‘Showmanship Is The Art Of Showing Your Horse,’ Equine Seminar Clinician Explains

“Showmanship is often the most important class at a horse show.”

Of course, that is not the opinion of many horse owners and exhibitors.

“But, the basics of horse training begins on the ground where horses learn to respond to a variety of cues including pressure on the halter, body position and voice commands. The showmanship class provides a great opportunity to display that training,” according to Sandy Jirkovsky, horse trainer, coach and judge from Kearney, Nebraska.

“Showmanship is the art of showing your horse,” she claimed.

Speaking to more than 350 horseshow judges for ten different breed organizations,  Jirkovsky discussed judging horse showmanship during the recent 2014 International Equine Judge Seminar sponsored by the Color Breed Council at Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“The showmanship class was adapted from the livestock industry where young people have been evaluated for decades on their ability to present livestock in a professional matter,” Jirkovsky explained.


Sandy Jirkovsky, Kearney, Nebraska, discussed judging of the horse showmanship division during the recent 2014 International Equine Judge Seminar sponsored by the Color Breed Council at Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“It came about in order to place emphasis on effectiveness of the exhibitor, not the quality of the animal,” she said. “Those individuals who did the best job of preparing both themselves and their animals and presented their animals most effectively were the ones to come out at the top of the class.”

Showmanship began as a component of 4-H competition for young people, to teach them how to present a horse in-hand.

Overtime, it expanded into most breed competition at regular horse shows as well and has become a highly-competitive event with exacting standards at the highest level. Yet, it also remains a standard competition in 4-H and other schooling shows for beginners.

“The ideal showmanship performance consists of a posed, confident, neatly-attired exhibitor leading a well-groomed and conditioned horse that quickly and efficiently perform the requested pattern with promptness, smoothness and precision,” emphasized Jirkovsky, who has  shown numerous world champion horses in her 38-year training career.

“Many hours of preparation and training go into producing a showmanship winner as the showman must have a fit animal that is well trained for presentation,” added Jirkovsky, a judge for six major horse associations for 26 years.

A pattern must be prepared ahead of the show and include a walk, trot, turns, stop, back, and presentation of the horse. “These maneuvers can be performed in any order necessary to evaluate a run, but the pattern must be clearly drawn with precise written instructions,” Jirkovsky insisted.

Speaking to the horseshow judges-in-training, Jirkovsky advised: “Check to be sure the showmanship pattern is posted at least one hour prior to the beginning of the class. Check placement of pattern markers, and select a marked position to stand throughout the class.  Then answer questions from exhibitors if they have any before start of the competition.”

The professional horsewoman suggested: “Be ready for the first horse, and score the first good horse one point higher if possible to give yourself some spread in your scoring. Make sure to be consistent, and give each exhibitor the same opportunity to present the horse to you.

“When inspecting the horse, walk around each horse at the same speed and direction. It is suggested that you either do not stop, or stop beside the shoulder or hip area only. Do not trick the exhibitor,” Jirkovsky continued.

While it might seem obvious to longtime exhibitors, and even judges, Jirkovsky pointed out major faults in the overall appearance of the exhibitor and the horse. These include a poorly groomed, conditioned or trimmed horse, or one that has a tangled, matted or uneven mane, and ragged or long hooves.

“Showmanship is the art of showing your horse,” according to Sandy Jirkovsky, horse trainer, coach and judge from Kearney, Nebraska.
A poorly or ill-fitted halter, or one that is dirty or ragged with a dirty or ragged lead, can cost an exhibitor many points.

“If there is a chain on the lead shank, it should not be excessively long, There is a trend to having no chain on lead shanks,” Jirkovsky noted.

Sloppy, dirty or poor fitting clothing or hat of the exhibitor are discriminated against, explained Jirkovsky, recognizing that “fad, too loose or too tight outfits, and pants tucked into boots get you in trouble,” citing now-humorous instances of improper showmanship apparel.

Jirkovsky’s “pet peeves” of showmanship contestants include improper moves obstructing judge’s view, excessive staring at judge, stiff, artificial or unnatural movement around horse or when leading, continuously looking at judge while trotting, excessive cueing and voice commands when showing, changing hands on the lead and walking backwards when backing the horse.

“The chain portion of the lead should be held in the hands, and the shank should never be tightly coiled around the hand, nor dragging on the ground,” Jirkovsky related.

Severe faults of a performance include drifting of the horse while being led, stopping crooked, horse not set-up squarely, breaking gait, failure of horse to stand still, not performing maneuvers at the designated markers, biting at the exhibitor’s hand, and horse holding head crooked in any maneuver.

Overall appearance of the exhibitor and the horses are severely penalized for touching horse, pointing toes at horse’s feet or kicking feet during the set-up, and complete failure to move around the horse

“An exhibitor standing directly in front of the horse should be heavily penalized,” Jirkovsky contended.

Disqualifications include horse escaping from exhibitor, failure of exhibitor to wear correct number in a visible manner, any inhumane treatment of the horse, excessive schooling or training, leading on the wrong side of the horse, and going off-pattern including knocking over a cone.

“Loss of control or severe disobedience that endangers others including bolting, pawing, rearing kicking or continuously circling are cause for disqualification, and dismissal from the class,” Jirkovsky stressed.

Credits go to eye-appeal, posture, horse and handler in sync with each over, overall consistency and smoothness in overall-run, maintaining correctness in each maneuver with added speed and quick accurate set-up.

“We must reward self-carriage of horses and handler, for collection both mental and physical,” Jirkovsky suggested.

While there are any number of scoring systems, and breed organizations vary on the methods required, Jirkovsky suggested, “Exhibitors can relatively simply be scored from zero to 20 with one-half point increments.”

Ten points should be allocated toward the overall appearance of the exhibitor and horse, and 10 points allocated toward the performance.

“A horse scoring 18 to 20 points has a generally excellent performance with one minor fault in the execution of the pattern, or in appearance of exhibitor or horse. Overall execution of the pattern is excellent and exhibitor is highly professional.

“Always judge from the positive, not the negative. The problems will find you. Remember, as judges, it is our privilege to judge these exhibitors,” Jirkovsky concluded.