Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Selecting, Starting & Competing The PERFECT Western Pleasure Horse

Today I'm going back to an issue I've already covered in a manner of speaking, but getting more detailed. We have already discussed choosing disciplines for your existing mount. But what if you’re expressly looking for a horse to perform a specific discipline? How do you go about finding the perfect beast (and I use that term with the utmost respect for these critters...) for any given trade? This time, I’m delving into one such area of expertise: The Western Pleasure horse.

When looking at prospects, you first have to keep several things in mind. Number one, the term “potential” can mean many things to many people. Number two, ANY horse can possibly be a ‘Western horse’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the horse you’re viewing at the moment has what it takes to be a National Champion Western Pleasure horse. Number three, many sellers will tell you what they think you want to hear about their horse just to get him sold.

I look for certain specific qualities in a young Western Pleasure prospect, such as a quiet demeanor, a well arched neck that ties in relatively low (lower, at least, than an English horse), a very good hinge at the poll and the propensity to be slow legged. That means I want the horse to like moving in a soft, slow yet cadenced fashion. He needs to be pretty, not to mention substantial, I especially want big poppy eyes and small, rather tipped ears -- the kind of head and face that will look just right through the bridle.

Once I find a set of prospects to look into further for a client (or myself), my trusty evaluation form always accompanies me. If it’s a baby, naturally the under saddle portions of any eval are not going to be applicable, but then I’m generally not going to look at anything under three years of age when purchasing a performance horse anyhow, ‘prospect’ or not.

The evaluation itself consists of watching the horse in it’s stall or home environment, during grooming and during tacking (these are especially important if I’m looking at possible youth or amateur horses), then observing the horse turned out loose and then on a longeline. If the horse has the laid back demeanor, low and slow carriage and basic fundamentals of a good Western pupil...and, every bit as important, the horse is sound...we’ll move on to watching the owner or trainer ride the horse. Depending on what I’ve gleaned about the horse’s level of education, I’m going to be watching for different reactions on the part of the horse and the rider. Youngsters just started are obviously going to be less steady in the bridle and a whole lot more fidgety overall than a seasoned show horse, plus they’ll usually have far less balance and not be able to round up their backs and collect to the extent a fully trained animal will. That’s okay, as long as there is no physical reason why the horse can’t do it. Finally I’m going to get on the horse and give myself an even better idea of where he’s at in his training and how much it may take before he’s ready to tackle the show ring.

Okay, now let’s fast forward. The Perfect Western Pleasure horse has been purchased and stands in the training barn. We’re going to assume he isn’t a finished mount, that we need to take him down the road to being successful in this, his chosen career. He’s got the basics down, he knows how to walk, jog, lope, turn, circle, stop and back. What are the differences between starting a horse under saddle with our ground work and longlining, and the process of getting him to really become a show horse, to perform as required? How will we know the horse is progressing toward a future show career? That ‘foundation’ I’m so fond of talking about is basically the same for any horse, whether bound for the show ring or who’s destined to become solely a trail mount.


After the foundation, which is the same process for any horse, we want to start to concentrate on specific target areas: We’ll start with the walk. [remember, this horse is already at the point where he knows the basic stuff, now we are formulating a plan to take him from whatever to wow!] I like a smooth but unhurried walk, though I want the horse to cover some ground. The manner in which I teach the horse my idea of an ideal Western walk is to utilize the half-halt principle and get him to collect his stride. My goal at first is a noticeable shortening (and along with that a slowing, of sorts) which will probably be full of hesitation. So at the outset, I know it’s not going to be smooth, at least not yet. But once he’s figured out what I want, it will start to become more natural and I’ll have a pretty Western walk. The process might take more than just a few days, it may take a week or two, or even a month or more, but if I’m consistent, it won’t be a major ordeal.

His jog will then get the lions share of my attention during our work sessions. After all these years, I’ve come to a conclusion: Either a horse will have a real nice, slow jog naturally and his lope will need the most work, or he’s going to need a lot of effort put forth on my part to bring his jog into compliance, but his lope is outstanding out of the box. It’s almost always the case that one is immediately (and noticeably) better than the other.

