From a Western Pleasure lover: Let them move

I know many of us who love pleasure horses have sat in the very situation I found myself in once again today as I was watching the live feed from Quarter Horse Congress at my computer.

A colleague strolled up and asked, “What are you watching?” Relishing some interest in my passion, I happily responded, talking about the huge show in Columbus, Ohio, that takes place each year. Looking at my screen his face screws up in confusion, and I know what’s coming next as the western pleasure futurity horses lope down the rail. I’m already scrambling for an answer when he asks, “Now, why are they walking like that? Are they sick? They look so sad.” 

Sigh.

Western pleasure has been under fire for decades. The peanut rollers of the 1980s brought inhumane methods such as bleeding and tying up of horses’ heads to create that lethargic look. AQHA responded in the 1990s by issuing requirements that the horse’s poll not be below his withers and ruling that light contact should replace draped reins. (Whatever happened to that anyhow? Did the growing popularity of the spur stop make them simply change their minds?) These days, judges call for a “moderate extension of the jog” as a regular class gait. But often there is little perceivable difference in the gaits. It seems more of AQHA’s way of saying “well we told them to move faster. What can ya do?”

Talk rages among even AQHA members about the class as the horses seem to get slower and slower. On one side you have the argument that the horses are bred to move this way. That is true, to an extent. With level toplines, foals lope across the arenas next to their mommas with the deep hocks and flat front leg that will make them successful in the show pen.  But on the other hand, as western pleasure becomes more and more competitive, the lope becomes more and more artificial. Western pleasure horses are practically a gaited breed, and you need a trainer to help you maintain that gait. Overly-canted hindquarters — when the hind end is pushed toward the center of the circle, helping the horse reach ultimate collection and stay slow — are now the norm, when once upon a time straightness was emphasized. (See video above.)

Watching the warm-up pens and horses being worked at shows has become painful, even for those of us that understand what all those draw reins and ‘bumping’ on the horse’s mouth is for. And more than a few horsemen, once competitors in the class and supporters of western pleasure, can no longer stomach what the class has become. So what would the general public think if they were to come across one of our warm-up pens? It’s doubtful we’re drawing them in and making them want to ride western pleasure, that’s for sure. Who wants to ride the “sad,” “sick” horses?

And the futurities are the worst. I applaud efforts to create more maiden events for 3-year-olds. But watching 2-year-olds try their best to lope that way is doing no one any favors, least of all the horses. All but the very top babies don’t seem to know what in the world to do with their legs as they are told to lope, but barely move. They hesitate at the oddest of times. They jerk their feet down. Their steps are uneven. There is absolutely nothing flowing or pretty about them. Not to mention the physical damage that is being done to their hocks and other joints.What they really need is just the permission to flow forward ever so slightly. Would this be such a crime? Dressage horses aren’t expected to start out performing passage poorly around the arena. They are worked up to the collection required. Western pleasure should be no different and forwardness in a 2-year-old should be rewarded.

So what’s to be done? I actually think it’s fairly simple. For one, judges need to finally take a stand. No one is going to stop doing it if it’s what wins. I don’t care who is sitting on the back of that horse, if it’s going too slow, give it the gate. Even if no one is left in the end.

Two, look to the western riding horses. (See video below.) The speed they maintain through their patterns is hardly roaring around the arena, but it is, frankly, more reasonable. The horses’ expressions are often more alert and pleasant. The way of going is more natural. The topline is still flat. The movement is still lovely to watch. It’s such a small correction, but it is one that would make a world of difference.

While I agree there are a top few that can successfully pull off the extreme slow speeds now seen in western pleasure, the rest completely fall apart at that speed. So move them forward. And I’d also argue that even the insanely talented ones that aren’t falling apart would still look even better if they were moving forward with a more flowing stride.

Our horses are of better quality than they have ever been. It is truly awe-inspiring to see just how many excellent horses there are out there showing today. But we can do better. Let them do what we bred them for. Let them move.

Another great article about the future of western pleasure can be found at the Equine Chronicle: Correctness, Cadence, and Redefining the Purpose of Western Pleasure Take the Spotlight in 2015.

