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The Showmanship Of Halter
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Trainer Mark DeFreece explains how to show like a pro.

By Rly Jo Sartin

They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression. A cliché, yes - but true. Nowhere in the show world are first impressions more important than in halter competition, where a horse's conformation is scrutinized, and a showman's ability can make or break a performance. While getting your halter horse in top show shape is key to his success, many competitors overlook an equally important factor of the equation: the showmanship of halter. You've got to know how to best show your horse to the judge, so that the judge can examine - and appreciate - your horse's "best side."

Mark DeFreece of Dacula, Georgia, has been training and showing halter and performance horses since the early 1980s, and he uses his AQHA judge savvy whether he's standing at the end of the lead shank or behind the clipboard. Here are his suggestions for the best ways to show off your halter horse.

Grooming basics In halter classes, it's not necessary for the human competitor to dazzle the judge; that's the horse's job. The showman's appearance should complement a well-groomed horse with an air of professionalism. "The showman's first impression to the judge is by means of his attire," says DeFreece. "The best impression can be made with a clean, neat appearance."

For clothing, DeFreece's motto is simple and clean. Blue jeans, nice boots and a button-down shirt score as appropriate attire - for both male and female competitors - at weekend shows. Large shows, like circuits or the World Show, may entice competitors to dress up, but DeFreece stresses simple colors and quiet prints. Clothing can be dressy without distracting a judge's attention away from the horse.

To top off a showman's appearance, in any show situation, DeFreece emphasizes the importance of a well-fitted hat. Hats should be clean and shaped to fit the facial structure of the showman. DeFreece adds he has never found a reason to wear spurs when exhibiting halter horses. For the horse, first impressions are made by looking at the judge through the halter, so halter fit is immediately significant. A correctly fitted halter lays tight against the horse's head, close behind the ears and close to the throat. Sizing is essential; the noseband should lay halfway between the muzzle and the eye, and the silver plating and buckles should follow the line of the leather. (For more tips on halter fitting, see "If the halter fits . . ." in the February '98 QHJ.)

The overall appearance of a well-groomed halter horse mirrors that of the showman: simple and clean. Short hair and banded manes are the industry norm, as are tails of the natural length for the horse's age: weanlings, hock-length; yearlings, slightly below the hocks; two-year-olds, from mid-cannon bone to the ground. DeFreece prefers a full and natural - not cropped - look for tails. (For more grooming info, see "What's in your grooming kit?" in the July '97 QHJ.)

Traveling to the judge Judging begins with the horse's walk to the judge. It is the showman's job to keep the horse under control, alert and traveling in a straight line, to give the judge the best opportunity to examine the horse's soundness, muscling and balance.

"You need to get your horse traveled to the judge as quietly and as mannerly as possible," DeFreece says. "I don't mind one jumping and bucking a little bit when I'm leading to the judge, because it just tightens up the horse's body and makes him look better, but he must not be a danger to himself or to the judge when he's traveling."

Equally important is traveling in a straight line. As a showman, DeFreece lines his horse's head up with the judge and his right shoulder up with the judge's right shoulder, to keep his path to the judge straight. When the judge steps to the side to view the horse in profile, DeFreece picks a spot on the arena wall and trots to it.

"Stay in a straight line, and try to go where the judge can see your horse's feet and legs," DeFreece says. "If you look to your point, you won't be weaving back and forth."

In the lineup Alertness and manners matter in the lineup, and both depend on the showman's ability to control the horse's body and mind.

"Being able to set your horse up with the halter - with your hand on the lead shank only - is preferred to moving their feet with your hands," says DeFreece, who suggests leaving 10 to 12 feet between horses in the lineup. "It's a lot quicker if they set up from the halter, and it shows you've done your homework."

To set up his horses, DeFreece teaches them to plant the right hind leg, move the left hind leg even with the right, and then adjust the front feet. For an even, balanced stance, the horse should "stand on the corners of its body." Each leg should stand squarely under a "corner" of the horse's body, as opposed to being spread too far apart or crowded too close together (see pictures next page).

After setting the legs, DeFreece usually lets the horse relax, and brings it to attention when the judge is two or three horses away. (This is a good exercise for home work: Ask the horse to stand alert for 30 seconds to one minute; then let it relax for a few minutes. Repeat to simulate a halter class.) To bring the horse to attention, DeFreece suggests finding something for them to focus on, in your hand or across the arena. Ultimately, however, the charisma is up to the horse.

"It's really important for the horse to look through that halter, and it takes a good show horse to do that," says DeFreece. "If your horse feels good, and is very alert, a lot of times it will be looking through the halter like that anyway. It's nothing we can really work to have; it's just something that they do on their own."

You and the judge DeFreece suggests watching the paths judges walk around other horses in the class, so you can anticipate where you will need to stand when the judge gets to your horse.

"You want to stay on the opposite side from the judge, to keep the horse exposed to the judge," DeFreece says. "Stay alert to where the judge is at all times, and move no more than twice while that judge is inspecting your horse. You won't be distracting to the judge or to the horse, and your horse will stand more quietly and more alertly.

"I think it's good to be personable," says DeFreece. "If they speak to you, speak back and be pleasant, but don't try to start a conversation, especially if they don't speak to you. That's not professional. But if they say, 'Good morning,' you say, 'Good morning.' They say, 'How are you doing?,' you say, 'Fine.' I think it's very important to be personable, but no conversation is needed."

Troubleshooting This is DeFreece's final advice: Stay calm and quiet, no matter what happens. "The only attention you want drawn to you is your horse standing square and alert, and you standing erect and pleasant to the judge's eye. If you're moving around and hurrying here and there, it gives a nervous appearance to the judge. Stay relaxed.

"You want that horse's feet to be pretty close to square, and under each corner of its body, but if they're a little bit off, don't worry about it. Show your horse to that judge, because it's important when that judge gets to you not to have to wait.

"If your horse does move a little bit, don't panic. Fix it as smoothly and as quickly as possible, without fussing with your horse, which causes commotion for the horses in front of and behind you and draws attention to you. Get him as square as you can and make him quiet, whether you've got to pet him on the neck or talk to him or whatever. If you have one that is very unruly, you may ask to move to the back of the line. That won't penalize you, and will reduce the risk of your horse disrupting the other competitors.

"The one thing I cannot stress enough is don't be bothered when they move. Correct them easily and quietly, and get them prepared for that judge to come again."


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