By Lauren Levy
ADVICE FROM TOP AQHA COMPETITORS
In the July/August issue of The Equine Chronicle, I shared advice from seven of today’s most noted AQHA trainers and judges on what it takes to stand out in the showmanship pen. For this month’s issue, I interviewed eight AQHA competitors to find out their secrets for shining in the showmanship pen. Here’s what they had to say.
TIPS FOR MENTAL PREPARATION
Multiple AQHA professionals stressed how important mental preparation is if you want to succeed at showmanship. One thing Anne Wilson, a Select exhibitor and three-time back-to-back World Champion in showmanship with her gelding Visible Investment, does to mentally prepare herself is to color-code her patterns using a different color for each gait. She shared, “I learned this trick from trail clinics with Tim Kimura, and it really helps me to remember my patterns.”
Joshua Briggs, a 2012 Youth World Finalist in Showmanship and World Champion in the 13 and Under Showmanship, told me that he practices his patterns in the barn aisle before competing in the showmanship pen. He lays the cones out as if he were in the show pen, and walks through each maneuver to make the pattern second nature.
Sue Pennau, a Select Exhibitor and Congress Champion in Showmanship, prepares for showmanship by getting her horses, Caught A Good Look and Definitely A First, completely ready herself. She said, “I like to wash my own horses’ tails, longe, and groom them. If someone else is doing all the prep work for you, you are not able to feel out how your horse is acting that day or what mood he’s going to be in when you go to compete.” Many other competitors felt the same. World Champion and multiple Top 5 World Show finisher in Showmanship with her horse Southwestern Gunman, Whitney Walquist-Vicars told me that not only does she think preparing your own horse is important, but that she genuinely enjoys doing it. She told me, “One of my favorite parts of competition is the relationship you create with your horse.”
Samantha Chiodo, a first-year Amateur Exhibitor and 2012 Youth World Champion in Showmanship, told me she likes to mentally prepare for showmanship by visualizing her pattern. “I like to think of what I’m going to do at each point, think of my perfect pattern, and what I would like to see if I were a judge.”
Angela Fox, a Congress Champion and Top Five finisher at the World Show in showmanship with her gelding, The Heat Seeker aka ‘Bomber,’ has a similar tactic. She likes to mentally prepare by leaving nothing to chance. She told me, “the night before I compete, my trainers and I plan exactly what we are going to do and I stick with that plan when I go into the show pen. If there is a hard line up to the judge or some more technical element that will require some thought, I try to know exactly what I need to do to carry out that maneuver down to the number of steps necessary, if I have to trot past the judge for example.” This allows Angela to focus on the showmanship pattern she has to do the day she is competing because, she says, “All of the hard work has been done the night before. Also, if the pattern is particularly hard to remember,” Angela says, “I talk myself through that section as I go up to the cone to make sure I have that under control and will not mess that part up.”
PLAN ON THINGS NOT ALWAYS GOING AS PLANNED
Whitney told me that, “We can’t control what happens all the time, especially when working with animals, so I put a lot of my faith in God. Sometimes you can feel completely prepared, but it comes down to whether or not God has a plan for it to be your day.”
Angela explained, “You have to have the mental preparation and strength to make it seem like that’s what you meant to have happen when something goes wrong. You have to realize that you cannot control everything but you have to be mentally ready to show and do what you can that day.”
Dan Yeager, a Congress Champion and multiple Top Five finisher at the Select World Show says, “Obviously, it doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to once you are in the show ring, but I like to try to stick to the plan I develop and only make small adjustments to compensate for errors when I am in the pen.” He said the key is to “have buttons to use so you can correct your horse in the pen before something goes really bad. It is important to work out buttons at home so that in the class itself you focus on showing and working through any mistakes that might be happening.”
Kaleena Weakly, Congress Champion in Amateur Showmanship and Top Five finisher at the Amateur World Show in showmanship with her horse Hours Yours and Mine, had the same advice for other showmanship exhibitors. She told me that no matter what, she always keeps on showing. She said, “If I mess up, I keep showing because you never know what the judges saw and your patterns usually look better than they feel.”
SELL YOURSELF – BE CONFIDENT
Anne told me, “I think a large part of showmanship is making yourself look good and presenting your horse to the best of your ability. When I go up to the judge to present him, I am always thinking, ‘Hey, look at my horse, he’s the winner of the class.’ I like to smile at the judge, have eye contact with the judge, and maintain good posture throughout my entire pattern to exude that confidence.”
In the last few seconds before walking up to the first cone, Joshua says he works on his posture to ensure that it is up and correct, with his elbows in throughout his entire pattern. Correct body position is something the AQHA professionals I interviewed stressed as being, “just as important in showmanship as executing your pattern well.”
Still, one thing that Joshua’s parents, Professional Horsemen John and Jill Briggs, have taught him to help him excel in the showmanship pen is to not be overly cocky. He told me being humbled has helped him to improve. Whitney Vicars expanded on this same point saying, “Showmanship is very much a mental game and you have to have a lot of self-confidence and assurance, but you can’t be overly confident either because then you are not prepared if something goes wrong.” Whitney says, “I know people who let their nerves get the best of them, and they end up beating themselves before anyone else ever has a chance to beat them. You have to find a balance between being overly confident and overanalyzing your go.” This just takes practice and time.
PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT
Whitney expanded on a point made by the AQHA professionals and judges in their interviews. She told me that practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice does. She said, “ Practice is important, but you have to practice correctly. If you go out and practice it wrong everyday, it’s still going to be wrong no matter how many times you do it. That’s where I think a good trainer and a good set of eyes is very important.” Angela suggests being very methodical and making sure to ask for each showmanship maneuver in the same way every time. “This keeps us consistent in the show pen, because your horse knows exactly what you are asking for when you give him a certain cue, and you will gain confidence because you are able to get comfortable doing each aspect a very specific way.”
MASTER THESE SKILLS IF YOU WANT TO SHINE
Well-respected trainer Pierre Briere taught Whitney that, “showmanship horses should go off your body and not off your hand.” He taught her that, “your hand is more a rudder, a stable part that the horse can rate on and off of but that you shouldn’t be pushing and pulling and just hoping that your horse will come with you.” This takes practice to master.
Kaleena told me that one thing that has helped her to improve in showmanship is learning to make sure her horse’s body is always in line, especially when she starts her pattern. She told me, “You should always try for that straight line because if you start straight, you can back straight and then your other lines will be straight also.” If you master this, it will add to the overall accuracy of your pattern.
And last, Anne told me it helped her to practice using her legs to propel her when she runs instead of leaning forward and trying to use her upper body. By mastering this skill, her showmanship run really improved.
Each of the exhibitors I spoke with told me that over-practicing can be just as detrimental to your showmanship practice as not practicing enough, and that they try to teach their horses to enjoy showmanship. Angela warned, “If horses get pin-eared and bitter over time, it shows. So if you can try to keep showmanship a positive experience for your horse, it will show over time and make a real difference.” She added, “I think a lot of what makes a successful showmanship team is if the horse looks happy and excited to be there, so I try not to drill on my horse. But I try to practice enough that I stay primed on my skills, because the less you use them, the less comfortable you are with them.”
These top competitors told me that at home they keep their showmanship practices short. Sue said she only practices showmanship two to three times a week, if that, to keep her horse excited about the event. Some other competitors like Kaleena said that they also keep their showmanship practices to about fifteen minutes to keep their horses from disliking practice. Whitney suggested focusing more on your maneuvers to keep practices short, rather than executing patterns all the time. She explains, “I like to practice several maneuvers at home, but I don’t like to practice too many patterns. Doing the patterns forces me to split my mental focus on doing the pattern correctly, but if I am just doing the showmanship maneuvers, like trotting, turning, and backing, then I can focus on just doing the pieces correctly.”
The same rules apply the morning you are supposed to show. Angela explains, “I like to warm Bomber up six to eight exhibitors out before I am supposed to show to make sure he is light and listening to me. If you start warming up too far before you show, you run the risk of making your horse dull. You have a window of a light happy horse; it’s important not to miss that.”
PREPARE EVEN WHEN YOUR HORSE ISN’T AROUND
I asked the exhibitors what they did to prepare for showmanship even when they weren’t around their horses, since many people are unable to practice every day. The main advice I heard was to stay fit. Sue told me that she “works out three times a week on a spin bike and does Pilates on off-days.” She also walks when she can. Kaleena told me exercises like these really come in handy when you’re at shows like the Big A in Conyers, Georgia in July running around in 100 degree heat. “It helps to keep up your endurance,” she says.
Whitney also emphasized the importance of exercising, saying, “trying to stay physically fit is good for showmanship just for the running. I have noticed times when I am in better shape and times when I am less in shape and it has been easier to perform in the pen when I am in good shape. I think it’s important to have good core strength to make nice lines in your patterns and to have a good showmanship run.”
Anne started going to the health club and running on the treadmill with her arms in the showmanship position. She laughed and told me, “I do it, and I am sure everyone thinks that looks very awkward, but it is awkward to run with a horse in cowboy boots without moving your arms, so I try to practice that because it helps me perfect my gait when I am showing.”
Angela suggested a variation of this activity. Her advice was to put on your showmanship boots and go for a run in the arena or other open area without your horse while maintaining showmanship position. “It’s good exercise. You can do it almost anywhere,” she says, “and it also makes you run better when you’re showing.”
Samantha suggested watching videos of riders you admire online, because she has found that it helps her look for new things she can try the next time she practices, and also things she wants to avoid doing.
CURB YOUR NERVES – PART 2
As far as curbing your nerves, Anne says, “I just try to think of how lucky I am to be able to show horses, and how fun it is, and that it’s a hobby” and that helps her to maintain her poise in showmanship. Her advice is to, “Take a deep yoga breath, and exhale,” before going into the showmanship pen.
Sue, on the other hand, tries to not even think about the judges. She says, “It’s best to just think about going into the pen and doing it like you were practicing at home.”
Samantha’s advice was to think of each go as just another opportunity in the pen. She told me she reminds herself that, “It’s not life or death, and if you’re nervous the judges are going to see that you’re nervous, so I just like to take a deep breath and think ‘I can do this, it’s going to be okay.’” Dan reminds us that, “we’re here to have fun. Sometimes we lose our focus on why we’re here. Try to do the best you can do that day. Tomorrow is a new one.”
DON’T BE AFRAID OF YOUR NERVES
One thing many of these competitors told me, though, is that we shouldn’t be afraid of our nerves. Angela said, “I think being a little bit nervous can make you more aware, make you try harder, and I think you can put your nervous energy to good use. I channel it into looking confident, and presenting my horse as best as I can.” Kaleena agreed, saying, “If you don’t get nervous, I think you are kind of losing your edge.” So the next time you get butterflies, just remember that everyone, even the top competitors, gets nervous sometimes, and that your nerves, and following the tips from the experts in these two articles, can help you shine in the showmanship pen.