Show Pen Preparedness, Part III: Western Horsemanship

Carly Kade’s series on western performance events with Christy Snyder Kelly continues! In today’s installment, Christy describes how to use your strengths and weaknesses to ride the perfect horsemanship pattern.

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In this new series for Horse Nation, I talk with Christy Snyder Kelly, head horse trainer at Hold Your Horses Inc., an organization that has been in the business of training AQHA, APHA, and NSBA horses for three generations. Through the interviews and video sessions, Horse Nation readers will glean insight from someone who has been coaching and training champions for years. The topics are sure to be of interest to enthusiasts of the western horseback riding discipline:

In this third edition, let’s talk western horsemanship and show pen best practices so you can nail your next pattern class!

What makes you an ace at coaching your students at horsemanship?

I love the pattern classes. Horsemanship is a class that I really enjoy and excelled at during my youth career. The great thing about the pattern classes is that each maneuver is judged separately (yes, with an overall score) but this allows you to show off your strengths and be a little more conservative on your weaknesses.

Would you explain a little more about how horsemanship is judged and how points are tallied on the pattern?

Horsemanship is scored on a set of maneuvers within a pattern. Each maneuver receives a score and they can vary from a minus, to a check, to a check plus, to a plus. A clean, simple pattern can usually result in a very good score and allows you the ability to work on your horsemanship throughout the pattern. Once you advance in your skills, you can turn up the heat a little and add some flair to the maneuvers that you and your horse are very good at. You need to interpret the pattern and ride it as closely to what is written as possible. Always go off of the written words first and then look at the picture of the pattern for clarification.

Do you suggest addressing the judges with a nod at the beginning or end of a pattern? Or both?

Typically, it is a matter of your preference at the beginning of the pattern to nod or acknowledge when the steward or judge waves you on. If a judge or steward waves you on, go even if the other judges aren’t looking. We are not seeing a lot of patterns right now that allow for acknowledgement so typically you would just finish your pattern and move briskly out of the arena. Many judges are judging all day and watching lots of patterns — they want you to be prompt. Be ready to enter and exit the arena quickly and confidently.

What trends should we be taking notice of pertaining to horsemanship in the show pen? Fashion? Ways of presenting? Horse wear?

Horsemanship patterns today are really testing the skills of the riders. There are several gait and direction changes along with speed changes. Riders are being rewarded for riding their horse and guiding them through the pattern correctly and precisely. Robotic riding doesn’t work in the patterns today, so a horsemanship rider really needs to know their horse and ask for their cues correctly in order to succeed.

Is a spur trained horse a must for a winning horsemanship pattern? Would you talk a little bit about spur training and the value it adds to the overall presentation in the show pen?

A spur trained horse should help you achieve higher scores in the horsemanship because you are leaving the driving up to your legs and your seat so hands can stay quiet. A rider’s hand should stay quiet and effortlessly steer the horse in the bridle. Your hand should stay in an imaginary box — not too high or too low, too far right or too far left. Your off horsemanship hand (without the reins) should mirror your rein hand and move just slightly as your rein hand does.

What are your tips for remembering a pattern?

Breaking down the pattern and reviewing it on paper is the first step. There is usually a flow to a pattern and most of the time the maneuver you are on will naturally set you up for the next if done correctly. Then, walking the pattern on foot in the direction that it will be set up in the arena is typically helpful. Lastly, riding the pattern the whole way through is a good way to be sure you have your distances and directions all squared away. Know your horse and don’t under or over practice. This is key in the pattern classes.

How is a rider to determine the appropriate size of a circle if it isn’t defined in the pattern? Can you shoot too wide or too small? Would you offer some tips on executing circles?

You can refer to the drawing of the pattern and reference where the cones are set or the walls of the arena are shown. This should give you some reference as to how big or how small your circles are. You do need to keep in mind the skill level of your horse and how handy you both are with executing circles. You need to be sure you are following the directions that are indicated in the pattern. If the pattern calls for a slow and small, then a fast and large circle, make sure there is a clear definition between your speed and your sizing. Only push it to what you and your horse can handle. You can always ask for more speed. It is harder in the pen to dial it back.

Break down a circle into four different quadrants and ride each quadrant equally. Keep your eye in the middle of the circle, with your chin turned slightly over your inside shoulder. If you keep equal distance from your middle focal point, your circle should be pretty equal. This takes practice, so a good exercise at home is to ride a circle (all different sizes) around a cone or barrel so you have a very specific target to concentrate on.

What’s the trick to nailing a pivot from the saddle?

Sit back and look where you want to go. Your chin should be at a slight angle over the shoulder towards the direction you are turning. Depending on your horse, you’ll need to be aware if your horse steps forward out of a pivot or backs up. Be ready to adjust to avoid stepping out of the pivot. As your rein hand comes over slightly to initiate your turn, your horsemanship hand should mirror as if you were carrying a platter. Tap or roll your spur and kiss for a little encouragement. Depending on your horse’s training, your pivot may be slow or quick but be sure it is correct and your horse is turning on the hind end.

The hind right hoof should remain planted in the pivot, correct?

Correct, ideally, in showmanship and horsemanship the right hind should stay planted. If the horse picks up his foot and sets it in the same spot, it still takes points off the maneuver. You need to find your horse’s breaking point and keep the left hind foot coming around and forward to offset that breaking point.That allows the horse’s front end to do the moving, while the right hind stays planted and the left hind comes around to assist in the pivot.

Can you recommend some best practices for maintaining proper equitation during this class?

You need to ride at home as you do in the ring and at first you will need to think about where every part of your body is. Keep your legs near your horse so you can catch any mistakes before they happen. Keep your hands wide, your elbows in, your shoulders back, stretch up through your core and down through your heels. Repeat this to yourself as you ride and eventually, as your body and skills get stronger, your horsemanship will come more naturally to you.

Practice Pen: What warm ups do you recommend ringside and at home?

Riding without stirrups is a quick way to ramp up your horsemanship skills. This will force you to ride closely with your leg and seat and will give you the connection judges are looking for in horsemanship today. Long trotting, making sure your horse is up in the bridle is another drill that is a good warm up for home and at the shows.

Western Horsemanship Video Segment

In this horsemanship video, Christy provides tips on the maneuvers a rider would typically be asked to exhibit in a horsemanship class including backups, pivots, stops and speed transitions. We’ll cover the basics of body and hand positions and demonstrate maneuvers for green and advanced exhibitors and horses.

About Christy Snyder Kelly: Christy trains, teaches, buys and sells, prepares show horses and develops horse and rider teams in Arizona. Anyone interested in learning more about the Hold Your Horses Equestrian Team and Christy’s Angels can visit the Hold Your Horses, Inc. website here:

About Carly Kade: Carly Kade is an author of equestrian fiction. In her free time, Carly enjoys competitively showing her registered Paint Horse, and works on her next novel. In The Reins, Carly’s cowboy romance novel inspired by the equestrian lifestyle has been an Amazon equestrian best seller for more than 10 weeks and is an official 2016 EQUUS Film Festival literary selection. The novel is available now in paperback and eBook. Visit for details. Connect with Carly Kade Creative on Facebook or Twitter @carlykadeauthor.

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