Friday, November 27, 2009

A Halter Training How-To Guide

Disclaimer: The first part of this post was originally written back in 1986, however it has undergone three separate revisions over the last 20+ years. For the most part, a vast majority of the original article has a great deal of value, though some of the techniques are slightly outdated and no longer in use.

In addition, there are other fantastic resources out there available for owners who aspire to train their Arabian horses to compete in Halter classes. The only one I recommend is found on the Ammy Army forum website (click link). In order to view the training articles, you need to join the forum ~ however a whole new world awaits you! :)

Okay, here we go.

My focus here is on the In Hand classes we encounter at horse show events and I’m going to cover a broad spectrum, including how to prepare for the different variations of classes, what the judges will be looking for, how to train and exhibit your horse and a brief explanation of the various sub-categories of Halter classes in existence today. As many of you may know, there is a difference between Halter and Showmanship. Basically speaking, Halter is judged on the horse and Showmanship on the handler. This will be in regard to Halter-type classes, so the nucleus of this post will be regarding training and presentation of the horse for judging.

Any exhibitor’s first order of business is, of course, to fit and prepare themselves and their horse for the class of their choice. Fitting is just what it implies, the fitness and readiness to compete, and is a vital stepping stone to show ring success. Many a tri-color ribbon has been lost due to a lack of fitness, and for what? Unless you’re paying a trainer or someone else to leg up your horse for you, it’s the single least expensive part of the entire show scene, and no one else can get you whipped into shape but you. Bottom line, in condition is “in”, and looking good is the number one name of the game.

I have covered both fitness and grooming before, so I won’t delve into that subject now, but remember, you and your horse had better look your best. That means a spotless, clean, well prepared horse -- and don’t forget a neat, tidy, well dressed handler. In the Halter ring, you want to present the picture of perfection, so don’t expect the judge to overlook a horse with fuzzy ears and a dull coat even if you consider those things small potatoes. Another thing to keep in mind is, just like performance classes, get your horse trained so he knows his job before you load him in the trailer and head for the showgrounds. I cannot stress this enough: Training should be done at home, not in the show ring!

With stock breed horses, your equine partner needs to know how to walk and jog quietly beside you and to stop squarely on cue. When I begin to teach a young Quarter Horse or Paint how to be a proper and responsive Halter prospect, the first thing I’m going to sink into his mind is “Whoa!”, which (as I’ve mentioned previously ad nauseum) is the most vital command he’ll ever learn. That goes for ANY horse.

Back to business...I want him to move beside me without a fuss and so that neither am I dragging him, nor is he dragging me. The image I’m hoping to attain is one of cadence and symmetry. This exercise really doesn’t take long to gain his understanding, as long as a firm voice and consistency is used. If I’m requesting a walk, I’ll start by turning my right shoulder toward the horse, facing forward, and make a series of short “kiss noises” (the cue I use for walk). He should freely and obediently walk forward at my side, with my shoulder at about mid-neck. When I want him to begin jogging, my cue is a “clucking” sound. If he doesn’t want to move with me, I’ll utilize a long-ish buggy whip to encourage him, though after only a time or two of practice, the friendly persuasion is usually no longer needed. All the whip is used for is to gently brush against his hindquarters if (and only if) he does not move forward when verbally asked.

Don’t make the mistake of working him too long, just enough to keep the lesson ingrained but new and refreshing. I like to get the concepts down, then run through a “class” -- just like he’ll be asked to do in the show ring -- or two and have him do what I ask, then I’ll quit for the day. In the beginning we will just work on a couple of basic concepts, then add things in each day until he has them down.

