Prepare for the Show Pen at Home

Make time in your daily riding routine to focus on your showing ability.

By Dan Huss, With Nichole Chirico; Photos by Nichole Chirico

Going into the show ring can be daunting, especially if you’re not feeling prepared. This is why I like my non pro riders to practice at the barn a couple of times a week and work on certain things that come up in the arena. That way, when it comes time to set foot in the show pen, they’re confident in their riding ability.

NRHA Professional Dan Huss coaches a non pro rider on how to prep for the show pen.
The only way to gain confidence before you walk into the show pen is by practicing for the show pen when you’re at home.

Here, I’ll break down a few exercises my non pros work on at home so the next time you go into the show pen it’s a positive experience.

Focus on Horsemanship

While you’re not necessarily judged on your riding posture, proper horsemanship is still important. When you enter the show pen, you’re not able to think about all the things you normally would at home, which is why you should work on your horsemanship every time you’re in the saddle. How you sit and ride your horse should become second nature, so you can think about other things when you’re showing.

Stay centered. A rider who can stay balanced in the saddle will get more out of their horse than someone who’s not. The easiest way to stay centered in your saddle is by looking up to see where you’re going. If you’re looking down or to the inside, you’re going to lean, which will cause your horse to follow and not stay underneath you. Looking up helps you find your spots so you’re nailing each maneuver within your pattern.

Sit deep. Don’t get ahead of the motion by sitting too far forward on your horse. Instead, focus on rocking back to your back pockets, but not so far back you’re sitting in a recliner chair, to help you feel what he’s doing. If you’re ahead of the motion, it’s natural for your horse to want to move around and try to get back underneath you. You should also focus on sitting around your horse, rather than on top of him. Not only does this allow you feel where he’s at from your seat and legs, it’s also an easy way for you to stay in-sync with him so you’re not going against the motion of his lope.

Use your legs. Another way to have more feel when riding your horse is by having leg contact at all times. This does not mean you should use spurs at all time. Focus on keeping your calves against your horse—almost like you would when riding bareback. This helps you feel where he is plus helps him know where your leg is at all times, making cues less abrupt and easier for him to understand. This will also keep your legs from going too far forward. If your feet go past your cinch, you can’t effectively use them to guide and it’ll force you to be too far back in the saddle, putting you behind the motion. 

If you struggle with keeping your feet underneath yourself, practice standing up in your stirrups. If your legs are too far forward, you won’t be able stand. Anytime you feel your feet getting too far forward, stand up and reposition your legs. Over time, you’ll build up strength and it’ll become natural for your leg to be next to the cinch. However, if your legs are too far behind you, it’ll cause you to lean too far forward.

Hand position. Your hand should stay above your horse’s neck and centered. A big mistake I see riders make is when they hold their hand to the left or right of their horse’s neck. Picture a box around your saddle horn. To plus a maneuver, your hand should stay as close to center as possible, using the slightest cues from your hand (and leg) to ask your horse to turn. 

Ride like you show. Work on riding at home the same way you would when you’re competing. If you’re showing in a one-handed bridle, practice riding one-handed and be sure to hold your free hand in the position you would during a class. If you constantly practice two-handed, it’s going to have a different feel when it’s time to go to one hand in a class. Your cues will also differ when you go to one hand.

Non pro rider practices body position at home by spinning
When asking for a cue, as in a spin, give your horse a clear signal. If you only lightly tap his side and sit in the saddle, you’re not going to score as high as a rider who asks for the turn and then continues to ask for the turn every step of the way.

Be Effective in the Saddle

Being able to effectively cue your horse during your ride is another major thing you should work on before heading to a show. During a class, it shouldn’t look like you’re using a bunch of hand or leg cues to get your horse to perform each maneuver, which is why I put so much emphasis into cueing at home. 

Soften your correction. Many non pros go in too quick and too heavy with their hands, causing a big reaction from the horse. Instead of going in fast, I like to break it down into three different steps to figure out how much of a correction is actually needed. 

When you notice your horse needs to be corrected, go in soft and slow with your hand and leg. Aim for the kind of correction you could do in the show pen that wouldn’t jeopardize your ride. If he responds to your correction, release your hand, soften your leg, and continue riding. If he doesn’t, then you can go in with your hand a little more and use additional leg pressure. Once he responds, release your hand and soften your leg. 

If he continues to ignore you, bump with your hand and use more leg (and possibly spur).  If he ignores that, you can pull him around in a bending circle and have him work on driving into the bridle using your leg. Once you feel him give, immediately release your hand, soften your leg,  and go back to what you were working on. 

Have confidence in your horse. Trust is another thing you must work on at home. If you’re constantly worried that your horse is going to do something wrong and hold him all of the time, you’ll eventually cause a problem. When you constantly hold onto him, you’re not telling him when he’s doing something right, and eventually he’s going to get frustrated. He’s also more likely to get heavier in the bridle, causing more problems.

