How to Show Trakehner Horses in Hand

Do you have a Trakehner horse? Is your breeding program on the right track to produce dressage horses? Is your 2-year-old a prospect for three-day eventing? Or endurance? The answer may lie in the score sheet your horse earns in a warmblood in-hand class signed by a judge who understands the Trakehner breed type.

The playing field is either a triangular or V-shaped arena, formed by ground poles, or may be marked out by cones. There, a judge evaluates horses according to movement, conformation and general impression. Individuals are viewed for their suitability as sport horse breeding stock or performance horses. Groups gathered according to family are judged on the sire or dam’s ability to produce quality breeding stock.  Horses are to be judged on, “way of moving, conformation and general impression, to include overall breed standard, expression, manners, masculinity, femininity, development related to age and suitability as a sport horse.” The percentages break down as follows: “40 percent Movement; 40 percent Conformation; 10 percent Expression, Manners, Willingness; 10 percent Quality, Balance and Harmony, Suitability as a Sport Horse."

Form to Function 
Each horse has his own time before the judge. He stands for conformation evaluation and walks and trots the triangle or V for movement judgement. Each horse receives scores and comments on movement, conformation and general impression. The horse with the highest percentage wins the class.

To do well in these classes takes an understanding of the process and practice on the part of handler and horse.

Following the conformation evaluation, the judge asks the handler to move onto the smaller triangle for walk work, and then to the large, outer triangle for trot work. Horse and handler travel to the right, clockwise around the perimeter of the triangles. As the horse moves away from the judge, straightness is evaluated. On the long side of the triangle, parallel to the judge, use of the back, overstep, elasticity, suppleness and length of stride are evaluated. The judge looks at the freedom, purity and quality of the gaits. As the horse moves towards the judge, correctness and evidence of winging or paddling are appraised. The handler finishes at the starting apex for further conformation evaluation or to repeat any movement at the judge's request.

Those are the basics. How, then, do you work the triangle well?

Working the Triangle
For conformation testing, the handler stands the horse parallel to the apex with the horse’s right side at the apex, the left side to the judge. The horse should stand calm, yet attentive, well-balanced over four legs in an “open position” which lets the judge see all four legs from the side. The handler stands in front of the horse with loose reins or line. As the judge moves around the horse for the evaluation, the handler moves out of judge’s line of vision.

A handler has an advantage if the horse is well mannered.  It’s very hard to judge a horse that won’t stand. Sometimes even the straightest horse will stand cow hocked. The handler needs to pay attention and teach the horse to stand so as to diminish those faults.

In theory, showing begins when you reach the triangle. The judge, however, does see your horse approach the triangle. So even then, the walk should be at its best. To get a big walk, the handler must also walk big, keeping the horse long, low and forward, and at the handler’s shoulder. When starting the trot triangle, the horse should move off instantly. It’s not the promptness they are looking for, but the engagement, the step off in the first few strides.

The side parallel to the judge is where the handler really shows his stuff by running with long, bold strides, keeping shoulder to shoulder with the horse, encouraging the horse to maintain self carriage and stretch. If the handler has a good trot going, the horse should keep moving past the end of the triangle, so as not to interrupt the tempo. On the other hand, when traveling towards the judging apex, it’s a good idea not to run the judge over.

Most judges are happy to see just a few good strides. If the horse breaks, it’s not a big deal. But the judge doesn’t like to see the horse yanked down to the canter. If the horse canters, most judges will say to go again.  The judge will normally give the handler all the breaks he can to show the horse to the best advantage.     All along the journey around the triangle, the judge instructs his scribe to fill in a score sheet, rewarding points from 1 to 10 on conformation, movement and general impressions.

At the end of the class, after awards are calculated, exhibitors should receive a copy of their horses’ sheets.

