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.”
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.