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Judges Discuss How to Improve Showmanship Scores with Stephanie Lynn

No class seems to have a wider variety of opinions than showmanship, yet some continually stay on top of the judges’ cards regardless of the year or the horse they have to show. GoHorseShow asked some of the top professionals what they think separates the winners from the runners-up.  Charlene Carter, Tom Robertson, Mark Sheridan, Valerie Kearns and Brad Kearns all had their opinion on how to improve your showmanship score. Here is what they had to say:

1) Maintain a correct topline

Charlene Carter indicated the head and neck positioning is an important aspect that many exhibitors neglect. She thinks, “One part that many leave out is the vertical and horizontal position of the horse’s head. Everyone tries to put the polish on their set ups, spins and transitions, but they leave out one tiny ingredient for that totally breathtaking go – the horse’s neck, head carriage and alignment. We discuss it all the time in the other major events, but rarely in the showmanship.”

Charlene likes to see the horse’s spine completely straight, “The head and neck should be slightly up for the initial presentation and start off the pattern with the horse looking through the halter. Then in unison with the exhibitor’s body language to start, the horse’s head should softly drop to level or working position, never below level. The entire list of remaining maneuvers, such as the lines, serpentines, spins and backs should be done with the neck and head aligned with the required maneuver. It should remain steady throughout, until the inspection.”

She also reminds exhibitors that judges are rooting for every exhibitor and she places great importance on a proper set-up.

2) Set up squarely

Tom Robertson watches showmen who are very good, but often do not end up on top of the card because they fail to set their horse up properly. Tom cautions exhibitors to, “Remember the basics – the purpose of the class is for the exhibitor to present his or her horse to the best of their ability at halter.” Tom does not penalize an individual for taking the extra time to achieve a complete set-up. He realizes that, “Many of these horses are not as ‘square-made’ as halter horses,” but he does expect the horse’s feet to be square and underneath them. “I don’t want to see the horse stretched out…that is a fault to me.”

To achieve this balance, Tom suggests showmen “In practice, step away from the horse to view the set-up from the side and make sure the horse’s legs are squarely underneath themselves. That will enable the showman to gauge where the correct position is when showing. Just like all of the other maneuvers in a showmanship class, the set-up is perfected only by hours of practice and repetition, and should not be overlooked.” Tom credits the exhibitor who maintains awareness of the horse’s position at all times.

3) Respect the tradition of the class

Mark Sheridan agrees with Tom and finds too many exhibitors get caught up in having the quickest turn, the fastest back or the flattest trot. Mark is looking for the exhibitor who “shows their ability to show their horse at halter – they understand how to show their best horse.” For Mark, that means presenting a balanced horse throughout the entire class not just during the set-up. “If the horse’s head is too low the horse looks poor. The best exhibitors show their horse in a balanced frame during the entire class.”

Mark cautions exhibitors to avoid trends and stick to the basics. Judges are looking for the exhibitor they would have show their horse at halter. When his students come to him running like a duck or throwing their toes up he takes the horse away and has the student practice running without their horse. He wants to see an exhibitor “Run as if they were out for an easy jog. I want an exhibitor to look, act and dress like a professional. Too often exhibitors get caught up in trends but winners win because they pay attention to the basics and perform the fundamental maneuvers with style and grace. They maintain the integrity of the class without any trend affecting the outcome of their performance.”

4) Combine pace with accuracy

Valerie Kearns recently received her judge’s card and discussed how the change of viewpoint has changed her practices at home. Valerie finds that, “Few showmen present the proper combination of rhythm and correctness.” Judging has made her aware that, “exhibitors often miss the opportunity to win by either going too fast and forfeiting accuracy or being overly cautious and conservative.” Valerie rewards “exhibitors who combine precision with pace. I want to see a showman who tells me they want to be the winner while maintaining correctness and style. They should never sacrifice accuracy for speed. However, the exhibitor who is correct and shows confidence will receive the higher scores.”

5) Show the judges you like your horse

Brad Kearns emphasizes that he looks to find “the exhibitor who shows me they want to be there and who likes their horse; the exhibitor whot truly enjoys showing their horse and the experience of showing regardless of the outcome.”

As a judge and exhibitor himself, Brad looks to judge on the positive and wants exhibitors to portray a positive, albeit believable, presentation through their body language, posture and overall appearance. “The highest scores are earned by the showmen who consistently gloss over flaws as if they never happened. The greatest exhibitors know how to hide miscalculations and carry on flowing easily from one maneuver to the next without ever showing any concern. Perhaps it is because exhibitors fear making a mistake that some get overly stiff, speed through the pattern or maybe appear as if they not enjoying the experience.”

Brad considers showmanship like a job interview, dance competition, and reality show all combined. “Exhibitors are asking for the judges’ support and the judges want to give it. Judges won’t remember you by the mistakes you make. They remember you by the attitude you portray and a genuinely happy exhibitor creates lasting positive impression. That is the exhibitor that gets my support.”

Brad commented that, “excess of anything is not good.” For instance, “executing turns so fast the exhibitor almost appears to run, trotting at Mach speed then slamming the horse into the ground for a hard stop or during an inspection dropping into your knees then popping up on the other side of the horse like a jack in the box.  It is more credit earning to perform the maneuvers correct than to be overly concerned with excess.  The exhibitor does not want to memorable for the wrong reason.”

The common theme from all the judges was that moderation is best and too much of anything is not a good thing. Judges agreed they are looking for the exhibitor who shows correct fundamentals with nothing distracting from the overall presentation. The judges want a smooth run shown professionally from someone who both enjoys and understands their horse – they are looking for the horseman who is a showman!


About Stephanie Lynn: Professional Horseman Stephanie
 Lynn coached her first AQHA World Champion in 1988. She has since 
coached, trained and shown World, Congress and Honor Roll horses across
 disciplines. She is a judge for AQHA, NSBA and APHA and has judged World
 Championship shows for each association. Most recently, Stephanie is
 the author of The Good Rider Series and A Lifetime Affair:
 Lessons Learned Living My Passion. The Good Rider Series is a library of
resource material that is both practical and applicable in the barn and 
show ring for riders. Stephanie can always be reached through her 
website: to answer your questions, schedule a clinic or lesson.