Dressage Sport-Horse Handling 101

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USDF Youth Sport Horse Ambassador Shea Johnson at the 2017 WBFSH World Championships for International Young Breeders at Spruce Meadows in Canada (NICOLE MILLARD PHOTO)

Want to get in on the ground floor with a young horse’s career or at a breeding facility? Why learning to become a handler is a great opportunity for youth

By Shea Johnson

If you had told me that showing horses in hand would completely change the direction of my career in horses five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it for a moment.

My name is Shea Johnson, and I am a USDF Youth Sport Horse Ambassador. My role is to help connect USDF’s youth members with the sport-horse divisions and USDF’s sport-horse education programs. I became involved in the ambassador program through attending such events as the USDF Youth/Young Adult Dressage Sport Horse Breeder and Handler Seminar and the USDF Sport Horse Handlers Clinic. I am also very active in the USDF Breeders Championship Series shows as a handler.

I first got involved as a handler at Arabian breed shows. As a youth and adult, I have competed in both the Arabian sport-horse division and USDF dressage sport-horse breeding (DSHB) classes, and I have won numerous Arabian sport-horse regional and national championships, and USDF Breeders Championship Series Finals. After one of these shows, I was approached about joining the American Hanoverian Society Young Breeders Club, where I was lucky enough to be on the team that competed at the WBFSH World Championships for International Young Breeders in 2017! It was at this point that I realized there was an entire art to this whole handling thing. I began working for Horses Unlimited in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2018. Working for a breeder, being a capable handler is very important, and it really opens up a lot of doors for you.

Johnson and her American Hanoverian Society Young Breeders Club teammates at Spruce Meadows  2017 (NICOLE MILLARD PHOTO)

What Does a Handler Do?

As a handler, your job is to present the horses in hand to the judges, who evaluate conformation as well as gaits. Now, when we add in the fact that these are oftentimes very young horses, it can take an incredible amount of practice to learn how to handle a horse skillfully. You might not think that running a horse around a triangle is incredibly difficult, but there is definitely an art to it. Being able to evaluate the conformation and gaits of the horse that you are presenting is key. Showing a horse to his best advantage takes time, practice, and a little extra cardio!

Oftentimes at USDF DSHB shows there are opportunities to “catch handle.” Catch-handling really tests your ability to adapt and to get an unfamiliar horse working with you in a short time frame. Sometimes you get to work with the horse a bit the night or morning before, but other times you have only a few minutes before you go in the ring. Though catch-handling can be thrilling, it is a pleasure to get to handle a horse that you work with regularly. You develop a relationship with those horses and really know all of their ins and outs, and when things go according to plan there is no better feeling!

Handling has opened up many doors for me, not only as a handler but also as a rider. I’ve gotten to travel all over the country, showing horses both at breed shows and inspections. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many amazing young horses that I started showing in hand, and now we are preparing to show them under saddle. l’ve worked with incredible US breeders who are producing tomorrow’s superstars. Handling has also made me aware of how passionate I am about working with and developing young horses.

How to Get Involved

I think that sport-horse handling can open up many doors for those looking to become more involved in the development of tomorrow’s dressage horses. I hope to encourage more young people to get involved. The best place to start would be by attending USDF Youth/Young Adult Breeders Seminars, USDF Youth/Young Adult Handler Seminars, USDF Sport Horse Seminars, USDF Handler Clinics, or USDF Breeders Championship Series shows. There are even handler classes for both junior/young riders and adult amateurs, which are designed to help you develop the skills you need to become a successful handler. I’ve also found that many professional handlers will give you pointers and show you some of their tricks. In addition, handling is a fantastic opportunity to learn about what you might want to look for in your next dressage partner, or maybe give your young horse some ring time.

I hope to see you at a USDF sport-horse event or DSHB show in the future!

Shea Johnson, 27, of Chaparral, New Mexico, is USDF’s newest Youth Sport Horse Ambassador. She is a USDF bronze and silver medalist and a USDF-certified instructor/trainer. An American Hanoverian Society International Young Breeder team coach, she currently operates a training, lesson, and sales program that focuses on the development of young dressage horses. Contact Shea at xhaltsalute77@gmail.com.

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