Everyone’s introduction to Western Riding
For nearly everyone, Western Pleasure is their first introduction to western competition. For me it was nearly the end of a brief love affair.
When I bought George, his previous owner assured me the Boy loved nothing better than a good gallop. That proved true whenever I gave him his head on Camber Sands. Then, he’d put his head down and go from one end of the strand to the other. Absolutely flat out. Finally, when I reined him in, he’d turn and want to do it all again back in the opposite direction. It was the thoroughbred in him and what made him such a joy in a barrel race.
But I quickly discovered that his previous owner had probably given up trying to get him to go any slower. Not that Stuart Powell hadn’t trained him properly. It was only when Stuart mounted him and proved that it was me at fault that I believed George was capable of a gentle jog. It took me hours and hours finally to get there. Believe me, there were times back then I was ready to decide that horsemanship really wasn’t for me after all.
The day it clicked
But one day it just clicked. Shortly after that we won our first competition rosette and it was in the Western Pleasure class. It coincided with the first show where we had won a few rosettes generally and it seemed as though we had finally arrived! I remember that there was a lot of Willie Nelson playing on the PA in the show ring that day. Whether it was me or George that Willie calmed down, I couldn’t say but Western Pleasure became one of our favourite classes. Without doubt, it will be Peanut’s first taste of western competition. But, probably after doing a Showmanship Class first!.
With Showmanship, Reining and Western Trail, Western Pleasure is one of the foundation classes that make up the Showing category of competition in Western Riding.
What I’ve learned
The paces in this class are like mother’s milk to us all. Because they’re what we’re taught from the first time we sit in a western saddle. We all do them but the skill here is in a smooth and prompt transition from one pace to another. This shows a quiet horse effortlessly being his rider’s joy. It’s about being on the right lead at all times. At the lope, it’s about stopping calmly in an orderly manner. It’s what we practice every time we get on our horses. If you don’t, then there’s your problem! Western Pleasure should come as second nature to us. So why aren’t we all winners when it comes to competition?
Well that comes a bit later. If you are reading this and hearing about Western Pleasure for the first time, you’ll need to know a bit more about how it works. At most versatile horse events, Western Pleasure is usually the first class of the day. It’s very much a “showing” class. And there’ll often be a “Tack and Turn Out” award to the best groomed horse and rider. Because, when the going’s been tough, it might be that “tack and turnout” weighs the judge’s opinion in favour of the winning horse and rider. So we’re back to the Showmanship standard of turn out but this time your saddle, reins and bridle need to be spic and span as well.
When you and your horse are ready, get to the arena soon enough to warm up quietly. Get your horse used to his surroundings. Then, put him quietly through his paces a few times and stop and do it all in the opposite direction. When the judge comes into the arena and announces that the class is “open”, it’s usually with an instruction to walk the horses. That and an indication in which direction around the outside of the arena.
Position your horse at least a length away from the horse in front and the one behind. This is important. It avoids them influencing you and you impacting on them. The further away the better. And it’s worth noting that there’s no fault in quietly crossing the arena to where you can see a bigger gap in the procession. But do it without breaking pace and without getting in the way of the judge or another competitor.
A quiet walk
Your horse should be walking quietly on a free rein. The question of where your horse’s head position should be is a controversial one. American Western Pleasure rules require that the horse’s poll should not be any lower than its withers: the idea being that a horse walking quietly with its neck more or less horizontal to the ground shows a quiet disposition. And that’s absolutely correct. In recent times, though, the worldwide tendency is to produce horses that walk with a markedly head down position. I’ve heard them unkindly called peanut rollers and to me this shows them in a somewhat forlorn, overly subdued manner. But it’s fashionable to adopt that conformation and if you are competing in specialist showing associations, your judge will be looking for just that.
Fortunately for George, he would just trip over if he had his head in that position when he was working a cow and a versatility show judge doesn’t look for an overly head down stance. But, equally, he’d better have his nose tucked well in and certainly should not toss it or show any other kind of extravagant behaviour.
Change of pace
Once the judge has got the flavour of the class he/she will call for a change of pace. Most often at this stage that will be a jog. Eagle eyes will be watching for this pace change within no more than two or three paces after the command. Lightly pick up the reins and gently squeeze your calves to the horse’s sides. He should just ease into a gentle jog without fuss, tail swishing or any sign of peevishness. The transition must be almost unnoticeable.
But it’s now that things start to get a tad complicated because assuredly your horse’s comfortable jog is a different speed to those around him. The rules do not define a speed; just that the horse should be moving at a comfortable relaxed pace. Oddly for a horse that’s 16.3, George’s jog was slower than just about everyone else’s but it was a joy to sit and a real pleasure. And they said it looked mighty fine too!
Other horses passing
So then we were in a position where other horses have to overtake. I hoped that, as they do, they gave us a wide berth and left plenty of room as they came back into line. It’s bad manners (at least!) to chop in on another competitor as you go past and it can upset your horse just as much as the one that’s being overtaken. So give everyone plenty of room.
