Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Western Pleasure

The Western Pleasure class is often the largest performance class at any horse show, be it real or model. This is a basic rail class with the horses competing in a group, at three different gaits and in both directions of the arena. The ideal pleasure horse should exhibit smooth, relaxed gaits and perfect manners. In other words, he should be a pleasure to ride!

All of today's photos were taken at the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association's Youth and Amateur Show held last month at the Colorado Horse Park in Parker, Colorado. The commentary is specific to Western Pleasure as it is typically seen at a stock breed show. Different breeds follow different trends so this information may not be particularly helpful if you are wanting to show an Arabian.

One more disclaimer--I'm a hunter girl at heart. I know enough about the Western classes to get by, but this is not my area of expertise. Please go easy on me if I make a mistake!

Western Pleasure horses are shown at three distinct gaits--the walk, the jog and the lope. Horses should be quiet and responsive and are ridden on a loose rein. The jog is a slowed down version of the trot. Most rulebooks call for the horse to exhibit a "level topline." This means the horse should carry its neck level with its withers. Additionally, the horse's head should be slightly in front of the vertical. Some horses do in fact go this way.
However, most of the horses performed with a much lower headset. This is what it commonly referred to as the "peanut roller" look.
This horse was the eventual class winner. He was not penalized for his ultra low headset.
The third required gait is the "lope" or slow canter.
Unfortunately the quest for "low and slow" has resulted in a lot of horses with gait issues. At first glance, you might think this grey horse is walking but he's actually loping or "troping." This sort of four beat, half trot/half lope was painfully common at this show. Trust me, this picture looks positively wonderful compared to some of the others I took!
The Western Pleasure class also includes a backup. This may be done either during the rail portion of the class or during the lineup at the end. At the RMQHA show where these pictures were taken the riders were asked to halt their horses on the rail...
and backup.
After the horses have walked, jogged and loped in both directions, they are called into the middle of the arena and asked to lineup. The placings are announced, typically working from first to last. As each rider's name and number is called, she rides forward to receive her ribbon.
Turnout for a stock breed Western Pleasure class generally includes a pulled and banded mane.
The bands may either match or contrast with the color of the horse's mane.
Tails are uniformly long, thick and banged (cut straight across) at or just above the fetlocks.
This look is not just a product of good grooming--nearly every horse in the Western Pleasure and Hunter Under Saddle divisions was wearing a fake tail. You can clearly see that in the next picture.
Silver trimmed, light oil tack continues to be the favored look. All the horses at this show were shown in plain split reins.
Speaking of reins, this is how they are held. The excess rein should fall on the same side as the hand holding the rein.
The next picture shows the two different ways a rider may hold his or her free (non-rein) hand. The boy in the blue shirt has his arm straight down along his side. This is the typical Western Pleasure style. The girl in green has her arm bent at the elbow and her hand level with the rein hand. This is more of a Horsemanship (equitation) style.
Proper rider attire includes a cowboy hat, chaps and Western boots.
Very elaborate rider outfits are common. In fact, a Western Pleasure class often looks like a mounted fashion show!
What you can't see in these pictures is how sparkly most of the shirts are!
In stark contrast, the male Western Pleasure riders at this show seem to believe that less is more when it comes to fashion. Everyone of them was wearing a solid color shirt and black chaps.
So, that's everything I have on Western Pleasure. Comments, corrections, interesting observations--please post them to the comment section!


  1. Great information, Jennifer! I recently attended my first QH show and saw many of the same things that you mentioned.

  2. How loose should you hold your rein, or does it matter as long as the horse is in control? Some of the pics, like the troper, have them extremely long while others, like the one underneath it, have it extremely tight.

  3. Laura, the reins should be loose. The rider with the tight reins is cuing her horse to back up. That is just about the only time you see real contact between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth.

  4. That one with the low head set does not even beat the one I saw a few years ago. It was a POA in a hunter under saddle type class and his nose was at or below his knees at all times.

