Maintaining Your Halter Horse’s Peak, Part 1

How do you keep your halter horse at the top of his game, big show after big show?

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

To be a contender in the halter classes, your horse has to be in tip-top shape. Journal photo

“When you say a halter horse is at his ‘peak,’ it means he’s 100 percent fit in his body and mind, in tune and at the top of his game,” says AQHA Professional Horseman Luke Castle of Wayne, Oklahoma. “It means peak performance in the way a horse looks and shows, physically and mentally.”

Maintaining that look is especially tricky when you have to get a horse through several big shows in a row, each requiring that peak performance. The Journal asked Luke for his advice on maintaining that peak. Here’s what he had to say.

When do you push a horse toward a peak?

When I’m peaking a horse out, the critical time for me is three weeks out from that big show. That’s when I put the last of the weight on him and harden him up at the same time. You have to keep after his neck to keep it thin, and you really want that hair coat to tighten up. When you go to really push him toward a show, you’ll see him make a move, so to speak, getting heavier and hard-looking.

And that’s with a horse that’s already in your program, getting worked and sweated and brushed. It’s not three weeks from when you bring him out of a pasture.

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When you’re trying to peak a horse, it’s easier if you’re doing the same thing every day with him, so you can notice little changes in his routine. Every horse is an individual, and you have to pay attention. One might not be eating today, one’s not sweating like he should, one’s not growing the hoof he should - it’s always something little, and the little things you notice every day will come out in the end. If you’re a horse person, you’ll notice the changes.

With horses I’ve had for a year or so, I know the individual program each one needs to push toward the peak. With a new horse, you really have to pay attention to how he’s responding. They’re all different.

How do you evaluate how your horse is doing?

When we’re pushing toward a horse’s peak, I try to get an overall look at my horse twice a week, at least, on Monday or Tuesday and again on Friday. We’ll get him out in the ring, and I’ll watch him walk and jog and set up, and I’ll just stand back and look at him.

What I really want to see in that three-week period is that he is getting better. I envision what that perfectly fit horse would look like, and I want to see that horse gain momentum.

If I get a horse out on Monday or Tuesday and I look at him later on in the week and he’s not gaining weight or his hair coat is not getting better, then there is something wrong in the program. He might be sick or we’ve changed something or he’s not holding up in the program that we have him on.

It’s enough time to let me see a difference in his overall look, yet not so much time that I can’t make a change in what we’re doing.

What’s the most difficult part of managing a horse’s peak?

I very seldom see a horse all year long that looks ready every time I see it. It’s not uncommon to see a horse at a show, and two months later, he doesn’t look like the same horse.

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There are a lot of reasons why. It can be age. Some horses might have been better younger horses. Or between the middle of the 2-year-old to the 3-year-old year, a horse might really mature and come on.

They also change from one exhibitor to another. A youth might show the horse and the trainer will show it two classes later and the horse looks different, and it was in how the horse was presented.

Part of it is peak condition, too. A horse can’t be at his peak all the time. I see people make that mistake a lot. What happens is you’ll see a horse earlier in the year and he’ll look great, but by the time you see him at the big shows, he just won’t have the same look. It’s because keeping a horse at 100 percent is not just about getting him ready in his body but in his mind, too.

Horses that get hauled a whole bunch, they get tired of it. You’ll see them show with their ears back and not wanting to do it.

At some point, you’ve got to let them down and back off. You’ve got to take weight off them and give them time off. Then push them toward a certain show. If you don’t give them a break, they’ll take one, and it might be right when you’re about to go to that big show.

The hardest thing is to manage a horse’s peak through the big shows at the end of the year; the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show, then the Adequan Select World Championship Show, the All American Quarter Horse Congress and then the Lucas Oil AQHA World Championship Show.

In our program, if a horse is going to the Ford Youth World, we’ll have him ready for that. Then there are only two or three weeks until the Adequan Select, and we push him toward that. But in the five or six weeks before Congress, we’ll back off a little, then start to push again three weeks out from Congress. And it’s the same thing with the World Show.

Check back for Part 2 of this series, in which you'll learn more about what happens when you give your horse a break.