Back to that jog. After the horse understands what I want at the walk, it’s fairly simple to translate that concept to him during the jog -- slow and consistent. Half-halting and circles that gradually get smaller will go a long way toward getting him to learn how to shorten that stride. Slowing his legs takes a little bit more work (and that can be hampered by hooves that are out of balance or too long, so make certain the horse is up to date on the farrier’s schedule), but just means you have to be more persistent in asking the horse what you want. It’s all done using the same concept.

Then we’ll advance to the lope, and that’s where many horses trip themselves up, so to speak. If the horse has a nice, easy lope to begin with, it’s no problem teaching them to slow down and collect. If he tends to want to run off and play when you ask for the lope, you’ll have a much tougher time getting it slow and pretty, but with persistence and patience that lope will come around. Just don’t rush him! Lots of circles and bending or flexing will help him understand how to use his body correctly and round himself up.

Once he’s got the concepts down, it will be time for testing him out in a horse show environment. I always bring my horses out for the first few times in a low stress venue such as a local open all breed or schooling show, sometimes even taking them into walk/jog or trot classes or simply riding them on the showgrounds without the added stress of competition. If we're already going, it's no big deal to put an extra horse on the trailer.

Showing a Western Pleasure horse, while not benefiting from the wide array of classes offered to Hunter or English mounts, can encompass a variety of divisions, depending on the athletic ability of the horse. Of course, in addition to the Junior (for horses five years and younger) and Open classes, there are events for Adult Amateur and Youth exhibitors, plus Trail, Western Riding, Reining, Working Cow and Cutting.

Okay, back to the task at hand. If they handle little things like trail rides away from home without aplomb, it’s not going to be a big deal to ride them at a horse show. For the purposes of this article, we’re making the assumption this horse is an Arabian or Half-Arabian, although I train Western Pleasure horses for the show ring of all breeds exactly the same.

After that ‘trial period’, I have an idea whether or not the horse is actually going to make it as a show horse and how successful he’s going to be on the campaign trail. Once I’ve determined the horse doesn’t sweat the small stuff, it’s on to bigger and better things. If this is a baby (that is, a three or four year old), I’ll be looking at the Fall performance Futurities, provided we have enough time to enter them and ensure he will be ready, rain or shine. Otherwise, we’re going to start out with a few smaller rated (USEF Class “A” Arabian) events before tackling the big time. One rule of thumb, however, that I am adamant about -- I do not ever enter a horse before I know positively that they are ready to be shown, when pre-entries are required. If the owner is paying anywhere from $250-$500 and up for entries, I’ll darn sure make certain that horse is going to be competitive and look like he belongs in the ring. Nothing chaps my hide more than watching unprepared horses [and riders] out there wasting money on entry fees.

Now it’s time to formulate a game plan: We’ll assume the idea is to compete with him Nationally, so it’s my job to decide how we’ll proceed. Ideally, we’re going to plan out our show year with a few goals in mind. Number one, the horse needs to ‘peak’ in condition and mental fitness for the biggest of shows...those Fall Futurities if applicable, Scottsdale, any of the Regional shows we attend (Regions 1, 2, 3 and 7) and the Nationals.

Our next step is to qualify for each Regional show. Region Seven is first, in April, so I like to hit at least one of the previous Fall’s qualifiers and the big grand-daddy, the Scottsdale Extravaganza in February. January, March and April bring Region One qualifiers, with the Championships in late May/early June and so on for each Region. Once a horse has achieved the requisite amount of points per division in each Region -- and if this is a Junior Western horse it will just be the one class -- we’re done. It’s on to the next set of qualifying rounds until he’s fully qualified and proven himself to be a viable contender. By that time, I’m hoping he’s already earned enough points to enter Nationals without placing at the Regional Championships, but I really don’t like showing a horse to the National level without at least one Regional title (a Regional Top Five qualifies for the National Championships just as points do).

If I play my cards right, we’ll be rolling into Tulsa that October with a fresh, rested and brilliant horse, because he’s been brought along just right, in time to be perfect by then. Of course, the only way to know if I’ve reached my ultimate goal, of course, is when the horse wears those roses in center ring. But there you have it!



