Since we explored the English world yesterday, we’re going to take on the flip-side at this time. If you’ve decided you would like to start showing your laid back mellow horse and figure his chosen path would probably include a Western saddle, let’s begin exploring the options you face and how to determine if he’s really the right candidate for those Western classes.
There are generally three things a horse under Western tack can do (other than speed events, of course, and those I won’t cover here): Ride the rail in a pleasure class, negotiate trail obstacles or work cattle. Western Riding and Reining are two additional classes, wherein the horse has to have the manners of a pleasure horse while executing a pattern of maneuvers not unlike a Western version of Dressage.
Pretty much all breeds can make good Western horses, depending on their mental attitude. While Paints and Quarter Horses seem tailor made for the discipline, you can find fantastic individuals who are Arabian, Morgan, Saddlebred and even Thoroughbred that have what it takes to excel.
What to look for in a Western pleasure mount is vastly different than a horse you’d like to work cattle on, so let’s start examining what you’ve got. First and foremost, he’ll need to have a calm disposition and prefer to take it easy. You don’t want him too lazy, but a smooth, slow gait is a mandatory requirement. If your horse tends to move easily within a tight frame keeping a cadenced, balanced look, he’ll probably make the ideal Western prospect. You’re not necessarily looking for a vastly different horse than can compete and win as a Hunter, but certain qualities needed for a world beater under English tack may not bode well for your Western horse.
A well shaped neck carried low yet not so the poll drops below the withers topped off with ears set nicely forward to compliment a silver headstall is the perfect place to start. Personally, I like to avoid seeing too straight of a neck and a horse lacking carriage, regardless of the breed, although many stock breed animals are either built or trained to carry themselves this way. He should have a good slope to his shoulder in order to ensure smooth movement, and well defined angles in his pasterns. Short-coupled horses with a relatively level croup and long hips with proper angles are beneficial, and good hocks are a must, preferably ever-so-slightly turned in for superior stopping ability. I generally look for a horse who looks effortless even cantering around in a pasture. He shouldn’t seem to be laboring at all...contrary to the popular belief of some.
For the stock breed enthusiasts, you may well have the opportunity to take that winning HUS mount and do really well in Western pleasure. Likewise with an Arabian Hunter pleasure horse. The key ingredient is a horse who can switch gears and go from being a forward-moving bold English mount to an expressive yet ultimately relaxed Western horse with the ease of a ballet dancer.
When seeking a candidate for the Trail class, you should be looking for a horse similar to one who can be competitive in Western pleasure. One important factor to remember, however, is that he must not be easily ruffled and he’s got to have far more concentration than needed to go down the rail. If you are negotiating a gate obstacle, he must follow the instructions that his rider gives him implicitly and with a great deal of steadiness. You don’t want him running backwards while you’re attempting to close the gate. When you’re jogging or loping over poles on the ground, he can’t be thinking about leaping as far over them as he can, in fear of hitting one with an errant hoof.
He’s got to be solid enough to pay extremely close attention to every cue while working his way through a backing pattern and he’d better be able to handle the extra-ordinary that would spook a lot of horses -- like dragging a sack full of noisy aluminum cans, walking across a plastic tarp covered in water or carrying his rider through a maze of old tires. Something many trainers look for in a horse to compete on in Trail is one who’s very careful in where he places his feet. If he doesn’t like to crack a log with a hoof, as long as he doesn’t take off if he DOES touch one, he more than likely isn’t going to make his rider worry about demolishing the obstacle and will be an excellent Trail class candidate.
For those looking to compete in either Western Riding or Reining, not only do you want a superiorly athletic horse, he must be light on the reins and have the capacity to respond accurately, quickly and without a fuss. Quiet mouthed horses are paramount and you’ve got to be certain he’ll keep his momentum during the entire pattern. If you ask for a change of direction, and along with it a change of lead, your horse had better give it to you immediately. Should you request a change of frame and speed, the reaction had better be precise and smooth. The horse must be able to handle the rigors of many transitions over the course of a pattern while paying strict attention to detail in the cues given him.
On the other hand, you could look into working cattle, and if that’s your destination there are three separate events you can partake in: Cutting, Reined Cow and Working Cow. The goal of a Cutting horse is relatively simple, but the most difficult to pull off a flawless performance. Bring each chosen steer out of the herd and keep them apart for a specified time, while allowing the horse to do his job almost entirely on his own. Some say it’s more like a sixth sense, and it does require a special horse. The Reined cow and Working cow classes also, as evidenced by their very names, involve cattle, but you will have specific maneuvers you will have to execute with the cow you draw to work. For any of these divisions you will need a horse who is neither afraid of the cow or afraid to be aggressive. The level of concentration required for working cattle in any show ring capacity is of utmost consideration and you need to be sure your cow horse prospect is going to give 110% every class, although this should be a standard requirement for ANY show horse.
With the various breeds and classes we’ve addressed above, there is only one real choice for a saddle -- but make sure the configuration of the Western saddle you choose is best for you (and your horse!). Be certain you pick a saddle that conforms to your horse, one that fits him properly, adheres to rule book specifications and has all the requisite fittings, then you’ll do just fine.
Similarly, there is little variance which exists in bridles and bits, other than the preferred length of curb shank and the mouthpieces. As with the English disciplines, however, you need to know what bits are legal and which ones are not. More information on this topic will be available in a future post, which outline various bits and their proper usage. As long as you follow the rules of your chosen breed and division, while finding out what your horse works best in, the bridle he’s wearing will be of little consequence. Good luck!