Showmanship: Don't Mistake it for Halter!

Text & Photos by Traci Durrell-Khalife

It's easy to assume that showmanship and halter classes are judged the same, because equines are presented in hand in both events. In reality, the similarities end there.

Halter classes are judged on the horse's conformation, action and breed type. Showmanship, on the other hand, is a performance class in which the handler is judged on his/her ability to fit and show the equine. Contestants individually perform a pattern to demonstrate their control and training of the animal.

Common showmanship movements include leading at a walk and trot, stopping, backing, pivoting on the haunches, and setting up for inspection. Other movements that may be requested in 4-H, high school equestrian teams and open shows include leading from the off (right) side, side passing either direction, and pivoting on the forehand. Additionally, the judge may ask the contestants questions.

An ideal pair will work harmoniously, giving the appearance that the lead shank isn't necessary. Contestants are penalized if their horse is unresponsive, resistant, spooky, or otherwise disobedient. Touching the animal is not allowed during a showmanship class.
Handlers must also remain poised and alert throughout the class. Confidence is expressed through their movements, posture and eye contact with the judge. Handlers should stand tall and straight, looking ahead, not down.

During inspection, the judge will usually walk all the way around the animal to evaluate its fitting and grooming. At the same time, the judge keeps a close eye on the handler, as s/he moves from side to side in the quartering system. For safety, the handler must not stand in front of the horse.
For quartering, imagine the horse divided into quarters lengthwise down the spine and crosswise over the withers. The handler will always be in a quadrant adjacent to the one occupied by the judge. For example, when the judge is near the horse's right hindquarter, the handler will be to the right side of the head. When the judge crosses behind the horse toward the left hindquarter, the handler smoothly moves to the left side of the horse.

During inspection, the showman maintains eye contact with the judge. While his pony is balanced, ideally it should stand square.
During inspection, the showman maintains eye contact with the judge. While his pony is balanced, ideally it should stand square.


The handler should stand at a 45-degree angle off the horse's shoulder, with toes pointed toward the shoulder. The lead should be held in the right hand at least six inches from the halter. The excess lead should be held either folded or loosely coiled in the left hand. Pacific Northwest 4-H, for example, requires that the lead be held folded in a figure 8 in the left hand; AQHA requires it be held loosely coiled; Pinto gives the option of holding it "neatly and safely in the left hand." In some associations, handlers have the option of switching hands for certain maneuvers, such as backing. They must, of course, switch hands for leading from the off side.


Handlers' attire and type of halter or bridle should be consistent with their animal's breed or type. A handler would wear western attire, often with a jacket, when showing a stock type horse or pony. A plain or silver stock-type halter would be used.
Hunt seat riding attire is appropriate when showing a hunter-type horse in a hunt bridle or plain, preferably leather, halter.

The hunt seat bridle and attire are appropriate for this hunter-type horse.
The hunt seat bridle and attire are appropriate for this hunter-type horse.


A saddleseat-type horse may wear a full bridle with one set of reins left over the withers; the handler takes down and holds the other set. Alternatively, one bit and set of reins could be removed. These handlers typically wear a saddleseat outfit. Browband-style show halters are also appropriate on saddleseat or pleasure-type light breeds.

Some associations, such as Pinto, allow English showmen to carry a whip or crop. Spurs and chaps are prohibited with any style of attire.
Halters or bridles must fit properly. Watch for nosebands that are too loose and/or too low. Throatlatches should be snug, but not overly tight.
Most stock halters have a lead shank with a length of chain at the end that snaps to the halter. The chain may be used over or under the nose or not at all. When putting it over the nose, you may put it through the left side ring of the noseband, then over the nose, out through the right side ring and up the right cheek. Snap it to the upper ring with the snap facing out. Alternatively, if the chain is long it may be run through the regular halter ring, folded back on itself and snapped to make a shorter chain. If the chain is short, it may be snapped directly to the ring. The handler should hold only the leather, not the chain. A lead with no chain may also be used, especially for foals.


When selecting a model for showmanship, choose one that's walking, trotting or standing in a balanced position. A stock-type horse should stand square; saddleseat-type horses may stand stretched. The horse should look calm and attentive.

A good showmanship horse appears willing and responsive.
This is easily identified as showmanship with a cone marking to place to stop and a judge with note pad. The horse is square and alert, while the handler looks confidently at the judge.


Any breed of horse, pony, donkey or mule may be used.
Model rules generally only require a halter and lead for showmanship. While a handler isn't usually required, it's almost a necessity in today's tough competition. To make your entry look distinctively like showmanship, you may want to add a cone and/or a judge.

This is easily identified as showmanship with a cone marking to place to stop and a judge with note pad. The horse is square and alert, while the handler looks confidently at the judge.
This handler demonstrates a proper leading position.


Be sure to include a description of the movement and/or a diagram of the pattern on your photo back or with your live show entry.
For leading, position the doll on the horse's left, between the mid-point of the neck and the eye. If the doll is too far back, it may appear that the horse is "getting away" and the handler lacks control. On the other hand, if the doll is too far forward the horse may appear sluggish and unresponsive. A bit of slack in the chain or lead shank is desirable, as it shows the horse can work on light contact.

This handler demonstrates a proper leading position.
A good showmanship horse appears willing and responsive.


A typical class procedure is for all entries to enter the ring counterclockwise at a walk, then line up side by side. Next, each contestant performs the pattern individually. At the judge's discretion, entries may perform their pattern from the gate. The pattern might be: walk to judge, stop, back 6 steps, close (lead forward), set up for inspection, when excused do a 180 degree right haunch turn, trot to line, return to original position. A pattern may also include one or more cones to mark the location of transitions, pivots or other maneuvers.
When judging model entries, keep in mind that rules vary between associations. There is no single "correct" way. AQHA, for example, states that it's a major fault to lead from the off side. Pacific Northwest 4-H, on the other hand, often requires handlers to lead from the off side as part of their pattern.
Showmanship is one of the easier performance classes to enter, as it requires little tack. But it also requires some knowledge, research and a correct presentation to be successful. With these tips, you'll be ready to lead your entry into the winner's circle!


Pacific Northwest 4-H Horse Contest Guide

American Quarter Horse Association Handbook

Pinto Horse Association of America, Inc. Rule Book