California Riding Magazine • July, 2008

The Right Lead
The value of formal halter training
extends far beyond the show ring.

by Barbara Wright

Picture this: An “A” rated show with commotion everywhere you turn. Nervous horses pawing and snorting, riders late for classes rushing to make the gate, trucks, trailers, carts. In the midst of all the confusion, a youth competitor calmly walks a feisty 2-year-old filly past the main arena to the barn area. The filly is alert to her surroundings, but clearly obedient and looking to her handler for cues. A large, loud water truck abruptly turns into their path. With nothing more than a firm “whoa” and a raised hand the youth stops the filly and both wait for the truck to pass. One observer was heard to say, “Wow, even my seasoned gelding doesn’t respond like that!” Many others nearby were likely thinking the same.

A horse that is well conditioned, consistently groomed, and properly trained at home will also succeed in the show ring. As trainer Warren Mather, shown above working with an Andaalusian mare, says: “Horse shows are won at home.”

The above anecdote is true. When asked how she got her filly to be so respectful and responsive, the youth related they had just finished a halter training series that had greatly improved the horse’s ground manners and her handling skills. Just a few months earlier, the filly was nervous, difficult to lead, and would run over people with no warning.

The ability to have a horse—young or old—respect its handler, respond promptly and appropriately to cues, and stand quietly when required is the foundation of formal halter training. Contrary to some popular beliefs, its value extends far beyond the fun and competition of showing. It’s applicable for all riding disciplines and any breed of horse. Indeed, horse experts ranging from Western-oriented natural horsemanship trainers to the elite Royal Spanish Riding School in Vienna emphasize formal groundwork training as the key to success for most all aspects of training and future performance for horses.
According to top halter trainer Warren Mather of Choice Show Horses in Simi Valley, the value of proper halter training is clear cut and measurable. It defines ground manners and enhances performance training, safety, show results and sales prospects.

Choice Show Horses trainer Amber Lentz, shown here with a young horse in training, demonstrates the safe, effective way to lead a horse. Note her confident posture and stride, and her position relative to the horse’s shoulder.

“There’s no doubt about it in my mind, formal halter training is very beneficial for most horses, whether the end goal is the show ring or otherwise,” says Warren. “It teaches your horse to obey specific commands and allows the handler the confidence that the horse knows where to be while handled on the ground. It also teaches your horse respect for the handler, which is critical in all aspects of horsemanship, and certainly comes in handy during basic duties such as lunging and grooming.”


Western and youth trainer Clarissa Heggelund of San Diego County’s Valley Center agrees with Mather’s views on in-hand schooling and stresses that halter training is invaluable for horses period, regardless of breed, age or discipline. “Halter training teaches a horse respect and manners on the ground, and it’s an excellent way for horse and handler to earn trust with each other and learn to work as a team,” she emphasizes. “The trust and teamwork piece alone is a significant advantage on the ground and in the saddle, particularly for youth riders and handlers who tend to be less assertive,” says Clarissa, a regional leader for AQHA’s Leadership program.

Warren Mather instructs a student on how to
properly set a horse up for presentation.

Another key benefit of halter or showmanship training, says Warren, is the physical conditioning that is central to any professional halter program. This aspect is especially important for horse owners interested in showing halter horses. Fitness and impeccable grooming are not to be overlooked as part of the regular training process. Judges like to see a horse that’s in top physical shape and immaculately turned out, in addition to one that’s presented properly and performs on cue.

“The primary objective of a formal halter training program is to bring out the very best in every part of your horse: Its physical conditioning, its mental capabilities and its overall presence,” Warren points out. “When you achieve this, your horse will, without doubt, reach goals it would never be able to under ordinary conditions.”

The daily rigors of halter training also help prepare horses
for routine tasks such as clipping and bathing.

The lesson to be found in formal halter training is that of teaching and preparing a horse to reach its full potential. A horse in superior condition, working regularly toward a goal with a developed understanding of what’s expected of him is most likely a happy horse with the skills needed to succeed in the human world. Whether your goals include the showmanship ring, the dressage court, pleasure riding or the reining circuit, formal halter training can be a sound investment in your horse’s future.

Author Barbara Wright operates the Harmony Horseworks Sanctuary in Conifer, CO and teaches Equine Stress Control Therapy. For more information, visit

Getting Started

• Horses should be at least a year old before starting a formal halter training program. Typically, horses 2 years and older are better able to handle the rigors of training.

• If you’re not a confident, knowledgeable handler, consult with a professional trainer. In addition to on-going training, many offer clinics or weekend sessions.

• Do your homework and prepare a program tailored to your horse’s capabilities. Give special attention to proper equipment, consistent training routines, and safety.

• Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, your horse won’t become a star student overnight. Allow enough time and patience for your horse to learn at its own pace. Don’t rush them physically or mentally.