Going back to stopping and standing on the lead, once he understands telling him “Whoa” means a complete cessation of all forward movement, we’ll work on hoof placement. I don’t want him stretched, nor do I want him camped under, because a balanced appearance is a must. Both front hooves and both hind should fall evenly with each other at the toe, and they should not give him the look of a base narrow animal. In other words, when looking at his legs from the front or the rear, I don’t want to see legs which angle inward or outward. They should be nice and straight. This is something that can be accomplished even with a horse who tracks narrow, It’s all in how much time is spent teaching him to square up. I want to keep his attention focused and not allow him to drop his head and fall asleep, either. He’s a show horse, after all, and in the show ring he’s always on display.

No horse is perfect, but we’re still striving for the look of perfection.

How do you go about teaching the horse how to stop square? It’s a relatively easy step (no pun intended) to master with a little perseverance. One of my biggest pet peeves is watching Halter handlers shuffle from from leg to leg, manually placing each foot in just the right spot, when doing a little bit of basic repetitive training can make things look so effortless. If he comprehends “Whoa”, and he certainly should by now, I’ll use it to my advantage.

I’m going to be leading the horse to the desired spot I want him to stop and square up at, and this should vary each time he’s worked so he doesn’t expect it in any one location along the rail. Sometimes I’ll ask him in the center of the arena, sometimes I want to work him in a place outside the ring. Keep his mind working! Once I ask for him to stop, along with my verbal command I’m going to turn into, or toward, him, facing his shoulder and angled slightly toward his hindquarters. That’s his signal to come to a halt. More often than not, one hoof will be a little bit in front of or behind the other, and usually not too much distance will separate them. I like to work on the hind hooves first. Later on we'll start working on halting with me still facing forward, but I want him to get into my body language cues first.

To get him squared, I use my voice to encourage him to take a step -- one little step -- along with a very slight downward pull on the lead. Personally, I don’t bother using a shank chain with most horses when Halter schooling, I’d rather use a plain leadrope, at least in the beginning. Sometimes the horse will move too far, take too large of a step or move sideways, and there is nothing wrong with using a hand on his shoulder to push him back into position, just as you would a baby who’s learning to be halterbroke. If he’s fidgety or doesn’t want to stand, I’ll give him a reprimand for not paying attention. Once he places his hoof in the correct position, I’ll tell him “Whoa” and praise him. This lesson will need to be repeated several times until he fully understands. I do the same with the front feet, with the same amount of repetition. Once these easy steps are accomplished, I’ve got myself the makings of a Halter horse, at least in theory. Remember, the hallmark of a Halter horse is correct conformation and good movement, so no amount of training is going to make glaring faults disappear.

It’s pretty much the same with any other breed, including Morgans, Saddlebreds and Arabians, except for a few minor details. These breeds are expected to trot into the ring at a much faster, more animated pace than a stock breed animal, and there are slight differences in how classes for these breeds are run. Check the rulebook for your chosen breed in order to understand what they may be.

Back to the mechanics of showing, for a Saddlebred, Tennessee Walker or Morgan horse, the desired pose is called “parked” and the horse is in a stretched position, unlike horses we want more centered. They are usually encouraged to focus on an artificial appliance, such as a whip, held by the handler.

With Arabians, I like to see one hind leg (that furthest from where the judge will be standing to evaluate him) a bit further back than the other, but without too much of a spread or split. Use the same concepts, then teach the horse to use his body. This, of course, is what sets Arabian Halter horses apart from any other breed...the “show” which sometimes is judged as much as the horse’s conformation and beauty itself, much to my chagrin.

As important as the show stance is both walking and trotting in hand alongside you, where exhibiting animation in movement is essential in the show ring today. We will practice an arena entrance, circling and moving off strong and bold for several minutes each day before getting down to the Halter stance itself.

I really don’t want to go into too much minute detail, but I’ll try to outline the steps I take in achieving a lovely result and have the horse “show” for me. While teaching the Arabian Halter horse what’s become a standard part of his job, I’ll go back and reinforce the steps I’ve discussed above (which is a constant in each Halter lesson), then work up to what we commonly call “the look”. Since the end result we seek is the handler standing in front of the horse and the horse exerting effort to show himself off, I start by asking for a halt, then stepping toward the front of the horse facing him and walking away from him backwards several steps, during which I’ll raise the hand I’ve got my lead in and lightly bump him on the chin. He should automatically stop when I request him to do so and stand in place until I ask him to move forward. I’ll try to say “Whoa” just before his right hind hoof hits the ground. This helps during hoof placement, too. Then we move onto schooling.

