Stealing The Showmanhip
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It has become the catwalk of the horse show world. While western pleasure may have the most glitz and glamour, showmanship has the most attitude and style.
Exhibitors that appeal not only to the critical eye - in terms of mechanics - but also to the more artistic eye - showing confidence, poise and flair - come out on top. Showmanship can no longer be judged strictly on the correctness of a pattern - the competition has become much too tough for that.
"In showmanship, you can steal the class with your personality," says Holly Hover, AQHA judge and all-around trainer from Scottsdale, Arizona. She relates placing a top-rate showmanship class to choosing from a menu at a five-star restaurant. "Someone might take the fish, I might take the chicken and someone else, the veal - that doesn't say any of the dinners are better than the others, just a different taste."
According to Hover, this new element of top showmanship competitors comes from the gut - it's not something you can fake. It develops from experience, self-assuredness and the ability to make a pattern flow into one motion. "From a judge's point of view, it's extremely obvious," says Hover. "It's a confidence level that is hard to instruct." This presence separates the novice competitors from amateurs and youths, giving beginners something to learn from and work toward.
But, just because you can't fake the style of the top showmen doesn't mean you can't develop the flair. Once you get the mechanics of the pattern mastered, the confidence of a showmanship world champion can surface.
Mastering the parts
"You are just happy to get the right amount of ingredients into the pot," she says. "Then it just cooks - you're not so concerned with flavor or presentation or it being exotic. You are just happy your macaroni and cheese is edible. As you advance as a cook, that becomes happenstance and you start worrying about what will go with it, how it looks, how it smells and fixing it up," she says.
"That's how showmanship works. Novice is like a good, old, average macaroni and cheese. By the time you get to the advanced levels, it is exotic. All the basic parts are still there to make it edible, but now it has all this flavor and sensation that makes it stand out from something else."
Hover believes mechanical practice is the only way to start in showmanship. If you start a novice out thinking too abstractly, she says they usually forget parts of the pattern - a flaw that no amount of confidence or style can make up for.
Hover also notices a difference in the eye contact a novice has with the judge. "I have tried telling my novices to look the judge in the eye, smile and enjoy what they are doing," says Hover. "But they really can't enjoy it or look the judge in the eye because they aren't 100 percent confident. The only way to get confident is by repetitively doing the patterns right." That explains why practicing and perfecting the maneuvers are the basis of developing the confidence necessary for showmanship.
Watching upper-level classes plays a large part in Hover's novice showmanship program. "I make them watch all the time," she says. "I tell them to look for what clothes they like, what looks good, what they see. If you see a spark, imitate it. Develop a style by putting together all the parts you like. To visually imagine yourself as the best, you have to look around and see what is out there, because that is what a judge does."
Mentally preparing a novice exhibitor isn't always easy. "Sometimes I think I overemphasize the mental prep because I think if I can get a novice thinking a certain way, I can help them win," says Hover. "Really, if I have to get them thinking a certain way, they aren't ready. I always try to pump them up and make sure they are comfortable with the maneuvers in the pattern."
Beyond the pattern
"The confidence top showmanship competitors show is hard to describe," she says. "I think about the times in school when I only kind of read my homework. I am in the class and the professor is going to ask questions. I am getting a little sick to my stomach, but I think I know it. When I really study my homework, I see the other people that have that sick look while I think, 'Call on me. I know this one.' That is the difference between someone who has experience in showmanship and someone who doesn't. Experienced exhibitors come in the arena and look at me like, 'Come on, nod. I'm going to show you this pattern.' "
As for the pattern itself, Hover says, "I don't have the amateurs or youths talk the pattern (as they complete it). They know the pattern and how it is supposed to flow. There is a real difference between someone who has control of the pattern as one thought and someone who is breaking it up into pieces."
Looking the part
However, you have to dress for success. Hover warns that some exhibitors forget they are a team with their horse. "They are so me-oriented that they forget an outfit might not look so good with the horse," she says. "Your horse is a color out there, too. I don't think judges particularly pick an outfit apart. I think they just look at the overall picture."
Make sure the outfit you choose is something you are comfortable wearing, adding to your confidence. "There is nothing worse than going into a big room of people in something you know or feel doesn't look good," says Hover. This can really hurt your overall sense of self-assuredness.
"The biggest mistake people make is that they look at themselves from the front," she explains. "The judge rarely sees you from the front. The judge sees you from the side. Another thing is that the judge sees you from a distance first. Some clothes that look really pretty up close don't look good from a distance. Have an idea of what the outfit will look like from 50 to 100 feet away." She also advises against obsessing about the little things. She says that judges don't usually notice earrings, pins, etc.
Not only do you have to look your best, but your horse also has to be put together. "I look at how well clipped the horses are, how well they are turned out - I don't know who did it, but I know it is ultimately your responsibility when you come in the ring," says Hover. "If it's not done, I'm going to blame you." Make sure his hair coat is taken care of, mane is banded well, tail is clean, and overall, he has a winning look.
Advice from a judge
"When I judge," she continues, "I look to see if their boots and hat are clean. The reason is, no matter how much money you have, you can have a clean hat. One of the biggest things that affects me when I judge is the shape of the hat. If you were going to make one expensive investment - I have had hats for years - that is what I would spend money on."
Body position in showmanship has run the gamut from robotic to exaggerated movements. "You always see extremes one way or the other," she says. "It doesn't seem to be as artificial as it used to be - there's not so much of the cheesy grinning and staring at the judge. It has gotten much more workable."
Even when a pattern starts to look like it might not go exactly as planned, don't stop showing. "If I see a horse start to get an exhibitor into a problem and he saves it with a very understated correction, I like that," says Hover. "I know that exhibitor is a horseman. A lot of people will complain because, 'That horse almost broke into a trot.' But the horse didn't break into a trot. You have to understand that a judge will assess what is going on. You should plus people for being showmen enough to save a disaster or mistake. The really good exhibitors save a lot of stuff."
Hover likes to choose patterns that require you to practice before you go into the show pen. She feels that it evens the odds. "I can tell right away if someone has gone out and gotten the cups out of the trashcan or the cones out of the trailer and set up the pattern," she says. "They usually can't get the pattern done the first time they try it. It's not to trick exhibitors. It's more of a lesson that you need to practice, and that is what it is all about."