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7 thoughts on “From a Western Pleasure lover: Let them move

  1. What these trainers or owners do to make these horses move/hop is nothing more than animal cruelty. How do you say you love horses, and do this to them? It has to stop, and the judges are just as much at fault for allowing it to be called “Western Pleasure” It will never stop until the leaders of the associations put a stop to it.
    Julie Johansen- but not really anonymous
    I'll just ride my horse with love and his natural ability!

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  2. I have ridden horses for most of my life. I am not a professional but I feel that I am informed and knowledgeable enough to keep, care for and ride my horses for the pure pleasure of just being around and living with horses. When I watch videos like this I am just appalled. I just cannot understand why these “trainers”, take a lovely and beautiful natural mover and force/”train”(yes, there is that word again) them into these weird, halting, broken and CROOKED ways of moving. Honestly, WHO came up with this type of riding?? It is so utterly ridiculous that I just cannot sit still watching it, it makes me feel like that horse must feel…totally controlled, fearful and broken. You cannot tell me that there is a horse out there that is born with a gait like this, none! These horses are so beautiful and talented, why are they forced into this unnatural and robotic way of going?? I just can not understand why an Association of this size, the AQHA, doesn't have it's members protesting this way of riding!? How can the people who ride in the classes think that this is normal and okay? They need to get on a horse that can MOVE, unencumbered and flowing through every gait, that was schooled/trained to embrace each and every natural way of going, through the walk, jog, lope and canter. I have to wonder if some of these riders have ever sat on a naturally moving horse? The Associations/Clubs that promote this are failing at what they were intended to do. They don't even follow their own rules about head carriage, moving straight down the rail and natural movement in general. I don't get it! Seriously, these horses look lame and unsound. True horsemen can't be happy with this ridiculous way of riding! I know their horses aren't. Take a stand and start riding your horse right, after all, it is called Western “Pleasure”. Put that pleasure back in your ride!
    Not anonymous, Juanita Everson

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  3. Straightness notice how far up the training scale Straightness is. The horse will have been in work developing his forward impulsive rhythmical, relaxed strengths on both sides going both ways and during up and down transitions, working in a frame with light non resistant contact for a number of years. His little particular to him weakness will have been discovered be they physical or emotional, and exercises to build up his strengths while keeping him confident and happily moving forward will be carefully preserved. He will be asked more and more to be straight, which is the hind feet stepping into the tracks of the corresponding front feet, while doing his work on the straight, in circles, laterally and especially not deviating while doing transitions up or down either between or within a gait. This takes great mental and physical strength from the horse to learn, without forcing any part with a “Gadget or Headsetting device or reins” to be straight in its work. It simply takes time to develop both sides of ANY athlete. Think of how long dancers and ice dancing pairs have to dance or skate before reaching the top of their sport, YEARS to perfect moves both ways, yet we expect horses to do the same while still growing and developing?? A horse will silently try to comply to our wishes before it is ready by contorting itself into “Unnatural” positions to please us and frequently become lame from improperly using itself while trying over and over and over in endless small circles heads and tails tied however we visualize they should be. This is unfair and the horse will show it with the dejected look and way of going you often see. Collection is the pinnacle and mostly not fully achieved before the horse is 7 to 9 years of age, a full grown adult horse in the prime of their lives with maximum hind end carrying and pushing strengths developed over years of careful bi lateral training. Collection is a very forward moving horse that has been asked to coil up like a spring and now Dance while moving forward. It is that excited horse in your field running free and snorting at something, and then coming down a little and it starts “prancing and dancing around full of vigor and itself. That is Collection. To Collect means to Gather, and in riding the thing we are collecting or gathering is energy, not dampening the energy, but rather compressing it to make it burn hotter. Think of taking the energy of a 150 watt light bulb and stuffing it into a 40 watt light bulb to make a brighter more intense light. That my friends is Collection. and just as putting all that energy into a very small space to compress it to make “More” out of it doesn't last long before exploding or burning out, so it is with Collecting the horse. You don't want to ask for it for too long or often or the horse will burn out. Anyhow I hope that Western Dressage embraces the training scale in its programs so once again fine Western riding horses can be seen again, with proud carriage and the look of a horse ready to get out a run across the range and chase some cattle if needed.

