It’s no secret in the equestrian world that riders of different disciplines tend to not get along. We all think our own way of riding is the best, which automatically makes all others the worst. Western pleasure riders think us hunter jumpers and dressage queens are royally stuck up, and we think that western pleasure is too easy and boring. I could go on – and I’m sure you could add to – about all the different perceptions we have of each other.
What we tend to overlook is that we all love horses. And that’s a pretty significant common bond.
There is not really a right way to ride or a wrong way to ride (not to be confused with considerate versus cruel riding). The right way for any given horse is how he has been trained and to what cues he knows to respond.
This whole concept was amplified for me when last week my western pleasure riding buddies threw me up on one of their horses to give the whole western thing a shot. I wish I had a picture of me … decked out in breeches, tall boots, and helmet … up on the western saddle with big ol’ western roweled spurs on under my 3/4 inch English ones trying to ride western pleasure. I’m sure it looked hilarious – but I wasn’t about to pass up such a good learning opportunity!
The girls found it hard to believe that I’d never been on a western horse before. Sure, I’d been in western saddles plenty of times, but never on a truly pleasure-trained Quarter Horse. It was harder than learning to drive for the first time. Despite a lifetime of riding (English) horses, I suddenly didn’t know where the brakes or gas were, and I sure didn’t know how to put the thing in gear. Fortunately, my mount was a very well-trained and forgiving mount, who did exactly as I asked when I finally figured out how to ask him correctly.
Between that short time in the western saddle, and months of picking the brains of fellow riders at my barn, I’m starting to figure out this whole western pleasure thing.
So, for all my fellow English snobs out there, here’s a brief tutorial in what to look for in a western pleasure horse and how to ride one. And if you are a western rider, please feel free to jump in and continue my education or correct me if I don’t have something just right!
What To Look For In Western Pleasure Movement
Western pleasure Quarter Horses are usually those who are a medium build for their breed. I would guess that anything around 15 hands, giver or take a few inches is ideal. They have stockier builds. Quarter Horses who grow tall and lean tend to be used as hunters.
Contrary to popular belief (and my formerly best guess), it’s not about which western pleasure horse can go the slowest. Yes, they are slow. But of high importance is how they use their legs. Their legs should sweep out in front of them, with as little knee and hock action as possible. A horse with a great lope (we have one of these at our barn, so I’ve had a great visual tutorial) almost looks like he is stabbing the ground with his leading front leg as he sweeps it out in front of him while keeping it straight. Their tempo in all three gaits (walk, jog, and lope) should be consistent. The lope should be a true three beats with lots of impulsion from the hind end. The poll should be at wither height, and the carriage level from back to front. Their movement is very collected while going on a long rein.
To get an idea of what to look for, check out this video of a horse who is a multiple time western pleasure champion at both the World Show and Congress:
How To Ride A Western Pleasure Horse
Even trickier than figuring out how a western pleasure horse should move, was figuring out how to get him to do it. All of the cues were different, not to mention I was learning to ride with my stirrups a good foot longer than I’m accustomed.
Western pleasure horses, when trained well, are ridden entirely from the seat and leg. You don’t want to ever have to touch them in mouth. After a lifetime of riding English, squeezing a horse to get him to stop or slow down was totally counter-intuitive. If you ever have the chance to get on a western trained horse, here’s what you need to know to get the very basics.
Western Pleasure Go: Bump With The Spurs
The gas peddle for a western pleasure horse is bumping him with your legs or spurs. A short jab is all it should take. If that doesn’t work, several short jabs in succession. This works for walk and jog. To ask for a lope, slide the outside leg back and bump with it only. Oh, and a cluck means jog a kiss means lope.
Western Pleasure Stop: Squeeze Your Legs
The brakes for a western pleasure horse are squeezing with your legs. I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to squeeze my horse with the spurs when I wanted him to stop. It’s not that I had to squeeze hard or was coming remotely close to hurting him, it’s just that it was completely backwards for me. But when I finally got myself to do it, it totally worked!
Western Pleasure Turn: Outside Leg
Yes western pleasure are trained to neck rein. However, you also primarily use your legs to get them to turn. Unlike English horses who are taught to bend around your inside leg, western horses move away from outside leg pressure.
Western Pleasure Riding Position
The first thing the girls told me was that I was moving too much in the saddle and to sit still. When I first learned to ride, it took a long time for me to relax through my back and core and develop an active following motion. I had to unlearn all of that in my brief western pleasure ride. It was so hard for me to stiffen up, sit deep, and allow my hips to move only so slightly.
“This is so hard!” I cried.
“See!” They said. “And everyone thinks western pleasure is so easy!”
I am here to personally vouch for the fact that riding western pleasure is quite difficult … especially if you’ve been trained to ride English.
The other thing that was hard was wrapping my lower legs around the horse’s sides, keeping them still and with slight pressure with the spurs. My body wasn’t used to it – especially with such long stirrups – and I’m used to having shorter stirrups as my anchor.
The amazing thing was though, when I got my seat to deepen, my back to stiffen, and my legs to wrap, the horse immediately slowed, collected, and moved with some great impulsion. For a few strides, I really really got the whole western pleasure thing.
I was on Cloud 9 the rest of the evening. I’d always wanted to ride a real western pleasure horse. I got to learn something new. And I had a great evening with some fellow horse lovers – who while they come from a different discipline are turning into wonderful friends.
And yah know what else? The more I ask them about western pleasure horses and riding in an effort to understand, the more they start asking me about English!