  5. Teresa, trust me when I say these are some of the more appealing photos I took that day. I really wanted this post to be fair and nonjudgemental so I held back the head at the knees and "guess which gait?" shots. Ugh. Those guess which gait pictures... They're all tropes of course, but I only know that because I took them. Without that knowlege, you would SWEAR those horses were trotting and not trotting well. It's sad because you could tell that a lot of the horses were actually good movers, they were just messed up by the empasis of extreme slowness...

  6. Human influence is an unfortunate side effect of domestication...

  7. That was me... bad me. :)

  8. The owner of the grey horse needs to fire the groom. That's about the worst application of a fake tail I've ever seen. It's not even that hard! And that tail is filthy. Pessoa saddle: $2k, bottle of Quik Silver: $12. sheesh.

    Is is just me or are the manes more "cut" than pulled? They look rather blunt.

    You want fun? Try explaining the WP classes to "foreigners". Had to explain it to British co-workers at the Sussex County Fair. I had to give up eventually, as even *I* wasn't buying my story.

  9. Thanks for stopping by :) One reason I'm drooling over that Hereford is I haven't found Sunny's "one good saddle" yet, but maybe this will be it...

    Love the pictures, as always - I've gotten to were it almost hurts to watch the western classes at the larger shows, and even the 4-H classes at the higher levels are the same way any more. Certainly doesn't seem as if it would be a "pleasure" to ride one of the peanut rollers! You'd spend a lot of time getting almost nowhere on a trail ride a those speeds - LOL!

  10. Pat--I have never seen so many poorly applied fake tails in my life! They weren't all quite as bad as that grey, but they were still really, really obvious.

    I think I can beat your story of trying to explain Western Pleasure to foreigners... Try explaining it to non-horsey 8 year olds! I chaperoned a third grade field trip to the Stock Show last year and took my group of kids to the horse arena. It was Western Pleasure day and I failed miserably in my attempt to explain what was going on. The kids were NOT impressed and later on I heard them saying the horses "sucked.: :(

  11. This doesn't have anything to do with models, but the pictures you took are the exact reason I quit showing. The forced unnnatural headset, speed and gaits, over-the-top fashion and "required tack" are just too much for me. I like my horse to be happy - and I was showing hunt!

  12. The grey troper looks like his legs are almost in the same position as the San Domingo model. So is that what gait he's supposed to be doing??? LOL!

  13. Sorry, I have to comment. I get so tired of the Western Pleasure bashing in the model world. First of all, let me say that every discipline has it's problems and bad performers (western pleasure included). Many Hunter/ Jumpers get started too early and have soundness issues, same for reiners and racehorse, and have you ever SEEN some of the bits barrel racers use to get their horses to stop, and think of the stacks of shoes and pads/wedges that get put on the Big Lick Walking horses. Also there are bad trainers in every discipline and more importantly owners who don't listen to their trainers. NOT every horse can or should compete in Western please. Ultimiatly, it comes down to the fact that there are very few "great" horses in any discipline and they are EXPENSIVE. So the average horse owner is left to show the average horse (and since pleasure is so specialized and difficult, it's not suprising to see some bad results). You don't hear trash talk when a show jumper puts in a less than gold medal worhty round. Also I feel the need to educate people about what pleasure is REALLY about. The quality of the movement is the most important criteria. The slow speed and headset should be the icing on the cake as they increase the difficulty of moving in a collected frame. (There's a reason the piaffe is an upper level movement. People wouldn't complain if a 1st level dressage horse performed the piaffe poorly, as it is beyond is ability). Also, having Ring Stewarded for many AQHQ judes, I can tell you that the best horse does not always win. You never know which horse might blow his lead or break gait, even if he does have the best headset or movement. Often picking the losers is the easiest part, deciding who should win is much harder. For example the bay horse shown in the post with the "ideal" headset has a lot of knee action, and is a choppy mover. While the class winner may have had a lower headset, he was flat kneed and looked like he had the sweeping movement pleasure ultimatly is about. AND guess what? That horses' headset in not un-natural... for him. Good western pleasure horses are breed, not made. It's easy and natural for them. Also for all those claims of how not fun this appears. I ask, have you actually tried it. For me there's nothing better than floating along on a beautiful, smooth, slow lope. Not all of us are speed demons, or want to "get somewhere" on the trail. So to each his own, and unless a horse is truly being abused in ANY discipline, lets try to be more open minded about things. My point is really that there are bad performers and poor training practices in every discipline but none of the other disciplines seem to get the flack that pleasure does.
    - Nicolle Cunningham

