What are the Basics of English Pleasure?
The basic principles behind English pleasure riding aren’t that different than that of Western pleasure. As both names suggest, the endgame to the practice is to demonstrate that you have a horse that’s a pleasure to ride. A horse’s gait is also judged the same way. However, there are some significant differences between the two forms of equine pleasure.
English Pleasure vs. Western Pleasure: What’s the Difference?
From a fundamental standpoint, there are two major differences between English pleasure and Western pleasure:
- The saddle
- Contact between rider and horse
In English pleasure, the saddle tends to be smaller and lighter than their Western pleasure counterparts. The designed has a direct correlation to how the riders and their horses tended to function outside of the arena.
An English saddle is designed for elegance, a way for the horse to “dress to impress” as they are ridden about town or on a smooth, well-marked public path. A Western saddle captures the essence of “form follows function.” It’s built for optimal weight distribution for a comfortable ride, something that’s crucial if you’re using a horse for ranching or navigating through long, rugged trails.
Regarding contact, an English rider will work reins connecting to a horse's mouth to help with dictating speed and direction, an element that's further shaped by a rider's maneuvering of their seat and legs. A Western rider, on the other hand, will have little contact with the horse, if any. They'll rely on neck-reining along with seat and weight manipulation to control a horse's speed and movement.
The History of English Pleasure
The soul of English pleasure goes back to a time when people treated horses like how people treat cars today. When the equine set was the primary means to get from point A to point B, riders would train their steeds to move elegantly and act impeccably, so that others could be impressed by their sense of style. These horses were the original Mustangs, if you will.
The roots of this pursuit permeate the English pleasure show ring to this date. While participating horses can be of any breed, all must display exquisite manners, impeccable obedience, and an outward appearance that leaves no doubt that they would be suitable for an elegant ride out.
What Role Does Gait Play in English Pleasure?
Gait plays an important role in any English pleasure competition, and it also signifies another difference between its Western pleasure counterparts. There are five types of gaits that judges consider during an English pleasure competition:
- Normal trot
- Strong trot
- Hand gallop
In a walk, judges are looking for a true and proper flat-footed, four-beat gait. The walk must be brisk but not too fast, and the horse must exhibit good reach with even, deliberate strides. The horse must carry a relaxed demeanor during this phase.
A normal trot is a two-beat gait that’s executed at medium speed, while also being mannerly, balanced, and free moving with proper cadence. This horse should also exhibit elegance in its movements and should never look forced or labored. They should also demonstrate a high knee lift.
A strong trot is like a normal trot, except that it should be faster and stronger. The horse should carry a longer stride that demonstrates extended power and reach without compromising its balance or elegance. While speed plays a role in this category, it is not the determining factor for success.
With a canter, judges are watching for a three-beat gait; one that's smooth and unhurried and exhibits smooth, supple relaxation on the part of the horse. Movement should feature elevated knee lifts to emphasize a lofty appearance, but this should not translate into the horse taking shortened or choppy steps. The rider should also look comfortable throughout the sequence.
The hand gallop is a long, free, ground covering gait designed to demonstrate a horse’s full stride. While this gait is designed the type of length that comes with speed, excessive speed is frowned upon in the form of penalties. Like the other gaits, a horse should maintain balance and a calm demeanor.
What do Judges Look For?
English pleasure judges can be quite strict. This may ruffle the feathers of those that are new to the pursuit, yet their rigorous standards make a lot of sense once you consider English pleasure’s history. Remember, its origins stem from making your horse be a paragon of elegance and sophistication.
As such, those that are participating in an English pleasure show should be mindful of some of the subtleties that will fall under a judge’s scrutiny. Some of these include:
- Tossing the head
- Leaning the head to one side
- Moving the tail to one side
- Head too low
- Open mouth
- Droopy ears
Of course, there are some rather obvious slaps of the hoof in play during and English pleasure session, faults that can be best described as common sense. These include:
- Poor gait
- Violent behavior toward other horses
- Excessive speed in a given category
What to Wear at an English Pleasure Show
Unlike a Western pleasure show, which can be an over-the-top display of excessive bling, English pleasure outings demand refinement and elegance. Again, this practice is firmly rooted in the pursuit’s sophisticated history.
Most shows will have rules on not only what to wear, but also what equine accessories are allowed for your horse. It’s advisable that these guidelines are studied thoroughly and then followed to the letter. Not doing so will severely impact your chances of the judges taking you seriously.
That said, it doesn't matter if your riding boots are cleaned and polished, or your outfit is neatly pressed if your horse doesn't perform well. While maintaining a professional appearance will cause the judges to take you seriously, the horse’s abilities are the element that will truly capture their attention.
Fred is the editor of Equine Ridge. He grew up raising horses and has been riding, training, and competing for almost four decades. Fred started out performing on the AQHA and PHBA circuits. Fred trained other competitors in English and Western riding disciplines and today offers free riding lessons to youth who would otherwise not be able to afford lessons. When not working with horses he can be found backpacking or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Email Fred at email@example.com