Horse Showing Step by Step

Walk through the 2011 National Collegiate Equestrian Association finals horsemanship pattern.

In National Collegiate Equestrian Association (formerly known as Varsity Equestrian) competition, college athletes get a four-minute warm-up period before they ride a complicated pattern on a horse they have never ridden before.

Texas A&M University horsemanship coach Beth Bass talks through the maneuvers of the finals pattern that was used in the last day of competition at the 2011 national championship. Beth’s Aggies won the western title, as they had for  the previous three years.

After you read through Beth’s thoughts on this pattern, try it with your polished horse, then imagine getting it right on an unfamiliar horse.

The Warm-Up

In Varsity NCEA, athletes have four minutes to ride the horse before the competition. The most important thing for our competitors to remember is that you can’t train a horse in four minutes. You can make one mad in four minutes, but you can’t train a horse to your specifications in four minutes. The rider must adapt to the horse; the horse isn’t going to adapt to the rider.

In Varsity NCEA competition, each maneuver is scored, like in reining or western riding patterns, with the rider earning a -1.5 to a +1.5 score for each maneuver, which is then added or subtracted to a base score of 70. As part of the warm-up, my job as the coach is to get the riders to figure out which maneuvers they’re going to be able to “plus,” and which maneuvers they’re going to be more conservative on.

In addition to the score for each maneuver, there’s a score for overall impression. The judge can give anything from a +1.5 to a -1.5 for what we call the “collective mark.” In addition to getting each maneuver right, it’s important for the rider to make the whole pattern look seamless.

Many of our Varsity NCEA patterns just say “lead change.” That’s because some horses don’t have a flying change. Riders and coaches get a little bit of information about the horse beforehand, so we know whether the horse has a flying or a simple change. If the horse only has a simple, we plan to do the simple.

If the horse has a flying change, we need to decide in the warm-up how much space the horse needs for that change, and we’ll decide whether to go for the change or to be conservative and stick with the simple change.

Some of the horses have spur stops, and others have release stops. Finding out the best way to stop is part of the four minutes. In addition, every horse we have in competition backs differently, so figuring out how to ask for the back and get it executed well is part of the warm-up routine.

While it’s obviously important for the rider to have a good ride in the show pen, the warm-up time where the riders get to know the horse is the most crucial part of making that successful ride happen.

The advice I’m giving for getting through this pattern presupposes that the rider is on an unfamiliar horse. If you’re riding a horse at home, getting to know your horse at home and getting him physically fit enough for the work is the most important preparation you can do before a show.

So you have perfected your patterns and are ready to head to a horse show. But before you get in the show pen, your horse has to have the perfect clipping job, as well. With AQHA's FREE Horse Clipping Tips report, AQHA Professional Horseman Randy Jacobs shows you how to get that perfect clip.

Maneuver 1

Jog up the center of square; at center of square, extend the trot; stop; turn 450 degrees to the left.

On a pattern that starts like this one, we usually enter at a jog. We do not halt unless it’s prescribed, because many of these horses are more green, and we want to keep them moving and not give them a chance to stop.

Find that straight line in the middle of the four cones, and be sure the horse is standing up square. For the extension of the jog at the center of the square, I advise my riders to lightly use their seats to push for that extension, maintaining the one-two trot rhythm to avoid any lope departures.

The stop will be in the center between Cone B and Cone D. Put the horse’s hip on the cone line for that stop so that after the one-and-a-quarter turn to the left, the horse will be aiming straight at B.

Maneuver 2

Lope out left lead; lope tight corner toward B; extend lope across diagonal.

On a more finished horse, we can really make that fluid transition from the turn into the lope. On a less polished horse, I tell my riders to make sure they’ve got the left shoulder stood up and the left hip pushed in a little bit to make the lope departure to the left.

As you’re riding toward B, keep the left shoulder up, and you’re going to make a tight turn before B on that diagonal line. Stand him up and bring him across himself up front to get around B. Wait until you’re around B and your horse is straight in his body again before you begin your extended lope.

A rider on an unfamiliar horse is really going to have to read that horse to decide how much she can push for the extension of the lope. This extended lope is one of the trickier pieces of the pattern, because most of these horses are going to be leaning toward the right, which is where the out gate is – and possibly their dinners. So the rider is going to have to control that lean to the right with the right leg while keeping the horse from changing leads; control of the rib cage is what will help keep that lead change from happening.

Figuring out which horse can be pushed and which horse needs to be ridden conservatively is all part of the four-minute warm-up. I tell my riders they need to have a Plan A and Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D. Horses can change between the warm-up and the contest. The riders have a split second to make a decision on what they’re going to do based on how the horse feels in the pattern at that moment. That’s part of the difference between a good collegiate rider and a great one.

Maneuver 3

Slow before C; counter-lope around C; change leads after C.

You want to slow a little before you get to Cone C and before beginning that counter-canter. This is a very tight piece of the pattern. At the Heart of Texas Fairgrounds in Waco, during the 2011 championships, there was only about 15 feet between the cone and the wall.

I told my riders to sit deeper on their right hip and keep that left shoulder stood up. Drive the hip around to the left, and steer those shoulders up and around to the right.

