them come out to his place outside of Topeka, Kansas, and puts them through his halter boot camp.

“I school them on how to stand up a horse,” he says. “And if the horse has experience in it, it’s going to be a lot easier for the exhibitor than it would be if they were practicing with a young horse.”

Denny points out to the exhibitor that halter horses are going to be easier to handle at his place or at home than they are at a show.

“It’s not that the horses aren’t broke,” he says. “It’s just like when you take a horse to the racetrack, he knows he’s going there to run. Horses show when you get to the show. They’re going to be pumped up and feel good.”

Other than that, the main thing Denny teaches a new exhibitor is where to stand to present the horse to the judge.

“You want to set the feet correctly,” he adds. “The thing you try to do is prepare the exhibitor and the horse away from home and out in the show pen before they go in the pen. A lot of people, they’ll get very nervous. Sometimes when you try too hard, you make mistakes. When you get frustrated, nervous and upset, that horse can sense that and that’s when they start giving you more trouble.”

4.    A Habit of Practice

“Denny, I need to get my mare out and show her a couple of times before we go down there to the show … before we get her away from home, you know, so I can practice.”

There were never sweeter words to Denny than those! One of his exhibitors knew exactly what it was going to take to get ready for a show.

So how much time should an exhibitor spend practicing?

“I leave that to them,” he says. “I’ll stay there at the pen with them, or I go in the pen with them, depends on if they’re having a problem. I have some who will come out and spend 30 minutes to an hour with their horse; others will do 10-15 minutes. You know, it just depends on how they get along.”

Denny says it’s best to remember the mistakes you’ve made and work on improving from that point. And it doesn’t hurt to take your practice on the road.

AQHA Professional Horseman Kathy Smallwood explains how to get your horse to present the facial expression the judges are looking for in AQHA's FREE Halter Horse Expression report. You'll get information on grooming tips, tools of the trade, how to get good expression from young  horses and much more!

“What I do a lot of times with my customers is that we’ll go to a run of shows, and I have them show amateur and open or youth and open so they can go back in another class for the experience of handling their horse away from home.” He explains. “If they get beat or they do something wrong, we’re not out there to get points … we’re just practicing. I feel like the experience of going in two classes a day is better than one class a day.”

5.    It’s Work

“I always tell my clients, ‘You’re out there showing from the time you go in that pen ‘til you turn to come out,’ ” Denny says. “Let’s say you’re about in the middle of the line, and all your judges are way up at the far end with their backs to you; you can kinda take a deep breath and relax just a hair. But don’t ever quit showing totally. And any time you see one of them moving, any of them moving back, you show.

“You’ll get some horses that’ll go out there in that pen and they’ll swell up and show like a million dollars, and they want to do it,” Denny adds. “And then you get other horses that you know can do it, and instead, they just stand there and think about roses or green grass …”

6.    The Payoff

Showing horses may be work, but it’s a job – he calls it a hobby – that Denny enjoys, and he makes sure his clients enjoy showing their horses.

“I feel like with amateurs and youth, you’ve got to make them feel like they’ve done something right instead of fussing at them all the time,” he explains. “You know, they need a little reward, too. If you do that, it’s a way to encourage them.”

Denny, who competed in riding classes – he has won everything from western pleasure classes at the All American Quarter Horse Congress to a reserve world championship in reining at the AQHA World Championship Show – prior to showing halter horses, says showing halter horses is also a way to add longevity to an exhibitor’s show career.

“I have a little slogan,” he says with a chuckle: “ ‘You know, when you’re young, you start out riding; when you get a little older, you start leading them; and then when you get a little older, you walk the dog.’ ”

Denny’s Showing Tips

  • Stand positioned facing three-quarters to the horse’s face to where you can always know where the judge is. In this position, you can see the judge, but you can always look off to the side and see if your horse’s foot moves.
  • Watch your horse’s head all the time and make sure you keep the head and neck out straight. If he’s going to move or cock a leg, he’ll generally cock or move his head.
  • Always know where your judge is but don’t stare at him.
  • Don’t confuse the ring steward with the judge.
  • Keep an eye on the legs and know where they’re at when you get them set. It takes practice with someone else telling you how they look from the side.