  1. Hey STFS, I just got back from an emergency visit to DC. My mom has sever anemia and needed a blood transfusion. I didn't have to give the blood, I just had to be around.
    This is an interesting topic for me. A gelding at the show barn is being considered for a William Shatner class. I first met this horse at 3, he was 16.3 and awkward. The trainer thought he would make a good 3 gaited park horse. He won a few regional shows but was never consistent. He is certainly a kind horse. The gelding now is 18 hands, and is 6 years old. His trainer is trying to see if he would be happier as a Saddlebred WP horse. I know that Saddlebred WP horses aren't anything like QH WP horses but they are beautiful. I admit I think one of the funniest looking horses I've ever seen is a QH HUS with his head down low. Field hunters aren't about to start rounding up cattle in the hunt field, nor or they going to be "eyeing" the fox into his den, get their heads up.
    Anyhow, it is interesting to watch this Saddlebred being turned into a WP horse.
    OT, sort of, I've been asked to make the rider's shirt and vest. It is an interesting project, much like doing the theatre costuming I did as an undergrad. I was a costume design major who got tired of starving and became a teacher of "disturbed" children.

  2. I hope your mom is okay, Kaede!! Will think good thoughts for her and her speedy recovery.

    You are right about the ASB WP horses, they are beautiful. But Saddlebreds of any kind are beautiful. :)

    I also agree with you about stock breed "Hunters", though unfortunately we have way too many problems in the Arabian breed with our Hunter horses, too. Not the Sport Horses, and Hunter/Jumper entrants, but Hunter Pleasure. That class does have a "Suitability as a Hunter" provision, it's just routinely ignored.

    For the shirt and vest, have you seen This site? SuitAbility

    They have patterns for horse show clothes (and other things) in just about any discipline. For Western, you can create some REALLY cool clothes. :) I don't know what's "in" with the Saddlebreds, but there are so many fun things you can do!!

  3. I went to SuitAbility as soon as I was asked, and I went to Hobby Horse website to see what was being worn in the show ring. Most of the breed magazines feature saddleseat horses. I get the feeling that WP Sabblebreds are much more conservative in their clothing choices then most QH WP.
    One thing I found while exploring was a site that would sell Italian silk tie brocade. That is some beautiful stuff. It would make a great vest for saddleseat people. I think it may not have enough glitz for WP classes.
    Mom is suffering from the Tea and Toast syndrome.
    I suspected as much when I went to visit her in the first part of this month. Sent her to her doctor and sure enough, malnourishment. She has got plenty of money and access to food, it is just that eating by herself is boring and she can't taste food anymore. She nibbles a bit an tosses the rest out. I'm not sure how to address this problem, I live 6 hours away and she doesn't want to live with me. She is NOT fond of teens. Not at all, nope, no way, no how. I have three of the annoying creatures being rebellious,kind,stinky, compassionate,rude, or clean freaks by turn, living in my house right now and for at least the next year. So Mom is not going to move in with me. Mom can't stand my sister, she is too bossy. Kindergarten teachers who were MD's have a tendency to be that way I suppose. Both careers lead you to want to boss people around for their own good.

  4. Keeping your mom in our good thoughts, Kaede. Twenty or so years ago I had an elderly aunt who had been living alone and simply wasting away, because she refused to eat or drink much of anything. One day my grandmother (her sister) stopped in and found her passed out on the kitchen floor. On the table next to her was a plateful of food. Nothing to drink had been poured. Paramedics were called, and after reviving her on the way to the hospital, it was plain as day she was malnourished and dehydrated. :(

    Breeds like the Morgan, the Arabian, the Saddlebred and the Andalusian, for instance, tend to be a little bit more conservative in colors than the stock breeds. I don't like the bright neon colors like lime green, orange, lemon yellow and so on, but I do like jewel tones and a bit of understated flash. :) Not a lot, but a little bit, you can add a few rhinestones or even though it can look a little outdated, sequins, for a tiny bit of extra excitement.

    Here are really the only pictures I could find of ASB WP horses. Some of the attire is similar to what we see on the Arabian circuit.

    ASB Western 1
    ASB Western 2
    ASB Western 3
    ASB Western 4
    ASB Western 5

    Personally, I just look around at what I like, and use colors that compliment whatever horse I'm showing. I would love to see pictures of the finished product when you get them done!!


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