As you complete the counter-canter, look up at the line you’re going to ride toward Cone D. Once the horse is straight and a stride past C, change leads.

In the FREE AQHA Horse Clipping Tips report, Randy offers his tried-and-true advice on setting yourself up for clipping success, even if that’s not what your horse has in mind. By having the right attitude and a lot pf patience, your horse will be show-pen-ready in no time.

Maneuver 4

Lope up to D; stop; rollback right.

Coming off that counter-canter, the flying change is pretty easy because you’ve already go the horse standing up and are driving him to the left, so the change to the right lead is almost a relief for the horse.

Then just lope straight to D. At D, be sure to have a nice, square stop. The rider needs to sit a little deeper approaching the cone – not leaning back, just sitting deeper – and ask that horse appropriately for the stop. The pattern calls for a rollback. A rollback is different from a 180-degree turn. I want the rider to look a little harder to the right, bring that front end around to the right and ask the horse to exit prior to getting that turn completed. Make is a ceaseless motion – a crisp rollback across the hocks to the right and then lope out on the right lead.

Maneuver 5

Lope right lead arc to the center; walk one horse length, drop stirrups.

Now we have a quiet piece of the pattern, and the rider can breathe while she lopes around to the center of the pattern there. It’s a nice, soft

arc. The only pressure is that the rider must find the exact vertical center line, which will be the line she jogged up entering the arena.

Next is the break to a walk for one horse length. That’s six or seven steps at the walk, and I want my riders to break on each side of the horizontal center, so they walk a few steps before the center and a few steps after.

This seems like an easy piece, breaking to a walk, but it’s difficult to get an unknown horse to make that soft break instead of a jarring one, and these unknown horses are already tense – you’ve just extended the lope, counter-cantered, changed leads and rolled back. The horse doesn’t know what’s coming next and is understandably anxious. It’s important for the rider to be as soft as possible asking for that walk.

During the walk, the riders drop their stirrups. The horse has to maintain the walk while the riders are losing their stirrups. The rider needs to maintain an upright body position, even without stirrups. Dropping the stirrups is often a relief because correct position becomes easier to maintain when you’re riding in a saddle that’s provided and might not fit you exactly.

Maneuver 6

Extended trot two left corners; lope right lead; extended counter-lope circle to left.

After the walk, move into the extended trot. Again, ask softly with the seat and voice, keeping that one-two rhythm.

For those unfamiliar horses, I tell riders to think of that square corner as two parts. The first part will be the actual corner, and the second part will be standing the horse back up after the corner. Think: Corner, stand up, straight, corner, stand up.

Be sure the horse is square before loping off in the right lead. It’s tough to take these show horses from an extended trot to a lope, so pull back a stride or two before the lope departure.

The counter-canter circle is probably the toughest piece of the pattern. The horse is heading toward the gate again, and we’re going to have to pick up the counter-canter, so the horse is again going to have a bit of lean to the right. That actually helps maintain the counter-canter at the beginning of the circle.

I really want the riders to stand up the right shoulder of the horse, which would be the outside shoulder in this circle, and sit a little deeper on the left seat bone to help the departure and with the push for the extension of speed.

For some of the green school horses we ride, the counter-canter circle is going to be difficult athletically. They want to swap out behind, because that’s easier physically, and the rider really has to make sure she has good control of the hip and rib cage on the left side to keep that horse coming around the circle.

In addition to thinking about all that, the circle needs to be pretty and correct. The horse’s lean is going to push that circle toward an egg if the rider isn’t careful.

Learning how to give your show horse the perfect clipping job is not as hard as it sounds. In AQHA's FREE Horse Clipping Tips report, Randy Jacobs will guide you through the process of clipping your horse and making it a good experience for both you and your equine friend.

Maneuver 7

Slow to a lope at close of circle and lope to A; stop, back five steps; jog to exit.

At the completion of the circle, bring the horse back to a collected lope. A less polished horse can easily break gait on you here.

They’re coming around hard and pushing to the right, so you’ve got to pick up the right shoulder and control the hip and rib cage, and ask the horse to slow all at once. It’s a great opportunity for a horse to break to a trot on you, so you’ve got to maintain the loping rhythm in part by thinking hard about the three-beat lope rhythm.

We want to plus the maneuver by going for the hard slowdown but only to the point that we can actually control the lope. That slowdown is right in front of the judge, and our format has a penalty system for break of gait or other errors in your test. We don’t want to get into the penalty box at the end of the ride, right in front of the judge.

This is also a great place for the horse to swap leads on you. He’s going to be coming off the counter-center and have a bit of right drift, and you need to be able to slow that right drift without getting a lead change right in front of the judges.

At A, you want another soft and square stop.

Back five steps. Some riders think that they’re done and rush that backup, but the horse hasn’t have a chance to stand up yet. He just came off a counter-canter gallop, and he needs a second to get his legs under him. Give him that chance, stand him and then ask for that back.

The pattern is not complete until you have established your jog to exit. If you choose to acknowledge the judges – and not everyone does, nor is it required – you need to acknowledge after you’ve established the one-two rhythm of the jog.