I like to use either a bat end Halter whip or, for those horses either unphased by the whip or who fear it, a medium sized plastic whiffle bat, like those you may see young school children play with. It’s nothing that will hurt or traumatize him, but makes enough noise to get his attention if I need to tap him with it. Note: Tap not hit. We do not want to frighten the horse, just get an interested reaction!!

Once he’s used to me leading him then stepping toward his front while lifting my hand and asking him to halt, I’m going to insist he pays complete attention to my every move. If, when I ask this of him, the horse moves, I’ll IMMEDIATELY give him a sharp tap, but not too hard, with the bat or whiffle bat and tell him to back up. If he holds still for a few seconds, I’m going to drop my hand and IMMEDIATELY praise him. When I let him down and do that praising, I will be at his side -- I want him to learn the difference to where I am, that when I’m in front of him it’s time to work and when I retreat to his side, he can relax. As with performance horses, it’s important to always end training sessions on a good note.

Sometimes by this stage, instead of using only a leadrope I’ll put a captive chain on the halter. What this means is, the chain does not pull tight against the horse’s jaw, it’s passive rather than active. A captive chain goes thru the side rings on a halter and back to the snap, then hooks to the lead line snap on the end loop of the chain. Using a chain this way gives you a bit more emphasis on your cues, but doesn't make your horse terrified of being shanked like an active chain can if you’re being too harsh.

Another important step, and this goes for a horse of any breed, really, is to teach the horse to stand still while his handler walks around him. This basically serves two purposes. First, it teaches the horse to stand still even if his handler is not and second, it gets the horse used to someone, eventually the judge, walking along side and around him, showing him that it's nothing to worry about. Something to take note of: This should really be accomplished as a basic part of halterbreaking babies, and if not, it’s a good lesson for them to learn regardless, as it will carry them throughout their training.

Fast forward...after I’ve told the horse to "Whoa" and I’m standing in front of him with my hand holding the lead up in the air, I’ll step sideways one step (doesn't matter if left or right), but I won’t put any tension on the lead yet. I’ll remind the horse not to move by telling him "Whoa", then I’ll stop briefly and step back in front of him, dropping my hand. That’s his release. After which I’ll go the other way. If he’s stood still for me, I will again IMMEDIATELY step to his side and praise him. Remember, either punishment or praise must come within two to three seconds after an action for the horse to understand what it's for, and that goes for any horse in any situation. It can be a very useful tool.

If the horse moves a hoof when I step to the side, no matter how small a movement, I’m going to discipline him as before by asking him to back up. During this process, if I have to give him a little tap with the whiffle bat, it’s okay. If I have to resort to giving him a mild shanking (only one or two jerks snatching him, and not very hard) that's fine too. Backing the horse means showing dominance over him in his mind, which can actually be used as a form of discipline for all kinds of handling. At this point, once the horse stands still for one step to the side, I will add another step and so on until I reach my goal.

The whole process, to have the horse fully understand, should take approximately a week, depending on the horse. My goal will be to be able to step around to his flanks without him moving a foot. I’m going to take this in stages using small steps, and I won’t expect too much, too fast. One thing I always tell folks interested in becoming Arabian Halter handlers...horses will respond to the tone of your voice. If you're firm, they know you mean business. If you're gruff, they know they've done it wrong. If you use a quiet and soothing voice, they know they've done it right. The tone of your voice is a lot more important than what you say, but I want repetition in the words so they begin to associate certain words with good behavior and others for understanding when they’ve done wrong.

