Sharpen Your Patterns

Earn a better score in horsemanship with this horse-training technique.

Once you’ve worked on the basic maneuvers found in a pattern, the next step to improve your scores in horsemanship, equitation or showmanship is to perfect your accuracy.

Accuracy is laying down a correct pattern. You can’t be accurate if you haven’t made yourself completely familiar with the pattern. You have to study it and understand it.

Accuracy also means that you hit your markers for transitions and maneuvers. Your lines are straight where called for, your lines are uniform through any curves, and your horse is bending and straight on those curves. Working on transitions is a great way to improve accuracy.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re performing a novice pattern or an advanced open pattern, accuracy is key to improving your scores.

Starting Out

Learn your pattern, first and foremost, using whatever method works best for you. I have my riders ride out, recite it out loud and walk it out on the ground. When you walk it out, set some practice cones so you get a feel for where they will be when you ride.

If you can, walk the pattern in the arena you are going to compete in so you get a feel for the arena. You won’t know until you go to show exactly how the judge will set the pattern – the cones might be spaced tighter or wider than you expect. But if you’ve walked that arena, you know the space you have to work with, and that always helps with accuracy.

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I like to dissect the pattern to practice it. Usually, horsemanship and equitation patterns in the breed shows follow a three-component organization: There’s a beginning, middle and end separated by transitions. I like to practice those components separately.

When you practice the pattern as a whole, when something goes wrong, it can overwhelm you and rattle you for the rest of the pattern.

But when you dissect it and separate it out into parts, not only is that an excellent memorization trick and a great way to work on the pattern and put it together, but it also helps you ride positively to the next component if you make a mistake. It takes away the “all or nothing” feel to the pattern; instead, you’ve got three shots to do well.

I think it’s a mistake to “try” a pattern that you don’t have the skills to do yet or that you or your horse are too green for. To me, “try” is a negative word and leaves open too much chance for failure.

Instead, take that more advanced pattern and watch others ride it. Keep practicing. Then, when you eventually enter the class, you are prepared to do it, which is better than just trying to do it. “Do” is a positive word.

Before you show, watch others show if you can, and watch from a profile view of the arena. You want to be where you can see the whole pattern from the side. From there, you get a better idea of the distances between the cones, and how the pattern is set – tight or big. It’ll help keep you from getting surprised with the distances when you go in to perform.

Step It Up

Transition work helps with accuracy. A transition is changing gait or changing speed within the gait. You want transitions to be smooth and light with subtle aids; the horse accepts the rider’s aids and does not show resistance: He’s relaxed. Horse and rider remain balanced in the transition.

If you have an average or a poor transition – it’s abrupt with a lot of visual cueing with spur or rein – you end up playing “catch up.” You have trouble regulating your speed, your horse might get either flat or over-bridled, or he’s constantly changing in his body position and balance. Poor transitions will affect your ability to keep your horse on track in the pattern.

Exercises that help you work on accuracy and transitions are easy to work into your everyday riding.

For example, ride a circle and challenge yourself to make a transition at every quarter point on the circle – you can mark the quarters with cones to help you see where to do it. Remember, always work on bigger circles first, at least 70 feet in diameter. To eventually increase the difficulty, go to a smaller circle.

So, you could start on your circle at a jog, transition to an extended jog at the next quarter, and then back down to a jog at the next quarter, and so on.

You can also do this going straight down the long side of the arena – make a transition after a set number of strides. As you improve, lessen the number of strides between your transitions.

You have to be careful how you do these exercises and don’t drill. Try five or eight sets of a certain transition and then change it up a little. If you work in short segments, it keeps your horse light, responsive and interested.

Remember to work on your horse’s straightness and balance through the transition – on a straight or curving line.

Figure 8s and serpentines also help with transitions and maintaining balance and straightness moving from straight to bending lines. In a figure 8, as you move from one circle to the next, you have to go straight at that point where you start your new circle. Serpentines are fabulous as a series of straight lines and half circles.

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Remember, speed in any maneuver won’t get you plus scores if you lose correctness to get it. That’s probably one of the most common problems I see advanced riders having.

I’ve seen it a lot in the turn on the haunches and the pivot. For a correct turn, your horse’s body should be bent or arced into the turn, with his nose tipped into the turn, not away from it. When riders add too much speed too fast in a pivot, one of the problems that shows up is the horse flexing his head to the outside of the turn.

It is better to be accurate, smooth and slower than it is to be inaccurate and fast. The best riders constantly review what they’ve done and what they need to work on. After you show, get a video of your go and study it. Ask an AQHA Professional Horseman or coach to critique your pattern, too, so you get an idea of what to work on.

Make notes to yourself on your ride and think about what your homework should be. It might be stops or your walk-canter transition, your extended jog or the roundness of your circle at a lope.

If I’m coaching someone, when he gets done with a class, I always ask him what he liked best about his pattern. And then I ask him what he would have liked to have done better.

If he comes out and says, “Well, I didn’t like the stop,” I say, “No, that’s not what I asked. I want to hear positive first and then what you need to improve on.”

You should never get caught up in excuses: “Oh, the ground was bad,” or “The horse next to me was making mine upset,” or “The judge just didn’t like me,” or “I had a perfect pattern, and I don’t know what I did wrong.” If you talk like that, you are a short-term competitor.

Always ride on the positive – what you did well and what you can do better.

Rail Pattern

I like riders in the rail classes, western pleasure and hunter under saddle, to use the arena as a pattern.

On the rail, you’ve got long sides of the arena where you’ve got to go straight. You’ve either got four corners where you must have your horse bend in those corners, or the arena is an oval at the short end of the arena, and your horse must bend through those turns correctly.

Treat the arena like a pattern that you have to keep your horse straight and balanced throughout. Judges love to see that you can maneuver your horse on and off the rail to keep your horse placed so they can judge you easily.