When you first dip your toe in showing a Miniature Horse, chances are you’re going to start with a Halter class.
Halter classes are the conformation judging portion of the show, so in addition to having your horse looking their best (in excellent body condition, fit, well groomed), in order to have them show to their best advantage they also need some training.
There are 3 main skills they’ll need to work on, as most horses already lead comfortably at the walk: trotting, standing, and showing.
Nothing can derail a nice performance in the halter ring like a horse who refuses to trot. Doesn’t matter how beautifully they’re fitted and groomed, they aren’t going to look pretty dragging along behind you or stopping dead when you ask them to trot.
In the past, I would’ve recommended having a “chaser” to help get the trot initially (as opposed to dragging to trying to chase yourself with a whip or the end of the lead), which is effective, but these days I try to avoid “stealing from the flight response” like that in training.
Teaching a trot on the lead can be easier without the lead – a lead rope just gives you both something to pull against, and you’ll both be worried about that tug of war instead of trotting. Take it off, run with your horse, and reward any trot steps!
Other ideas to help get a trot – work on it when heading back towards their friends in their pasture, have an experienced horse trot ahead of them, work with a reverse round pen to teach the transition and then transfer it to the lead.
Regardless of how you teach it, you’ll have a much better experience when you KNOW your horse will trot when you ask.
This is a big one, as the bulk of the class your horse need to be standing still so the judge can evaluate them. Sometimes we can get excited about the next step, showing, and forget that standing still is a skill all of it’s own, and not an easy one. I recommend teaching it first, then adding showing.
We want our horse to stand square, so if we can lead them up into a nice balanced halt we’ll have less work to do. A good, balanced halt transition is possible if we practice so our horse knows the verbal cue and we give them plenty of warning. If we can avoid using our lead to pull them to a halt then they are much more likely to stop straight and square, as we won’t inadvertently pull them off balance. If you do need to use the leadrope to stop them, make sure the pressure you apply goes straight towards their chest, not towards you or you will cause their hindquarter to step away from you.
You can use careful leadrope pressure and your body position to make adjustments to their feet, but at first a nice balanced halt and standing still should be the goal.
Horses don’t like to stand still, and especially young horses struggle with the attention span to stand for long periods – which is exactly what they have to do in a halter class. Start with short duration, and build gradually, but not progressively – if you make it longer/harder every time your horse will get discouraged.
When your horse takes a step, simply step them back to where they were. When they stand, make it clear to them that is what you wanted with praise and food rewards, and ask them to move off while it’s till going well.
In order to have your horse looking to their best advantage, you’ll want to get them to show an alert expression and extend/arch their neck. In the new stock halter classes, you’re not allowed to bait with food or other things to get their attention, but you will want to work on standing still and focusing on you.
In the regular halter classes, the horse’s expression is very important. You can use food, or small items (easily hidden in your hand) with a soft sound or interesting smell to get your horse to give you their most beautiful archy neck, pricked ears and expressive eyes.
You don’t want the horse to lean towards you – they’ll need to stand back squarely on their feet and move only their head and neck. I find that having a cue to remind them to rock back away from you is very helpful, and if your horse has a solid back up cue you can usually build this skill quite easily.
And again, you don’t just want the neck stretched out horizontally in your direction, you want to show off it’s shape, coming up and then out.
Some trainers use fear to get the pose and expression they’re looking for, and will even recommend that halter horses get minimal handling, especially petting and cuddling, to keep that startled look – but a horse who has been taught to show and thinks it’s fun is going to be a much more pleasant experience for both horse and handler.
Have a second person help you decide where your horse looks their best, or if you don’t have a second person, set up a video camera and practice with your horse in front of the camera. Slight changes to foot placement, height of their head, will make a big difference. Knowing your horse’s weaknesses, so you can minimize them, and practicing so you know what position is most flattering for your horse will make a big difference in their performance.
And remember, a halter class IS a performance.
Note: just because your horse knows all these skills at home, doesn’t mean it’s going to go perfectly the first time you’re in the show ring. THAT’S OKAY! Your horse isn’t “being bad” and he doesn’t “know better” – horses contextualize skills to where they learned them, he might not yet have generalized that this is what he needs to do everywhere, AND horses get nervous doing new things too. Between your nerves and your horses nerves it would be easy for things not to go as smoothly as they did at home, but you’ll both improve every time you’re in the show ring, don’t get discouraged!