Training an Arabian Halter horse to stand properly is only a little bit more complicated than the stock breeds, though the process used to teach them how to stand is similar. For Arabians, I want the horse to position himself as I outlined earlier, and I’m going to use my voice along with my actions to get the desired stance. While introducing him to a new vocabulary, he should be fresh, so I don’t want to have overschooled him by the time I add new words. I’ve had good luck with using the word "Step" as a cue for setting a horse up, when I have the horse stopped but he’s a little off balance with his front feet. To explain, it’s when one front foot didn't finish the stride when he stopped and it's a considerable distance behind the other front foot. At this point I’ll pull the lead gently to the side opposite the front hoof that’s behind and tell the horse "Step". As soon as the horse takes that requested step, I’ll tell him “Whoa” and I will IMMEDIATELY praise him. I want to be able to maneuver him about anywhere I want him with his only reaction taking little baby steps to each of my requests. Once he’s gotten than down, by now he’s pretty much ready to move on.

The next step in Halter training an Arabian horse is teaching him to give his neck. This will either be rather easy or quite difficult, with not much in between, depending on the individual horse. Some horses like to do this and some don't. Those that don't are a real challenge, so we have to find exercises which will stimulate them into giving the desired response. During the initial stages of this part of his training, I’m not concerned about hoof placement, just that he doesn't move when I ask for his neck.

To start, I’ll just ask the horse to give his neck down to the ground. In other words, I want him to stretch his neck toward me -- WITHOUT moving a hoof. This will teach him not to just thrust his neck out forward and it’s usually a rather natural movement for the horse, making it fairly easy on him, unlike my desired end result. This is also teaching him to essentially move away from pressure on his poll, and down is the most direct way for him to do this. I’ll be crouched down in front of the horse and holding my hand (with the whip or whiffle bat) out to him. True, it’s a very dangerous position to be in and it is imperative the horse not be allowed to move, but necessary for getting what we’re seeking out of him. Then I’ll start firmly but gently pulling the horse toward my outstretched hand. If he gives to the pressure, even if it's just an inch, I’ll stop pulling and touch his nose, praising him.

Some horses are very willing to come to your hand, because of basic curiosity, while others are rather reluctant. At this stage of training, I’ll often use treats, and I like to have something with me in the show ring which will elicit the response I want, be it carrots, cookies, peppermints, sugar cubes or something else the horse I’m showing likes. I’ll continue with this same pattern until the horse will bring his nose to my hand very low and near to the ground. His release is always touching my hand, and I’ll then allow him to come back up for a moment before asking again. This may take one session or many, depending on the horse, before he gives an automatic response, and I don’t want to make any particular session too long.

Once he’ll touch my hand at the ground, I can begin asking for his neck up higher. Some horses will naturally give their neck with muscles tensed, but many won't. For those that don't, use some sort of trigger to get the desired effect. You can bring any number of things before him in order to get a reaction, such as a plastic bag, a piece of paper or your hat, to name a few things. You don’t want to scare him, only to get his curiosity up enough to give you an expressive look. It takes time and a bit of experimentation to find each horse’s “hot button”. Here’s where you can use something the likes of clicker training to bring it all home. The horse will need something which gives me the same response as whatever I’ve used to get expression out of him, some sort of cue to replace that trigger.

By the time he has the idea of giving his neck, it’s time to put all the steps he’s learned above together and get him to “show” for you. He will now need to be taught to rock back, shifting his weight onto his hindquarters, elevating his neck out of the shoulder for a more sleek appearance and tightening all of his muscles. With this, I want to accomplish the finishing touch -- a horse who’s bright, alert and “showy”. There are five basic means to get him rocked back on cue and ready to show. First, a bump on the chin with the captive chain, by snapping the lead lightly toward him. Second, a slight jerk downward on the lead. Third, a slight jerk upward on the lead. Fourth, a tap mid-neck with the whiffle bat (and later, the Halter whip). And fifth, a bold step toward the horse to express that he needs to rock back.

