Passing Perfection

Use this horse-showing strategy to smoothly get around the horse in front of you.

In a rail class, the worst thing a competitor can do is to run his horse up on the tail of another exhibitor’s horse and interrupt his performance. From a standpoint of safety, as well as courtesy and sportsmanship, you should not do that.

Properly passing another horse on the rail is a matter of keeping a proper distance between your horse and the other, and maintaining control of your horse. When you do a great job of passing, it’s a chance to show the judge your control, and it can be an opportunity to get better rail position and really show off your horse.

A successful rail pass is enabled by smooth lateral movement. If your horse gets stuck when you cue him to sidepass, this could be holding you back from reaching your full potential in the show ring. AQHA Professional Horseman Ken McNabb can help you improve your horsemanship fundamentals, including sidepassing. Download Horse Training Fundamentals, AQHA’s FREE report, to see how!

Needing to pass doesn’t necessarily mean your horse is not performing well; he might just be a bigger, longer-strided horse. Judges want to see horses moving freely, putting their legs under them. If your horse is doing that, looking soft in the bridle and you’re passing, you’re doing just fine.

I hear exhibitors make comments like, “I think the judge eliminated me because I was passing all the time.” In reality, it was probably because of the way that rider passed. There is a right and a wrong way to do it.

Remember, if you do get cut off in a class, most of the time it is unintentional. If you inadvertently cut someone off, take time to apologize after the class.

The Basic Pass

When you feel as if you are gaining on the horse ahead of you on the rail, you need to plan to pass. Be aware of the horses behind you, too, as you make your plan.

Ideally, you need to pass when you are 10-15 feet away; don’t get any closer than 10 feet from the horse in front of you.

Passing should be thought of as a straight-line, parallel movement, not as a curve. When you pass, you don’t rein your horse around the other horse; you actually move your horse sideways, from one straight-line track to another. At the jog, it’s a two-track maneuver.

At 10-15 feet, pick your horse up with your hand to lift his shoulders, and softly put your outside (rail-side) leg on him to ask him to pick his body up under you.

A broke all-around horse (in western pleasure, horsemanship, western riding, etc.) has what we call “leg.” When you put your leg on him, he lifts his body to move up and off that leg, while stepping deeper in a controlled manner.

When you’re traveling in a straight line, you want to be able to put your leg on your horse and have him move up underneath you and collect, and not try to duck right or left away from your leg, or take off loping faster. When you ask him to do that before you pass, it prepares his body to move to the side.

Once you pick him up and put your outside leg on him, keep his body straight and move over to a track to the inside of the horse you are passing.

As you move sideways, you want your horse to stay up in his shoulders. If a horse drops his shoulder toward the rail, he loses his frame. His back end is going to drop out, his shoulders will go down, and he’ll ramble along. His shoulders need to be up, his head and neck in a straight line out in front of you, his hocks stepping deep.

Maintain that inside track, traveling in a straight line until you are at least 10 feet ahead of the other horse before you take your horse back to the rail, again, keeping his body straight as you move him sideways to the rail.

Once you get past the other horse, make sure that it’s your idea to move back to the rail. If you let your horse drop his shoulder toward the rail, as soon as he gets his head a little bit ahead of the other horse, he’ll tend to duck to the inside and could cut the other horse off.

Step It Up

There are a couple of things you can work on to improve your passing:

1) Your horse has to be comfortable riding around other horses. Ride with other horses a lot; buddy up with someone, jog along and talk and relax.

If you’re loping and someone pulls up beside you, ask your horse to stay underneath you despite that distraction.

If your horse loses his focus, don’t get after him and scare him. Just take him back down to the jog, go back to some exercises, then take him back to the lope and find another horse to lope beside.

2) It is key to learn how to stay “on track” with your horse, to ride straight, both in straight lines and on a curve. So, if you are tracking 15 feet from the rail, you can stay that distance from the rail all the way around the pen. When you make the turn at the end of the pen – whether it is a square turn or a curve – you maintain that distance from the rail.

I ride a lot of straight lines down and across the middle of the arena – if a horse can learn to track straight in the middle of the arena, he can do it on the rail.

While riding those straight lines, I also want to be able to lift my horse’s shoulders and put my leg on him to ask him to move his body up and off my leg and collect while continuing to track straight, and not darting to the side.

To do that, as I track in a straight line down the center of the arena at the jog or lope, I pick him up, hold his shoulders and put my leg on him for a couple of strides, asking him to collect; and then I let him down and pet him on the neck. I’ll do the same thing with my other leg, in the same straight line.

Having this body control is important for any maneuver such as asking him to move off the rail to pass. These straight-line drills are the basics for lead changes and other maneuvers beyond the western pleasure class.

Whether you’re out on the trail or in the arena, you can develop better horsemanship to improve your skills.  AQHA Professional Horseman Ken McNabb teaches about sidepassing, shoulder control and much more in the Horse Training Fundamentals FREE report. Download it today and become a better rider tomorrow.


With a green horse, when you apply your left leg, he’s going to duck off to the right with his shoulders, away from that pressure.

To teach him to step deeper with his hocks and stay straight, when I apply my left (outside) leg, I’ll hold him lightly with my left rein down toward my leg – not bending his neck at all, just keeping him straight. I have my right (inside) rein ready to hold his shoulders up so he can reach forward with his front foot as I’m asking him to step under with his hocks.
As I push with my left leg, I hold him straight with the left rein and use the right rein to lift his shoulders. At that moment, I add a little bump with my right leg behind the cinch to further encourage the forward motion and ask him to put that front foot out there.

Done correctly, then every time you put your outside leg on him, you’re expecting his topline to lift up. If his shoulders go down, then you hold on to him and put your left leg on him more until you feel his legs step under and forward and his shoulder come up. Don’t be aggressive, just push until you feel him lean on you and then feel everything soften up and forward, and then you release and continue straight.

I never bump with the left (outside) rein – I don’t want to make him afraid of my feel with it.

If you push too much with your left (outside) leg, you’ll overcant him and he can’t step forward properly with his front leg. If you bend his body too much, it restricts his shoulders.

Some horses do this better than others, and it takes time and patience to develop.

AQHA Professional Horseman Bob Kail has been a respected trainer, coach and exhibitor for more than 30 years, specializing in the western and English all-around and halter horses. He trains alongside his wife and fellow AQHA judge, Debbie, and their son, Ryan, from the family barn in Scottsdale, Arizona.