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How Bad Riding Habits Can Ruin Your Overall Look in the Show Pen – with Melissa Dukes and Tim Gillespie


You are ready to go into your next class, your trainer tells you to put weight in your stirrups and roll your shoulders back when you walk into the large arena, your nerves set in. Unconsciously, your toes point down, and your body leans forward. This automatically presents a red flag to the judges.

However, you complete your pattern smoothly and without error. Your trustworthy horse pulled it out for you. As you exit, you give him a big pat and return to the warmup area to wait for results. After what seems like an hour, you hear your name called out for third. Not bad… but it could have gone better.

GoHorseShow spoke with Melissa Dukes (Head western coach at Texas Christian University, AQHA/APHA/RCHA/NSBA judge, and trainer) and Tim Gillespie (trainer of multiple AQHA and APHA all-around Congress and World Champions) about how to correct bad habits that can cost you that first-place prize.

Looking Down

At some point in our riding careers, we had trouble with looking at the ground. “It is human nature to look down and see what the horse is doing, but we want just a glance,” said Gillespie. Dukes adds, “It gives an appearance of insecurity.”

When you walk into the show ring, you want a confident look. Gillespie has his students practice this at home, so they are prepared for the show. “It just gives a more competent appearance,” explained Melissa.

To get out of this bad habit, “Set short term goals and have someone there watching to remind or even video your mistakes, because we do not realize what we are doing a lot of the times,” said Dukes.

Riding on Toes

This can be an ugly and dangerous habit that we form. It seems like a lot of people want to brace off their toes in a saddle. This causes bad balance, and you could easily fall off in this position.

Dukes suggests to “Stand up in your stirrups and be aware of your lower leg.” Tim adds, “Being really connected with your horse is very important, you must stay relaxed. Being nervous is probably the largest downfall in showing horses.”

You can do some exercises at home to strengthen your leg and get in the habit of putting your weight down your leg and into your heel instead of your toe; it is muscle memory. Overall, stay confident and relaxed.

Not Using Feet

Horses need guidance. If you throw them away and allow them to string out, it makes for a messy look. This is why it is a must to keep your legs on your horse.

“It lifts the rib cage and pushes them back on their hocks, and slows everything down. Keep your feet on the horses even in the show ring,” said Gillespie.

We sometimes implement these positive habits into our practice rides and then forget to do the same at a show. “Go into the ring with the same mentality as you have at home, just a little more polished,” says Dukes.

Hugging our legs around our horse gets them in their frame and places them where they need to be. Judges will see a much more put together ride.

Leaning Forward

This concept goes in part with looking down and bracing off your toe. All these motions put you too far forward. If you are leaning forward in the saddle, it can make your horse go faster and make your seat less balanced.

Tim said he has his students practice this at home to accomplish a nice angle to your upper body. “They can only look to make a quick fix.”

Melissa does the same while she is coaching and makes her students pick out short term goals. “If they are leaning forward in a lead change, then we will just work on that.”

Relax and focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and you will do great. These small, yet critical habits can make or break a class. Practice at home and come to the show prepared.

Many of these actions come from being nervous, so sit back, look up, and relax. Trust in your horse and “feel like you are the best rider in the class, even if you make a mistake,” persuaded Tim. “Challenge yourself each day to set a small goal and obtain it and then build on it the next day,” said Melissa.


About the Author – Georgia Smith has always been intrigued by anything equine related since she was a little girl. Throughout the years, Georgia has been The National High Individual in horse judging and placing Top Ten at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress. She has been riding/showing horses for 14 years with her trainer, Charlene Carter, who has led her to jump at Harmony Hill Farms. As a journalist major, Georgia is adamant about continuing her passion for horses through her writings.

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