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.
DELINEATING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE BASIC FOUNDATION AND SHOW RING TRAINING...
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!