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What to Look for in the Perfect Showmanship Horse

In this series, we talk to judges and industry experts about what type of horses excel in particular classes. Multiple World and Congress Champion Trainers Shannon Vroegh and Ryan Cottingim discuss what type of horse will take you to the next level in showmanship.

Compared to classes like hunter under saddle and horsemanship, showmanship is a class that genuinely tests the connection between the exhibitor and their horse. The AQHA rulebook says that “showmanship is designed to evaluate the exhibitor’s ability to execute, in concert with a well-groomed and conditioned horse, a set of maneuvers prescribed by the judge with precision and smoothness while exhibiting poise and confidence.”

According to Vroegh and Cottingim, showmanship is one of the few classes where you can create a world champion horse, regardless of their prior training or bloodlines. Take a look at some of the critical things to keep in mind to create that champion.

Balance is big – When Cottingim thinks of an excellent showmanship horse, he thinks of a balanced horse.

“A good showmanship horse needs to be tight-bodied and tight-footed,” he said. “The two main components are natural balance and if their feet stay within the frameworks of their body. If a horse naturally keeps its feet within the parameters of their body, meaning they don’t step any wider than essentially what their body mass is, especially laterally, that’s a great place to start.”

If a horse is fundamentally balanced, that balance and poise will translate to the maneuvers.

Don’t forget about the “at halter” part – While most drop this out of the event’s title, it’s good to think about it.

“I always emphasize back to that,” Cottingim said. “It’s showmanship at halter, so you are presenting your horse one-hundred percent of the time. That’s the basis of the class, so we try not to lose that in the context of today’s showmanship event.”

Keeping your horse’s coat looking healthy and body in perfect condition can contribute to a better showmanship score.

Expression and receptivity matter – A perfect showmanship horse, always has its ears forward and is ready to go when their exhibitor tells them what to do.

“You want one that’s a little bit edgier,” Vroegh said. “They have to have a good response to everything that you do and have to be willing to follow you and not be dull. They have to be so willing to do many hard things, like backing fast and getting off the chain. It’s way more willingness than skill in showmanship.”

Cottingim emphasized the mindset that a champion showmanship horse has. “I want a horse that’s responsive on the ground, meaning they have some ground awareness,” he said. “I don’t want one that is stand-offish, but if they notice stuff and have some expression on the ground, I like that more than a horse that is a little dopey and sluggish.”

Does gender matter? – Vroegh has noticed a trend over the years – the top showmanship horses tend to be mares.

“I’ve had my best luck with mares in the showmanship,” she said. “The thing about a mare is, I feel like they’re a little edgier, they’re not as dull, and they have expression. I think that little bit of added heart and soul that a mare will sometimes have is a big deal.”

Cues must be distinctive – The way a showmanship horse is trained matters, as it does in any other class. Practice is important. But, even though you’re not riding the horse, cues matter too.

“The one thing that I’ve found with the showmanship is that so many people don’t think about the fact that you need to have a difference in everything you ask for in the showmanship,” Vroegh said. “There are so many different directions that you can move your hand in that will teach them to do something different. And when you turn to them, the position that you stand in is what tells them that you’re going to back up. You have to be extremely clear with what you’re asking for, every time you ask for it. And that’s what creates a great showmanship horse.”

Bond with your horse – Cottingim and Vroegh agreed, the thing that sets a good showmanship pattern and an excellent showmanship pattern apart is the connection between the exhibitor and their horse.

“Personally, within the last 10 to 15 years, I have had to pull aside probably five customers and told them they just need to bond with their horse,” Cottingim said.

Vroegh also commented on the importance of connection and harmony with the horse. “I think the biggest thing is when you’re on the ground that much, they’re right there, close and personal with you,” she said. “Every time they set right and you pet them, they’re standing there looking at you, and they know it’s you petting them. You would hope that they know it’s you riding them, but they know that it’s you when you’re standing there in front of them.”

Cottingim said, just taking five minutes to hang out with your horse can make a big difference.

“When you get finished riding and training, go out and hand graze them. Just be with your horse. You don’t have to be intense all of the time,” he said. “When you get in the show pen, I have to see that natural bond between you and your horse. I know it sounds crazy, but it does make all the difference in the world. It takes you from third or fourth to winning it.”

When it comes down to it, showmanship is a class like no other. To take your showmanship pattern to the next level, make sure your movements are sharp, and your connection is strong.

About the Author – Olivia Bradish has been an equestrian for 13 years. She attends the University of Michigan, studying Political Science and English, as well as working for The Michigan Daily. Olivia shows the all-around events with her horse, CSR Roan Bar Penny, who is known around the barn as London. They enjoy showmanship, horsemanship, and trail the most. Olivia also enjoys teaching and helping the younger kids at her barn. She plans to continue showing and teaching throughout her college years.