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  4. By following the training scale relaxation, rhythm, contact, impulsion, straightness and least important but requiring the most fitness and maturity Collection. All aspects of training be it in circles, transitions, lateral moves, even jumping this training scale is looked to as the steps to achieving each new goal or level. Relaxation doesn't mean the horse looks dejected, with its head hanging afraid to lift it, poll below the withers, eyes in a glazed stare of hopelessness, relaxation is a horse going along with his ears up aware of its surroundings, blowing through its nose in deep relaxed happy breaths, all while moving forward in its natural pace, feeling and looking like perpetual motion, tail swinging and a slight foam in the mouth are all signs the horse is relaxed the entire length of its spine from jaw to tail. Rhythm is the horse maintaining that “relaxed” free FORWARD motion, going in a nice metronome tic toc beat, while turning and performing lateral movements and transitions up and down. It is NOT a horse cantering on the front legs and trotting (kinda sorta) behind with its butt poked inside the track, going Hobbilty Gibb, Hobbilty Gibb… contact is the horse accepting the feel of the bit in its mouth while being gently guided by the STEADY hand holding the reins. The best way to describe contact is the feeling one has while holding a loved one's hand be it a 2 year old child or the reins of the bit in a 2 year old horse's mouth, neither of which you would ever “Jerk” except in an extreme emergency to pull either out of harms way.The acceptance of contact is built on trust that the hand holding the reins is not going to bump or bang, jerk or hang onto those reins, just as you would not jerk a child around, nor squeeze their hand too tightly that it hurt the child nor the horse would want your hand holding them for very long! The contact when holding hands is there is it a pleasurable thing for both parties with one party trusting the other to lead. It should be the same for your horse.The nose should ALWAYS be ahead of the vertical in most of its work and the neck Carried up in the shoulders with a steady continuous arch from wither to poll, from correctly developed “Self Carriage” muscling along it, It should not hang like a clothesline between wither and poll lank and undeveloped nor should it have a big kink in it like a bent pipe, on the top from being tied or held in place while in training. God gave the horse a long neck to carry its head up so it could see and to act as a moving counterbalance for the horse while moving and turning. Impulsion is that through all work so far the horse looks like he is willing to work and continue working. It has a positive look through the bridle, is interested in its surroundings, and most important has its head, neck, forehand/shoulders up and moving freely over its back with the energy “Pushing” the horse forward from behind where the largest weight carrying muscles and joints are. The horse appears to be a rear wheel drive with a happy forward “Up” look to it, not a horse with its head and neck below the withers, front feet banging with straight legs into the ground, and unmoving stiff back, non tracking up hind legs and an unmoving tail all sure signs of a stiff artificial topline, and a dragging itself along dejected “Front Wheel drive” horse.

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  5. Firstly this whole group of horse owners/trainers/riders needs to understand “What” Collection “IS”. Collection IS the most FORWARD and should be EXCITING gait to watch! Collection and submission should not be confused with what you see in these videos which is Dejection and subservience.

    IWhen developng Dressage horses, they are started possibly as 2 year olds with maximum 30 days under saddle and working mostly on ground work, driving and short sessions of lungeing at WTC both ways, and quiet rides in straight lines (trails) or large circles. Then they are turned out if they don't get backed also no Biggy as we are “DEVELOPING' a horse for performance that will peak as a 10 year old and stay sound late into its teens. As a three year old they are brought in, refreshed and worked for 60 days max. Same work as two year old maybe lateral work introduced, slightly smaller circles and introduced to contact, but mainly they are ridden forward, forward, forward ahead of the leg and rhythm, relaxation, and suppleness through turns and transitions are the main goals. Then they are turned out again until the spring of their 4th year. Brought back in refreshed and off to work they go.

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  6. I think even the western riding horse was hardly an improvement on the western pleasure, both look unnatural in their stance and movement. They almost 'bunny hop' in the rear at the lope (and I use that term loosely), where is the topline level – the horses head is below his knees and I can't see that his ears are even with his withers, but below. The Quarter horse is a working breed, let them move naturally! Would you want to be on something like that heading out to get somewhere? No, I don't think so, unless you've got all day and nowhere to go.

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