Horse Showing in a Pattern Class

Improve your pattern-class performance with these tips.

You wouldn't set off on a journey without mapping out a course. Don’t set off in a pattern class without planning just as carefully.

Think of each new arena as a new territory to be mastered, and you’ll find yourself navigating patterns with ease – or at least with a plan.

Pattern in Your Pocket

People who show with me have to have two things in their pocket all the time: a schedule of events for the day and a copy of the patterns they’ll be doing that day.

If you have a schedule, you don’t have to be nervous because you’re not sure whether you’re in the next class or the fifth class or the 10th.

And it doesn’t matter how much you’ve studied the pattern - you need to have it in your pocket. Even if you have a photographic memory, you should have the pattern with you, because there is nothing worse than developing a plan for the pattern then arriving at the arena and realizing the pattern isn’t what you envisioned.

When that happens, you need to be able to whip out your little paper and look at the set-up and adjust your plan.

Most shows nowadays will give you an actual copy of the pattern, but if the show doesn’t, copy it off yourself.

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Your goal is going to be to take that pattern, read that pattern, understand that pattern, ride that pattern and make it look so easy that anybody could do it. The easier it looks, the higher you will score.

Acquire Cones

You need to have some cones with you and set them up as closely as possible to the way the pattern shows. I think it’s very good for youth exhibitors to be involved in setting the cones, because making sure they are set the way the kids envisioned them on that pattern is part of understanding where to go.

No matter how simple a pattern is, different people will envision it different ways. Our judges draw patterns specifically, and the drawing may help you understand what should happen.

For example, if the pattern’s written instructions say to ride to cone B and then pick up the canter at B, where do you pick up the canter? At B? Coming to B? Around B? Leaving B?

That’s confusing, but if you look at the way the pattern is drawn, you’ll get a better idea of the judges’ intent and what they expect to see.

I tell the riders who work with me not to worry about how the people ahead of them do the pattern, because those people might not have studied the pattern. If you study the pattern and practice it, you should know what you’re doing. Don’t change your game plan just because someone else does it differently. If you did your homework correctly, more than likely, you are right and they are not.

When you’re setting your practice cones, think about what’s normal. If you’re going to be riding in a huge arena, the cones will be farther apart. If it’s a tiny arena, they have to be set closer together.

For most normal weekend horse shows in a normal-size arena, most judges will set the cones a little farther apart to make it easier for riders to accomplish their goals.

For example, in horsemanship patterns, if you have a lope and there’s only 30 feet between the two cones, that increases the difficulty because as soon as you lope, you’re stopping. Most of our judges are educated about what’s doable and what isn’t doable.

Practice the Pattern

Run through the pattern a time or two so you can realize where the hard parts are, but don’t overdo it. There is nothing worse than going out and practicing the pattern 28 times, because your horse will start to anticipate and take over, saying, “Hang on, buddy, we practiced this a while ago and I can do it for you.”

You don’t want that to happen. Practice enough to understand the rhythm and flow, then stop and think, “OK, I can walk, I can trot, I can stop, I can back up, but you know, that 360 to the right – I need to school my horse a little on that.”

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If you practice the whole pattern again and again, your horse will become dull to the parts he’s good at and frustrated on the parts that he’s not good at.

You’re not going to train your horse to do a maneuver you’ve never done before in one day. Your job is to loosen your horse up and get him mentally prepared to do his job the best he can that day. I like to explain to my kids that they won’t be perfect. They should just do the best they can and realize what they need to work on tomorrow to be better.

Location, Location, Location

The pattern usually doesn’t tell you whether you need to be 2 feet or 5 feet off a cone. You have to figure that out for yourself, taking into consideration what you’re going to be doing when you get to the next cone.

If you’re going to stop at cone B and do a 360-degree turn, you need to position yourself differently
than you would if you’re going to walk up and then trot. If you’re going to do a 360, you want to be in a position so you can do your 360 without running over the cone.

This is such a simple mistake, and it’s easy to fix. When you set up your practice cones, think about how much space you need to do each maneuver.

Also, be sure that your practice cones are the right distance apart. Setting them too close or too far apart create their own sets of problems, but the result is the same: You go to the wrong place.

I encourage my riders not to practice with patterns that are too small, because it shortens the horse and gets him to anticipate the stop. If anything, we’ll practice with the pattern a little larger so the horse won’t anticipate.

Break It Down

When you enter the arena on your horse, find the spot where you and your horse need to be at each cone. If you need to be 10 feet off cone B, look at the ground to find that spot.

Don’t look at the cone. If you look at the cone, you’ll ride to the cone. Look at your spot and then look up and past it so that as you ride to the cone, you’re able to keep your chin up. If you look down at your spot, you’ll drop your eyes, which drops your chin, which takes your whole body out of position and makes your job much harder.

Don’t envision your spot 10 feet beside the cone as being another cone in the dirt. Envision that cone 6 to 8 feet in the air ahead of you. Look on the fence to find a mark. At every arena you compete in, there will be something you can use as a marker. There are posts on fences, banners – there are always marks.

Think about the whole pattern, but when you’re at cone A, don’t worry about what you’re going to do at cone E. At cone A, your job is to think about how you’re going to get to cone B so that you can get to C.

It’s like the old joke about how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

With patterns in horsemanship, showmanship and equitation, there are a limited number of maneuvers, so it’s not hard as long as you focus on what you’re going to do from A to B, then B to C, then C to D, then smile, wave at the crowd and leave. That’s all you have to do. It’s simple if you’ll let it be simple.

The judge isn’t going to shoot you off your horse if you don’t do it right. He might say, “That wasn’t the best pattern that I’ve seen all day, but they sure looked like they were having a good time.”

That will happen if you’re relaxed and not rushing. Let things happen normally. The next time you compete, it will be easier if you let yourself relax and become a better rider.

If you become a better rider, your horse will become a better horse.