The judge will normally keep a particular pace going for as long as it takes for everyone to have their best chance at settling to it and correcting any little errors their horse may have made in the transition.
There’s no requirement as to which pace comes next and it may just as much be back to a walk as a transition to a lope. For safety reasons, if the class has a large number of entries or things are otherwise tight in the arena, the Judge will normally split the class for the loping section but will always announce this at the outset. For present purposes, we’ll assume the judge asked for a lope.
George’s Western Pleasure lope
Once again, the transition should be prompt and take place within two or three paces on the correct lead for your direction of travel.
It took some time for me to get this transition right. Being on the feisty side, George didn’t need much of an ask to pick up the pace. We managed to get it back from a flat out gallop fairly early on in our relationship but the sort of lope that matched his jog – nose in and relaxed – took a bit longer. He could do it and it was on the occasions that we got that right that we won the class. However, all too often, George lurched off into an extended lope with me sitting there doing my best to look as though it was really OK. But at that rate we were overtaking all the other horses and tended to stand out just somewhat!
Lesley spotted the fault and pointed out that I was asking for the lope by moving my hand forward as if we were about to head out around a barrel racing course. Not a good idea. We fixed it when I gave another gentle squeeze with my calves at the same time as ever so gently taking up on the reins. Hey presto, we had a nicely collected lope. From there it’s the usual requirement of adjusting your body position according to whether you want to speed up a bit or slow down and maintaining a light contact on his mouth.
The easiest mistake to make at this stage is to start the lope on the wrong lead. Most horses have the good sense to know what is required but it sometimes happens that they just don’t and it needs prompt corrective action from the rider. If it happens, you will get a mark down for the wrong lead. But you lose more points if you do not correct it quickly. If you are not comfortable with a flying lead change, your only choice is to stop and ask for the lead from a fresh start. But try not to stop in a way that’s going to upset another horse and rider. That’s making a bad situation worse to the point of having a disaster on your hands…
But, in a versatile competition, it’s a rare Western Pleasure class when a rider does not have something go wrong. That might be a break of pace, a slow transition, or a bit of attitude on the part of the horse. It happens to everyone and the point is that you should not let one mistake unsettle you.
Anyway, we’re loping and once the judge has the feel of what each horse is about, there will be another command, possibly for a walk or perhaps for a stop. The stop must be prompt. But it shouldn’t be a slide and not so marked as shows particularly obvious cuing on the part of the rider. A quiet “whoa”, sit back and a gentle take up on the rein ought to do it.
The judge is now going to want to see your horse standing quietly waiting. It could well be now that there’ll be a “reverse direction” instruction from the judge. Listen to exactly what is said. If it’s just: “reverse” the requirement is that you should just about face your horse and await the judge’s next instruction. It might be, though: “reverse direction and walk” or “reverse direction and jog”.
The reverse instruction
The reverse direction instruction is just as likely to come without any stop at all. Not usually when the class is loping but it could be at the jog or walk. Now it’s expected that you turn your horse into the arena (not against the rail) without any break in pace. So give him plenty of room. It’s not a rollback that’s called for here. So, just quietly rein him round with a touch of outside leg pressure and carry on the pace you were at in the opposite direction.
Just when the tension is starting to get to you and you’re praying that your boy is going to keep going quietly and calmly, the judge calls for a line up in the centre of the arena. The relief when this comes is such that you may be tempted to chat to the riders on either side of you. Don’t! We’re not done yet and you and your horse could be expelled for talking in the class. I was once and it’s embarrassing.
Now, position your horse a comfortable distance from the riders on either side of you. You wait for the judge to come up the line and make an individual assessment of each horse and rider. This is where the judge takes a closer look at your horse generally and at his tack and turn out.
It’s normal at this stage to be asked to demonstrate a back up. Some judges just ask for that and leave it to you to back up as far as you think appropriate. The object is to show a quiet manoeuvre without any resistance or throwing of the horse’s head. You might be asked to back up a number of paces. That’s when your horse must move each of his feet that number of times. If you’re uncertain, watch one of his shoulders and count the steps that foot makes. If the backup requested is for a number of “steps”, though, it is the total number of foot movements: e.g. 8 steps = 2 paces. It can be confusing in the heat of the moment. Fortunately, the requirement more often than not is just for a backup.
That done, all you do now is keep your horse quiet while the judge finishes this phase of the class. The class is still open and you are still being judged so just relax and enjoy the moment. Finally, the judge calls for everyone to walk their horses around the rails while the rosettes are worked out. You can relax now but it’s still not the time to start chatting. Leave that for when you’ve collected your rosette, hopefully had a quiet word of congratulation from the judge and left the ring…
For more on Western Pleasure in the UK, the Western Equestrian Society is a good place to start.