Showing successfully means training at home. Horses that weren’t taught the program at home are the ones that don’t go forward, don’t steer, show short, hurried movement, drag the handler, run past the handler, push into the handler and run high headed.  With proper training a horse can move at whichever speed or gait the handler chooses by responding to the handler’s body language. The handler never has to use the reins or lead shank and allows the horse compete head freedom. If the horse is very well trained, he will even round himself  “on the bit” in hand.

A training regime that begins with a halter, leather lead or cotton rope and chain over the nose at first (depending on your horse’s knowledge), then when your horse is more trained, under the chin. Later you can add a show halter or bridle, depending on the horse’s age.  The grip on the line or reins should be shorter rather than longer to allow the handler to make small adjustments to the horse’s head, though not too tight as to restrict the horse’s head. The right hand sits below the horse’s chin or high on the neck.

To determine the horse’s degree of responsiveness, run the whip quietly over his body. This will desensitise him, so that the handler can make him more responsive to the whip without being afraid of it. Then teach him to move back from an easy tap of the whip butt on the middle of the chest. Repeat patiently and consistently until he responds. Then rub him with the whip. This is a way to avoid anxiety about the whip, which in warmblood  classes is an aid, an extension of the hand.

Next, teach the horse to lower his head on command. This comes in handy if he hits the triangles high-headed and inattentive, causing him to give the appearance of bad conformation and restricted movement. A jiggle of the reins or half-halts, taught in a casual, slow manner, without jerking, giving him time to figure out what the handler’s asking, does the trick. Done well, the horse will lower and arch his neck, a great way to approach the judge on that last leg of the trot triangle.

Teaching the horse to move his shoulder and his hindquarters upon request will not be asked for in competition, but these movements are tools that establish a respectful relationship. Again, after rubbing the horse with the whip to desensitise him, move his shoulder over with a tap of the whip butt on the shoulder and move his hindquarters over with a tap with the lash end on the hindquarters. Casual, calm, repeated requests with rewarding rubs of the whip keep the horse relaxed, thinking and open to learning. Allow him to experiment and reward the right answer.

To teach that immediate “move off” that the judges like to see, put your reins in the left hand, whip in right hand and tap the top of the croup while at the same time using a clear voice commend. A “cluck” works. Eventually the handler uses the whip on the side of the barrel, like riding, along with the voice command, and the horse understands. An assistant can help teach the horse to trot off by standing a safe distance behind with a longe whip. Rarely, is it necessary to actually use the longe whip. (In classes, the handler may carry a whip that has a maximum length of six feet.) The handler should use voice and whip, with an assistant only as a back up. 

When trotting a horse forward, a raised left hand keeps the horse straight. This is also an important tool in teaching the horse to make the right hand turns on the triangle. If the horse respects the handler’s space and the handler has mastered a clear body language, turns are a snap. Start training at the walk and work slowly.   When approaching the corner, give a soft half-halt with the reins and boldly lean into the horse’s shoulder and raise the left hand and whip to the height of the outer eye. If the horse is inattentive, a slight tap on the neck with the whip butt end should suffice.   Some handlers nearly stop before turning, especially if the horse is tense. This works well to get horse back on his hindquarters, providing the slow down is done from the handler’s body, not the reins. Others shoot past the corners if a trot is going well. Try not to circle.

Of course horses should be nicely groomed, but not oiled and greased. Maneplaiting is essential. Snaffle bridles are mandatory on 3-year-olds and up and optional for 2-year-olds who may be shown in a plain leather stable halter.

The handler should dress in neat, comfortable inconspicuous clothes so that the judge’s attention is on the horse.  Conservative attire is recommended for the handler, which shall consist of white, beige, black or khaki pants and white shirt (short or long sleeved), with a collar, breeches are acceptable, hunt style or dressage boots and jacket. Gloves and hat are optional.  Think wisely about the choice of shoes. After all, the bigger you move, the bigger your horse will move. 

These techniques should allow the horse to present a good impression on the judge. They can also start him off in a sport horse career whether he’s never had a saddle on his back, is an old hand over fences or in the dressage arena or is looking for a new job.