When someone brings to mind the ideal horse, generally their individual personal preference dominates the vision. For me, it’s a long-legged, graceful, tall, long-necked and high trotting English horse.
In determining what’s going to constitute that “perfect” prospect for the Saddleseat disciplines, I’ll be looking at animals with certain, specific qualities like a well laid back shoulder, neck set high out of the withers with a really flexible hinge at the poll, a good open shoulder angle that will dictate freedom of movement, low, well angulated hocks for that necessary power, a deep hip for added strength and, above all most importantly, the attitude.
As a rule when I evaluate horses I like watching them on a longeline and either ridden or at least in longlines, but the true tale is told when watching a horse at liberty -- this gives you an idea of their natural carriage, which is a must see when selecting candidates for a flat saddle career. Despite popular opinion, however, most good, naturally gifted English prospects aren’t notably fancy movers while turned out. A good way you can get a hint at such ability is merely observing front end carriage (as opposed to knee action itself) and the ability to fold their hocks tightly.
Weeding out unsuitable horses is fairly simple, if for no other reason than there are so few of them, particularly if you wish to acquire an English Pleasure or Park horse as opposed to a Country English mount. An innate talent is also easy to spot: He’ll be the aloof horse with his tail flung over his back, prancing all about and signifying to you, “Hey, here I am!!!”
My first challenge, after selection and purchase, when embarking on the training of a Saddleseat horse is to teach him forward movement and how to carry himself naturally in that high, elegant frame. I want to stay out of his face as much as possible to start and for that reason, like all other disciplines, I’ll begin with longlines in the round pen. Not until much later will I even ask for a tuck into the bridle, right now I just want to see a long, free stride, an effort to pull his hocks well up underneath him and bending his lumbar-sacral joint correctly, as well as elevating his neck clear into raising his shoulders.
Let’s assume this horse can give me a nice, unrushed, flat-footed walk, he can trot up square (even if it’s sloppy) and he can canter straight on both leads. I don’t like a horse who anticipates gait changes and I want a horse who will calmly ease into the gaits he is asked for.
My next challenge is to transform that easygoing, forward, flat-footed walk into a pretty animated walk. The horse should be able to understand the beginning elements of collection from the rear (through the hindquarters...NOT simply a headset!) and should readily half-halt when I request it. Elevation depends on a minor amount of such collection, that’s where the flashy English horse walk will come from.
Trotting is a bit more difficult, but using the same concepts I want the horse prohibited from going off too forward, instead focusing his motion up with a free, raised shoulder rather than out like you would for a Hunter-type horse. At first, especially with the trot, I want to completely stay out of the horse’s way. It’s not enough to ride them up into the bridle so soon, because all that will do is hamper their forward impulsion.
Same with the canter, I’d like to see a horse who will freely lift his shoulder and rock backward toward my hands. The departure should also be easy and smooth, with his rear end tucked up under himself and STRAIGHT. One of my pet peeves is a rider or trainer who literally throws a horse into the canter by shoving their nose toward the rail and pushing them off balance in order to pick up the right lead. So many do this, but I have an idea, guys: What about training them how to do it right in the first place?! You know, a little bit of extra effort?
With the flat saddle English horse divisions, there are several options. Most of these animals will fall into the Country English Pleasure division, where they need to be more laid back, not as fancy a mover and have more qualities suitable for a small child or petite lady to ride. English Pleasure horses are higher trotting, more extreme in the level of collection required and a bit further up the ladder of the English disciplines. The absolute pinnacle of a flat saddle mount, the Park horses are our show ring’s ‘fire breathing dragons’. In addition, there are a variety of other classes and divisions best suited for the elegant English-type horse, including Driving (and like Country English Pleasure/English Pleasure/Park there are Country Pleasure Driving/Pleasure Driving/Formal Driving events), Arabian Native Costume (although an Arabian horse of any type can compete in these classes, the flat saddle mount is almost always the most popular choice) and English Show Hack (which is what I characterize as a rail class based on Dressage principles, though the trend is toward an upright, trotty English horse).
Once I have consistency out of the horse over a period of several months, building each step so the horse is confident and strong, I’ll be planning for a few smaller schooling-type horse shows to make sure he’s ready for a new and exciting environment in which to show off that English horse attitude, plus his flash and vigor. All I’m looking for out of him at these early outings is cooperation, an ease of adapting to the show ring and keeping his wits about him when unexpected things happen (...like encountering banners on the arena fence or having donkeys start braying loudly as he’s trotting down the rail!).
Not unlike their Western counterparts, how English horses handle the excitement as well as those new sights, sounds and smells of a horse show in this low key setting will tell me a lot about how proficient they’re going to become as show horses. With a youngster, we’ll be shooting for the Futurities if all goes well. Scottsdale in February has a big one for English Pleasure mounts, then it’s on to the Fall show in Santa Barbara and hopefully to the Nationals in October. As I have already explained, I don’t like even entering a horse in a pre-entry show unless he’s READY when entries close (usually about 1-2 months before the show). It can be tough when you have a three year old, because only the very best students are going to be ready in February, because that means you have to start them at least in October or November of their two year old year in order to know they’ll be ready by mid-December when those entries are expected to be in the show secretary’s office. This is exactly why I prefer to show four year olds as Futurity horses as opposed to the three year olds.
Campaigning an English horse is no different than his Western and Hunter cohorts, outlining the ladder steps to qualifying shows, Regional Championships and National Championships, so please refer to postings over the last two days for all the minutiae and details. Happy showing!