Horsemanship Judging Explained

by Jamie K. Dieterich, 2012

Horsemanship is important for helping the horse do his best job. Practicing horsemanship skills for competitive trail riding is not something that can be done at the last minute. Just as the horse requires a long program of training and conditioning, so does the rider. Equitation for efficient long-distance riding may be quite different from that used in other events. Many aspects of horsemanship are based on safety and good sound horse sense. Most of the following comments have been condensed from the N.A.T.R.C. Rider's Manual, Judge's Manual, Rule Book, and Horsemanship Score Card.

GROOMING, IN HAND PRESENTATION, AND TACK AND EQUIPMENT count for 20% of your horsemanship score.

GROOMING is judged when the horse is presented to the veterinary judge. The horse should be brushed and clean, especially on the back and cinch area to prevent saddle rubs or sores. The feet should be picked clean. Grooming for the final check should be appropriate for the climate of the ride. Be careful not to overdo the sponging or bathing. In dry climates, too much water on large muscles can cause the individual muscles or the whole horse to cool off too fast resulting in discomfort or real pain. For the horse's sake, clean dirt and dust from around the eyes and nostrils.

Think safety for the IN-HAND PRESENTATION. Keep the horse under control. Do not let the horse's attention wander. For the veterinary inspection, hold the lead rope in one hand close to the halter. Fold the rest of the lead rope in the other hand; do not coil the extra lead around your hand. Be attentive to the horse; try to anticipate movements and reactions. Unless instructed otherwise, stand on the same side of the horse as the veterinary judge.

For the trot-out exam, hold one end of the lead about 12 to 18 inches from the halter: long enough to allow freedom of motion of the horse's head, but short enough to maintain control. Lead the horse from the side, not from the front, to avoid getting stepped on. If you lead your horse for the circling trot, make the circle the same size as if you were longeing. It is safer to lead the horse from the right side (inside) for the clock-wise circling trot. Always maintain a safe distance between you and your horse during in-hand trotting. Longeing is usually preferred for the circling trot. Here, it is acceptable to hold the extra longe line coiled in your hand if it is done safely.

TACK AND EQUIPMENT must be safe. Flimsiness is not acceptable. Saddles, saddle pads, and bridles should be properly adjusted to avoid causing rubs. The halter and bridle should fit the horse for proper control. Breast collars and cruppers should be adjusted tight enough to be functional, loose enough not to cause rubs. Trail gear should be tied on securely with no large loops hanging down to get caught in. Halters, lead ropes, and hoof picks must be carried with you on the trail.

TRAIL EQUITATION counts for 50% of your horsemanship score.

The primary concern of proper equitation is to make the horse's job of carrying a rider over long distances as efficient as possible. Ride balanced and light in the saddle at the walk, trot, or canter. A vertical line should pass through your center of gravity and continue through your foot. Distribute your weight through your seat, thighs and legs to offer support without tension or stiffness. If you are riding light, you will appear to be almost floating with the horse. Think more about being light in the saddle than out of the saddle. If you are not using the saddle to help distribute your weight, your weight will be concentrated in a narrow band across the horse's back. Use your legs and ankles as shock absorbers. Don't sacrifice proper support from the lower legs by bracing your legs out to the side. (Hint: Riding bareback may help you understand the benefits of proper leg position and contact.)

Much of competitive trail riding is done at the trot. If you post, don't rise on the same diagonal all the time or your horse will get sore on one side. Similarly, be sure the horse doesn't always use the same lead at the canter. On ascents, use sufficient knee and leg grip to keep your legs under your center of gravity and out of the horse's stifles. Be light and forward according to the terrain; do not be so high you sacrifice stability. Do not lean so far forward that you put excess weight on the forehand. Maintain control. The horse can damage its tendons by charging uphill.

Maintain lightness and balance on descents. Use your legs to maintain subtle counter-pressure in the stirrups to prevent body sway which is hard on the horse's back. If you brace your feet forward and lean back, you interfere with the action of the horse's hindquarters. If you hold on to the cantle, you twist yourself off balance. You can use your non-reining hand on the horn or pommel to help maintain balance.

Slow the horse to go through, over, or around trail obstacles. Communicate with the horse through your hands, legs, or voice that you expect the horse to pay attention. Let the rider ahead of you complete the obstacle before you proceed.

Mounts or dismounts should be smooth, balanced, athletic, and expedient; don't take all day. Square up the horse's feet before you mount. The horse should be under control and standing still until you instruct it to walk off. Use natural terrain to your advantage; do not mount from the downhill side. Reins should be held at a length to maintain ready control. Your hands should be communicating with the horse through the reins.

TRAIL CARE, TRAIL SAFETY AND COURTESY and STABLING together comprise 30% of your horsemanship score.

TRAIL CARE may be judged at a number of places during the ride. If you loosen the cinch at the P&R stops, be sure it is still tight enough to remain functional; re-tighten it before you leave. Keep the horse under control at the P&R stops. Be considerate of other horses and riders as well as the crew. If you let the horse graze with the bit in its mouth, be careful to not let the horse step on the reins and injure its mouth.

At the lunch stops and at the end of the ride, take care of the horse before yourself. Feeding at stops is at the discretion of the rider; hay would be better than grain for the horse. Tie the horse with a halter and lead rope. Avoid tying too close to other horses. The tie should be at about the height of the halter ring, and the lead should be long enough that the horse can just get its head to the ground. Use a quick-release knot with the end of the lead passed through the loop to secure the tie. Check and clean the horse's feet. Sponging the horse at water stops is at your discretion, but never foul a drinking source. Keep the horse under control, and be considerate of others.

At the end of a day's ride, weather conditions determine how the horse should be cooled out. Reasonable sponging or bathing may be appropriate on hot days. Blanketing would be more appropriate on cool, windy days. Water should be available at all times after the horse has been properly cooled out. Feed hay first, then grain.

TRAIL SAFETY AND COURTESY are necessary and practical. Don't block the trail for others. Don't follow too closely behind another horse; you or your horse may be the recipient of a swift kick. Also, your horse can't see the trail if its face is in the next horse's tail. Don't ride in a bunch; judges can not fairly evaluate riders who are too close together. Be sure your bib number is clearly visible at all times.

STABLING is judged in camp. The horse should be tied with a quick-release knot with the end of the rope passed through the loop to secure the tie. If a panic release snap is used, the release should be at the trailer end rather than at the halter end. If a bungee is used as part of the tie set-up, it is safer if the bungee is attached to the tie point and the horse's halter rope attached to that. If the horse needs to be released quickly, it can be done at the joint of the halter rope and bungee, with the bungee snapping back away from the horse rather than towards him. The line should be long enough to allow the horse to lie down (a horse gets its best rest lying down), but not so long the horse can get its feet over it. Water must be available at all times; the bucket must be secured so it won't spill. Water and feed must be within reach of the horse. Hay nets should be tied high enough to prevent the horse from getting its feet in it when empty. Tie the bottom of the hay net to the top if you have to. Don't leave any tack or equipment within reach of the horse. Pad sharp edges on the trailer: license plates, latches, wheel wells, etc. If your trailer has a space behind the wheel well a horse could get a foot wedged into, put some sort of block in that space. Blanket belly bands should be snug enough the horse can't get its feet caught in them.

If you break any of the rules or fail to follow instructions for a good reason during the ride, explain the situation to the judge. We try to be reasonable. Our comments are meant to be constructive to help you improve. Ask questions if you don't understand. If you are in doubt as how to handle a particular situation, follow principles of good horsemanship rather than trying to outguess what the judge wants.


See you on the trail!