Some Thoughts on Training and Showing Your Own Halter Horses
Copyright by Rick Synowski 1993
from ARABIAN VISIONS May/Jun ’93
used by permission of Rick Synowski
I am among the multitude longing to see the return of the days when the majority of handlers in halter classes were owners rather than trainers. That is the way it was when I first started showing halter in 1962. Trainers would not necessarily be out of a job, but rather their role would change. It has always seemed to me odd that trainers themselves compete in horse shows whereas in other competitive sports trainers coach the competitors. What we now have, at least in the world of Class “A” shows, is a trainers’ competition, not a horse competition, especially in halter classes. Horsemanship has been replaced by “De Sade” methods of tormenting horses in order to achieve the petrified look which wins in today’s American show ring. The horses themselves are prepared by grooming and other methods to appear bizarre, even macabre. Sadly, it is amateurs too who mimic these “it’s-how-it’s-done” practices where insensitivity, if not outright abuse, is inflicted by their own hand on their own horses.
One either marches to a different drummer and sometimes lets the chips fall where they may in terms of winning, or one conforms. It is my experience you can win without conforming provided 1) your horse is very good and is expertly fitted and presented, 2) you have consistently put in long hours and meticulous care over months and years in fitting and training, and 3) you have done your homework in selecting a judge who will rate your horse knowledgeably and without prejudice. One insults one’s own horse to show under a poor or corrupt judge.
As an amateur-owner halter competitor, I believe showing can still be fun for you and for the horse. And you can facilitate a thrilling performance by the horse for the audience, whether the judge appears to appreciate it or not.
In my experience, certain horses demonstrate a natural halter attitude. These are the born show-offs. They tend to be “hot” and display an extra style and brilliance. Such a horse was *Nasik, imported to the Kellogg Ranch from Crabbet Stud, whom H.H.Reese described as “a real peacock” and “a made-to-order show horse.” These horses love to perform in front of an audience and they tend to be extroverts. This natural attitude is to be built upon and rewarded in halter training. Then one appeals not to the horse’s fear but to his vanity. I tend to select these kinds of horses to show at halter. Probably my prettiest mare is the most annoyed by halter training and showing. It was a real burden for her and not fun. But from the day she was born she never cared a whit about impressing anyone.
I begin halter training with a young horse by working a more experienced horse in the aisle in front of his stall. Horses, especially youngsters, do learn a lot by imitation. I have been amazed at how much a horse picks up this way. Normally I work my horses in front of their comrades, appealing again to the horse’s desire to show off or be shown off. Praise for ever-so-small right responses is loud and exaggerated; one might say I use applause as a reward. Sessions are brief — less than five minutes. Remember horses, like kids, have a low tolerance for tedious tasks. Bad days are allowed for without penalty or chastisement. I do not use a halter chain during training. I think this tends to sour horses. I prefer a short riding whip as a cue and sometimes as a reminder to pay attention. Some horses sour quickly with a whip, even lightly applied, and do best without it. If you are using the whip to discipline your horse during each session you are doing something very wrong and the whip is only making it worse. Likewise with the incessant jerking I see too often.
I train with the horse on firm ground rather than using the soft arena footing so the horse is not working against an uneven surface while he is learning. Lesson number one must be “whoa.” You cannot proceed until your horse has learned this. I let my young horses free-exercise prior to a halter session. It is much easier for them to focus and pay attention then. Concentration is hard work for youngsters, horse or human. Another cardinal rule: never back your horse into position. You may back him and then have him step forward into position. Also, I tend to be a visual thinker and it is natural for me to visualize what I am asking the horse to do. I know there is something to this in training horses. As far as positioning your horse’s legs, neck, and head: have someone evaluating your horse’s most flattering position, standing alongside your horse while you are at the front. Learn this position and train your horse toward it.
Equally important to training is conditioning. I do not believe there are shortcuts to the months of consistent, regular exercise program and proper horse management such as feeding, foot care, worming, and grooming to achieve a properly fit halter horse. In showing a youngster, one must also evaluate that individual’s stage of growth. If a young horse is slow to mature, small, or at an awkward stage, it is best to wait until he can be shown without the temporary handicap which time will change. I believe it is better to scratch and forfeit the entry fees than show when a horse cannot be at his best.
Training with these tips in mind, your horse should display a natural brilliance and sparkle in his eyes in contrast to the zombie expressions and contrived posturing which has become the norm. You may or may not win but you will be proud of your horse’s “good show” and there will be people in the audience who appreciate what they see.