Have a clear signal. To be effective in the saddle, you must be direct in your cues, which will help you and your horse connect better as a team in and out of the show pen. If you’re too light with your cue or go into the show pen and get nervous and don’t cue him the same way you would normally, he won’t understand what you’re asking of him.

When you’re clear in your signal, this also sets you up to be positive with each cue. For example, your horse isn’t going to spin the same way he would if you lightly tap with your outside leg and then stop once he’s turning. A clear signal would be asking for the spin and then continuing to ride him throughout the duration of the maneuver to ensure that he’s performing at the best of his ability. He’s not going to perform as well as he can if you’re not telling him what to do. 

Dan Huss demonstrates proper hand position
Hand position is crucial when you’re riding. If you hold your hand too far to the right or left of your horse’s neck, you’re more likely to have trouble with guiding. Focus on keeping your hand in the center of his neck.

Practice Before Your Show

The easiest way to gain confidence in your ability to put together a reining pattern is to start preparing yourself before you even get to the horse show.

Mix it up. The best way to get comfortable riding a reining pattern is by practicing the actual pattern. Start by riding patterns that you’re comfortable with, and then gradually build to the patterns that you’re not as familiar with or pose a struggle. I recommend working patterns that you don’t see every weekend—like pattern 3—so you can learn to get comfortable performing different elements that come up a lot quicker or happen in different parts of the arena. 

This also gives you a chance to address situations that’d come up in the show pen and fix them before actually showing. You can learn some of your horse’s weak spots, and even spots that you struggle with, beforehand, which gives you the opportunity to fix them before you get in the show pen. 

If you’re riding a horse that begins to anticipate the patterns, continue practicing them, but be sure to include extra circles or spins to keep him from overthinking. You can even run into the arena from the opposite side of the pen if it helps keep his mind fresh.

Visualize your pattern. Instead of just memorizing the actual pattern, take time to visualize how you want to ride your pattern. Think about every detail that goes into your pattern—how you ask your horse to depart to a lope, where you should be looking during your circles, when you should stop and relax before doing a set of spins. Visualizing what you want to do is going to help you do a better job addressing all the situations that come up in the show pen. 

Watch yourself. When possible, have someone film you practicing your pattern. You might think you’re doing one thing when in reality you’re doing something different. It also helps you see what your horse is doing and how you’re sitting in the saddle. 

Change your perspective. Watch your barnmates practice. Seeing what other people do right or wrong can help you better understand what you need to do when you’re in the saddle. Set up a chair where a judge would sit within a pattern and watch your barnmate practice their pattern from the same viewpoint a judge would have. Watching someone ride through a reining pattern is a lot different when you’re sitting in the stands or are at the end gate. Being in the same section of the arena where a judge would be allows you to get the same view they’ll have and will allow you to see things from a new perspective. You can also have someone video you from this view point.

Demonstration of proper body position at speed
By practicing different reining patterns at home, you’re able to get comfortable with the various maneuvers required. It also helps you figure out your strengths and weaknesses within a pattern so you can continue practicing before you get to a show.

Correctness Over Speed

It’s easy to get overly excited after watching another rider’s run at a show and try to show at the same speed they did. But the truth is, if you don’t practice at the speed you plan on showing, you’re going to have more trouble staying correct. You can’t plus maneuvers if you’re not correct, so it’s important to practice (and show) at a speed that you and your horse are both comfortable at.

There are three speeds I recommend working on when you’re at home, whether you’re just riding around or practicing a pattern. The first one is a slow speed, similar to what you would do if you’re looking to stay around a score of 70 and mark a zero for each maneuver. This speed, while slower, allows you to stay correct during all the elements of a pattern. The second speed to work on is medium speed. This speed is in the zero to +1/2 score range. The third speed is your show speed, which is the +1/2 and above score range. 

I like to have my riders mix up what speeds they go so they can get comfortable going show speed, but also slow down to school their horse and work on correctness so he doesn’t go on autopilot. For example, within one practice pattern you could go show speed for your spins and then medium speed in your circles, and medium speed in your rundowns.

However, if you run through a whole pattern at show speed, I recommend going back to a slower speed to keep your horse from anticipating going that fast every time you practice. It’ll also ensure your horse stays quiet and correct during each maneuver.

Working on different speeds will also help you with cuing. If you’re asking for a slower speed and you’re cueing too fast and aggressive your horse will tell on you.


Dan and Wendy Huss

Dan Huss, Scottsdale, Arizona, has been training open and non pro horses and coaching riders for NRHA competition for more than 30 years with his wife, Wendy. In 2018, Dan was named NRHA Professional Horseman of the Year. To learn more, visit