  14. Thanks for providing "the other side", Nicolle. I agree with you for the most part - riding a real, high quality WP horse is *amazing*. The ones that have the talent to do it without draw reins, hock hobbles and all the other gadgets people use to try and get a round peg into a square hole.

    I think the truly talented WP horses are so few and far between though... that's what makes owners try to push their horses to do things they aren't built for. One of the most painful things I watched at my old barn was the owner of a big 15.3 hh, stretchy, amazing mover of an arab stud try and make him do western pleasure. He HATED it, and it was obvious to everybody ELSE that he was screaming to be a dressage horse, but his owner wanted WP. They tried everything with him, and he ended up being really cranky under saddle. Hmm, I wonder why?

    On the other hand, one of the horses I rode was a born western horse. It was like pulling teeth to get him to trot fast enough to post, but he'd jog around like a slug all day. My trainer at the time had me put an overcheck on him because otherwise his nose would be at his knees. (I didn't know better at the time).

    I guess my point is to listen to your horse, and do an event he tells you he likes. If the event you want to do and the event your horse wants to do doesn't match, maybe it is time for him to find a new owner that will let him be happier.

  15. I am really glad you weighed in Nicolle! Like I said in the post, I come from a hunter background and although I've ridden a lot of Western, I don't have much experience with Western *show* horses.

    A few things were really obvious to me, though. Some I've touched on already. Most of the horses were very good movers. Also, most of these horses were built to go very low in front. I don't think any of the *super* low headsets were natural, but if you looked at the way most of these horses' necks came out of their shoulders... There was no way they were going to be anything but low in front.

    I wasn't bothered by the jogs much at all. Most of the horses looked comfortable and natural there. I just can't say the same about the loping. There were very, very few horses that loped well at all. Nearly every horse went crooked with its hindquarters in and most were four-beating. It was just too slow. I'm sure there are *some* horses who can do that naturally, but they weren't in Parker that day. Had these horses gone just a little bit faster, they would have looked a lot better.

  16. Thank you. I'm glad my comments were well recieved, it can be duanting trying to defend the "unpopular" thing. Erin - I completly agree with you, and that was one point I was trying to make, thanks for fleshing it out more. Most people don't get the right horse for what they want to do, or can't afford the right horse. Seen it a million times as a riding instructor.
    Jennifer - I also agree with you that most horses do lope a tad too slow. That's why the lope is often called the "money gear", beacuse when you do have a horse that can lope well and super slow, you are near to unbeatable. So many people see this and think it's all about the speed, and try to slow down their horse even more and sacrifice the quality of movement. If they would maintian a little more forward motion they would do better. The AQHA is now announcing at their shows to "lope with forward motion" in each class. I know it's a little sad,but they are trying to educate people. But my point was simply there are poor performers in every discipline, but none of the others seem to get the rep that pleasure does. I see no reason to throw the baby out with bath water.
    P.S I love reading your blog, you do a great job. I really appreciate all that you put into it, and that you update regularly. :)

  17. Sadly there are abuses in every sport. I showed a WP (AQHA) horse and it was unusual for me because I am used to *going forward*. In musical free style (dressage) the walk a four beat gait is the same tempo as the canter 1-2-3-suspension which is the 4th beat. :-) WP horses who win in the show area don't do that, there is no suspension. I'm actually not against it, *provided* the horse is not forced into doing that. I would've loved to have a fake tail(hair extensions) on my horse!! At that time though they were over $200 and I could not afford it. Thanks for your blog I love it!
    Lorrie Franz