Remember: The goal is NOT to frighten, threaten or intimidate him, but gain his respect and get a response. My method is to bring all five of these techniques together so we can find what works best for each horse.

The last type of class shown on a lead shank and judged on the horse is Sport Horse In Hand, long a familiar and popular offering in the Open Hunter/Jumper and Dressage world and used extensively with Warmblood breeds (though with different names), now rocketing in entries at Arabian shows. The basic difference between traditional Halter and the Sport Horse division is that SH classes are judged based not on beauty contest standards of conformation, but on putting the horse to work in a form-to-function manner.

Horses are either shown in a leather stable halter (for those two years and younger) or a nice working English bridle, and he may be lead with a shank or the reins. The handler should be dressed neatly in workman-like attire, but casual, instead of the Western outfits seen in the stock breeds or the showy dress or suits of those handlers in other breeds. There are also two different patterns, either the “v” or “triangle”. The horse is lead into the arena and stood up in front of the judge.

Setting up is neither the squared of Quarter Horses and Paints, nor the parked stance of Morgans and Saddlebreds, and it’s not that show position of an Arabian. With the Open division (commonly encountered at ‘A’ rated Hunter/Jumper or Dressage shows), horses are expected to stand normally and perhaps a little bit square. With Arabian SHIH entries, the legs should be “scissored”, meaning on the left [or right] side of the horse, the front leg should be placed forward and the hind leg placed back; on the right [or left] side of the horse, the front leg should be placed back and the hind leg placed forward. The judge wants a complete view of the horse’s legs from the side, but he shouldn’t be stretched out too far. His expression should be pleasant and he should be well behaved.

Once the judge has evaluated the horse’s conformation, his handler will walk him off on the first short leg of the triangle, to view him walking from behind. Then following a turn to the right, the horse will be walked along the longer stretch of the triangle, in order to get a side view. Finally, after one more turn to the right, the horse will be walked back straight toward the judge to give him or her a frontal view of the horse in motion at the walk. After this is completed, the horse will be trotted in a larger triangle. First away so the judge can get that rear view, then across for a side view, then back for a view of the horse from the front. One tip to keep in mind is to make the short legs while trotting slow and easy, but show speed and, more importantly, impulsion for the side view. The same to a lesser degree is desired at the walk, with a good brisk pace when giving that all-important side view.

Okay, now you’ve gotten a thorough education in how to train just about any Halter horse and you know what to expect in the show ring. How about the classes you may find on the show bill?

At the various open, all breed, shows offered, there are a wide range of Halter classes, some for babies, yearlings, in some instances two year olds, then for mares, geldings and stallions. Generally you’ll find classes split by different breeds, too, like Arabian and Quarter Horse. Most have “Color” classes, for Paints, Pintos, Appaloosas, palominos, buckskins and duns. Then there will probably be an “Open” halter class where all horses are welcome as entries.

When you get to breed shows, more often than not you’ll have the opportunity to enter just one class, as each sex will be divided into age groups, like yearling colts, two year old colts, three year old colts, four & five year old stallions and six years and older stallions. Some breeds offer special classes for Amateur handlers and Youth or Junior handlers. In the Arabian breed, what used to be called “Halter” classes are now designated as “Mare (or Filly) Breeding”, “Stallion (or Colt) Breeding” and “Gelding In Hand”. There are also the aforementioned Sport Horse In Hand classes, which will be split by age of horse and sex.

Universally, judges are looking for horses who epitomize their breed and show characteristics of a good example of that breed. Behavior is important, too, as unruly or rank horses aren’t good specimens. Poor conformation and faults will be counted against Halter horses, so a handler shouldn’t be surprised if his beautiful horse with crooked front legs doesn’t place well in hand, even if he’s a National or World Champion pleasure horse. The criteria are simply different.

In all, welcome to the world of Halter and enjoy your stay!


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