What is Western Pleasure Riding ?
If you have ever watched a western pleasure class, with horses moving in perfect harmony with their rider, it would be easy to assume that this horseback riding discipline is easy. But the subtleties of this pairing of horse and rider make for a wonderful equestrian exhibition of skill.
If anything, Western pleasure has a lot in common with other sports you have seen, such as dancing and gymnastics. The pursuit itself tends to be quite technical in ways that drill down past easy the obvious and into nuanced elements of the horse and rider that a judge’s keen eye can spot.
Just as in gymnastics, what may look like near-perfection in the eyes of the average fan may not appear as such in the eyes of a seasoned judge.
What is the Goal of Riding Western Pleasure?
Before you can dive into Western pleasure’s many subtleties, it’s important to understand its purpose.
The big-picture mindset may be to make sure your horse stands out in a large crowd of other equines, but there’s more than that.
Like the term suggests, the goal behind Western pleasure is to make sure the horse looks like a pleasure to ride.
Metrics like gait and control shape this outward appearance, but so do matters regarding etiquette. This latter aspect makes a lot of sense when you think about it – nobody wants to ride a horse that looks mean or grouchy.
This purpose may make the concept of Western pleasure look easy. Truth be told, the elements that collectively create a Western pleasure routine do appear to be rather uncomplicated on the surface.
Yet, as any successful veteran of the practice can tell you, it takes a large time investment to refine these elements to be worthy of a being a successful western pleasure competitor.
The Importance of Gait
The most obvious element in play in a Western pleasure routine is the gait or way the horse moves. During a routine, this movement is broken down into three categories:
Ideally, a horse's walk must be a natural four-beat gait that's flat-footed. It should be a straight, deliberate stride that makes sense within the relation of its body.
Even though the pace is slow – something that some circles of the rodeo and equestrian community like to poke fun at – the horse should look alert throughout the process.
A horse’s jog should be a smooth, two-beat diagonal gait that covers the ground. The horse’s forward movement should be balanced and square. Its pace shouldn’t be fast, but it will be noticeably quicker than the walk.
When a horse lopes in Western pleasure, its gait should land in a three-beat rhythm.
As the horse lopes, he should take on a smooth, relaxed appearance.
It should also be ridden at a natural speed – something that will promote the horse’s sense of relaxation.
Other Elements of a Horse’s Movement
During a Western pleasure class, a judge may ask a rider to “show” their horse by deploying a lengthened stride during its walk, jog, and lope.
By doing this, the rider is able to better display their control of the horse and his movements.
This is not necessarily a request made at all Western pleasure shows, but it is one that’s wise to prepare for nonetheless.
Judges will typically ask the rider to perform a reversal of direction during the walk or jog segments. When this happens, it’s usually preferred that the rider turns to the inside of the ring, pivoting on their hind outside leg.
Regardless of what movement is in play, it’s important to remember that style will always take a higher priority over speed.
A zippy horse won’t matter if it doesn’t appear to be capable of delivering a smooth, balanced, properly cadenced ride. A western pleasure horse should appear poised and at a controlled speed.
The Etiquette Portion of Western Pleasure
A horse’s mannerisms tend to take a back seat when it comes to judging for Western pleasure competitions, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.
In fact, a horse’s etiquette, poise, and attitude could be the deciding factor between a horse that wins and a horse that places at the bottom.
Judges tend to view a horse’s mannerisms, responsiveness, and level of bit contact to determine if a horse has a broke and quiet demeanor. This includes a collected and supple horse.
If a judge views a horse as wild, ill-behaved, or uncollected, it may cause them to look at it less favorably.
What Else Can Cause Judges to Fault a Horse?
Judges come to a Western pleasure show to scrutinize the horse and rider, and there is no shortage of ways they can fault, or dock points from, a competitor.
Some of the faults that could be marked against the competitors include:
- Breaking its gait
- Excessive speed at any gait
- Excessive slowness at any gait – (even during a walk, when the pace is designed to be deliberate)
- Head carried too high
- Head carried too low
- A quick, choppy stride
- Excessive opening of the mouth
Again, some of these faults may seem like unnecessary hand-wringing to novice competitors. However, the ones that are serious about Western pleasure are well antiquated with the detail in which the classes are judged.
The best western pleasure riders have prepared over countless hours in order to cover everything they will be judged on.
How Can I Help My Horse Stand Out?
As mentioned earlier, the general idea of Western pleasure is to get your horse to stand out in a crowd. This is the part of the program where a rider has direct influence on its horse’s visibility.
It’s common practice for riders to show up to a Western pleasure event decked out in bling.
The theory here is that an outfit draped in color and sparkle can make a memorable impression on the judge -or at the very least, command more attention.
You may think that this would be the way to go for novice riders, yet this is not the case.
It’s important for those starting out in Western pleasure to worry less about the wardrobe and focus on the fundamentals of horsemanship, such as gait and etiquette.
While the shiny stuff can help you stand out down the road, they should just be used as mere enhancements that highlight your horse’s performance-fueled excellence.
See our recommendations for great western bits in our Best Myler Bits article
For more horse guides and tips read these articles:
Western pleasure is a beautiful display of horse and rider skill. The best competitors make it look easy. But don't let that fool you, these horse and rider teams have spent hours practicing.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org