Western Pleasure

Do You Have What it Takes to Compete?

Western pleasure is one of the most competitive and popular classes you will find at just about any horse show.

It is a class that many exhibitors strive for with their mounts. It is also a class that has endured years of criticism from the horse community due to previous judging criteria and how the horses moved in the class.

western pleasureA seemingly easy class to compete in when watching from the rail, western pleasure is actually one of the more difficult classes to show in. What you as the spectator don't notice are very subtle cues from rider to horse to help keep the horse consistent while moving down the rail.

There are a lot of factors to take into consideration when deciding to pursue showing in this class. You need a basic understanding of what will be required of you in the class, what the judging criteria is, and what to look for in a western pleasure horse.

Class Breakdown

In a western pleasure class you will be judged concurrently with the other competitors entered in the class. Each horse enters the ring and is judged on the rail at the walk, jog, extended jog (sometimes), and lope in both directions. If you are at a larger show (national or world level) you will be required to jog your horse in front of a lineup of judges before finding a spot on the rail.

A Video Example of Western Pleasure at the AQHA World Show

You will be showing your horse on a reasonably loose rein for the relaxed "pleasure to ride" appearance.

During the class you will want to remain on the rail with your horse if possible. If you have to pass a rider in front of you, make sure you pass to the inside of that horse and get back on the rail when at a respectful distance in front of that horse. Keeping your horse at a consistent pace is key in this class.

When you are asked to reverse your horse, you will most likely want to keep him going forward. You may see some riders stop their horses and pivot on the haunches to reverse directions. This is a method of reversing that used to be done at the shows, but is largely not accepted anymore. Usually you will be asked to reverse at the walk/jog or reverse and continue to walk/jog. The key is to keep your horses moving forward, only stopping when the announcer specifically asks you to stop. You will ALWAYS want to turn your horse toward the inside or away from the rail when reversing.

Western pleasure is actually more about forward motion. Now I don't mean racing around the ring, but keeping your horse collected and engaged through the hind end while moving out.

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Judging Criteria

A western pleasure class is judged on a combination of performance, conformation, and condition of the horse. A bulk of the judging (80%) is placed on the how the horse performs or moves in the class.

Judges are looking for a western pleasure horse to move with a balanced, free-flowing motion. The top line of the horse includes a poll that is level to or just above the withers, and a head that is carried with the nose only slightly ahead of the vertical with alert ears.

Each gait in this class are described for clear judging criteria:
Walk: Natural four beat gait that is flat-footed and suitable to the horse's conformation and size
Jog: A two beat gait that should appear smooth, balanced, and proportional to the horse. Horses seen walking in the hind legs and jogging in the front are not performing a true gait.
Lope: A THREE beat gait that is best when it is smooth and relaxed. Horses moving with a jog in the hind end and lope in front are performing what has famously been referred to as "four-beating" or "troping". These horses ARE NOT performing a true gait. Typically you will hear the announcer call "lope with a slight increase in forward motion" which indicates a request to move your horse at a true lope and not an untrue gait just to keep him slow.

Horse & Rider Faults

In a western pleasure class, the key is to remain as smooth, balanced, and consistent as possible. There are some faults that the judge(s) will be watching for from both you as the rider and your horse. How much you are penalized for these faults is really at the discretion of the judge(s).

Minor faults typically include gaits that are inconsistent (too slow or fast) in the horse. Also considered minor faults are how the horse appears while moving at all gaits. For example, a horse that carries its head either over or under flexed, pinned ears, excessive tail motion, or is unbalanced can get marked down by the judges for minor faults.

Major faults typically include a horse moving nervously or dully at the walk, breaking into a jog while working at the walk, moving at an untrue gait while working the jog or lope, breaking gait from the jog or lope, pulling, head throwing, stumbling, incorrect leads, gapping, head too low, and a rider touching the horse or saddle with the free hand.

There are also guidelines judges use for disqualifying (DQ) or eliminating competitors from the class. If you are eliminated from the class you will likely not be considered when the judge is placing the class. For most DQ faults in the class you will be allowed to continue, but there are some things that will get you pulled to the center.

Eliminating faults include but are not limited to: a horse that refuses to work at the walk, breaks gait at the jog, is not under control at the lope, is not extended when working an extended jog, refuses to back when asked or rears during backing, constantly breaks gait through the class, kicks during the class, is lame during the class, falls during the class, or has illegal equipment.

Rider eliminating faults include falling from the horse, using two hands on the reins (except when using a hackamore or snaffle), has more than one finger between the reins, or cues in front of the cinch.

The Western Pleasure Horse

Some horses are naturally more talented than others for competing in the western pleasure class. Whether you are looking for a pleasure horse or deciding if your horse has what it takes, there are a few basic things to look for in a horse's conformation and movement.

The best western pleasure horses are built to move with a level top line (as we discussed above). This is best attributed to how the horse is put together, or the conformation of the horse. You want to look for a horse that has a nice slope to his shoulder, a strong top line, low hocks, and is overall athletic in appearance.

Just having the basic conformation components definitely helps, but in no way locks you in for a world championship. You also need to be aware of how well the horse moves at all gaits both on the lunge line and under saddle. Look for flatness through the knees at the jog and lope, a nice lift in the shoulders during the lope, and a smooth and deep hock when moving at the jog and lope.

A good western pleasure candidate will also have an eager and willing attitude. He will fit in the overall appearance the judge is looking for in your horse while travelling down the rail.

If you are considering showing in western pleasure I highly recommend consulting a professional. He/she can help you determine if this is the class for you and give you some valuable advice when working with your horse. If you are shopping for a new horse for this class, a professional can help be an extra set of eyes when considering certain horses for purchase.

A horse professional may also have some connections on horses you may never have known about if you went on your own looking for a new horse.

Western pleasure is a fun class that has a different set of challenges than other classes. Bottom line when showing in this class, HAVE FUN!

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