  18. I show english, but I see soo many horses that are forced to lope at a very slow rate of speed. The reason I show english is because your horse is allowed to actually canter. I feel bad... I see so many people yanking their horses' heads down and kicking them with spurs to get them to trope. I'm fairly certain that western pleasure is supposed to be like a ride around your ranch pastures; if your horse loped that slowly, how would you be able to actually get around your ranch??? I'm not saying that you need to be a speed demon or gallop around or anything, but how about a lope that will *get* you somewhere?

    Quick question: Do you need to rein with your left hand? I saw that everyone except the male rider was reining left-handed.

  19. [I]Quick question: Do you need to rein with your left hand? I saw that everyone except the male rider was reining left-handed.[/I]

    It's my understanding that while it's permissable to ride with either hand, the left hand is the traditional and common choice. In theory, you ride with your left so you can rope with your right. Of course, I don't suspect that there are many Western Pleasure riders roping cattle these days. :)

  20. All I can say is this. As soon as the judges quit placing these tropers, crab-crawlers and head bobbers, the problem will disappear. Shame on the judges who promote this! What good do new AQHA rules do if their judges won't follow them.

  21. Boy, you cracked open the can of worms with this post, didn't you? ;-) You know what I think...

  22. You have no idea. This is by far the most viewed post I've ever published. To date it has 4,830 pageviews. Granted, the vast majority of those are random Google hits, but still... Western Pleasure and the Quarter Horse is obviously a hot button issue!

  23. I know this is an old post, but I had to comment- I show at aqha shows here in Colorado, and I know most of the people in these pictures. They are all youth riders. (Except for maybe the male rider, I don't recognize him or his horse). If you must harshly criticize our riding style, at least have the good graces to pick on the over-18 crowd. Some of the people pictured here are under 13 at the time these pictures were taken.
    Moreover, this was at a youth and amateur show. These people aren't professional riders. These kids work hard (and the show parents sacrifice a LOT) to just get to the shows. I don't go to hunter shows, take pictures of the short-stirrup riders, and criticize their riding, and I don't see why its acceptable to do so to western pleasure horses just because its poorly understood by the average model horse person.
    If you want to pick on us, first, go watch (or google videos from) a big show- world, congress, gold/gulf coast, whatever. Watch Vital Signs are Good, Harley D Zip, or A Certain Vino perform, and if you still don't like it, fine.

  24. Would you by chance have another picture of the front of the 2nd to last show shirt (the red and white one)? I really like the design on it!

  25. Hey Jen! I need some info VERY badly! As a judge do you think the Stone FQH could be used in western pleasure?

    Please let me know!
    Thank you!

  26. The word you are looking for is head carriage. This refers to the height of the neck/poll while travelling.
    Head set refers specifically to the angle the head is being held at the poll (i.e., set behind, on, or above the vertical.)

    Those were not peanut rollers in the trot section, at all. Those look like comfortably natural angles for those horses. 227 is probably the most unnaturally low, because he's pretty forehand heavy and trailing out behind, making his whole body travel downhill.
    A peanut roller will have his head down by his knees, and sometimes even lower (I've seen them two inches above the ground), and when he lopes his head will move distinctly up and way down in a vertical motion, when the correct motion is slightly down and out, meaning they are fully engaged in the hind end.

    Of course the head carriage didn't 'penalize' the winning horse, who probably had the best rhythm and cadence of the class. Head carriage is a pretty small part and only taken into account when the horse keeps it at the same spot, or is moving his head around a lot.
    There's a lot that goes into judging a pleasure class, more than most people think.

    And troping is a break of the diagonals in the lope - slow loping is not always troping. Moving the head and neck excessively is not always troping. Some horses look like they could be limping, but it's not always troping. There are other terms for these.

    Wogging is also a break in the diagonal, but in the jog, and can be very difficult to tell at times.