A Tutorial In Western Pleasure Riding For Us English Snobs

Jan 20, 2010 30 Comments by

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!

Featured, Horse Issues, Riding and showing, Women and Horses

30 Responses to “A Tutorial In Western Pleasure Riding For Us English Snobs”

  1. greyhorsematters says:

    All horse lovers can learn from each other and in my opinion they should. I’m all about the welfare of the horse no matter what discipline you ride in, be it Western or English. I’ve been in western saddles on trail rides and can vouch for the fact that it’s a very different feeling than I was used to, I actually thought I might fall off at first. I guess it just comes down to what you’re used to. As for English riders being snobbish, I’ve found the pendulum swings both ways.

  2. Jackie says:

    GHM: Hehe – yep, we have our snobbish bad eggs in all disciplines. It really comes down to personal bias more than anything I think. I just find it so sad when we get so stuck on what we do, that we don’t see the merit in other types of riding.

    One thing I learned is that western saddles are very comfortable when you actually ride western. I always hated them and thought they were horribly uncomfortable – but that’s because I was always riding an English horse and using my English position and training. The western saddle was great with a western-trained horse. Made all the difference in the world.

  3. Michelle says:

    What a great overview of western pleasure! I’m very impressed with all that you’ve learned in your brief foray out of the english world! The spur stop is quite counter-intuitive, isn’t it? And yet so much fun when you get the hang of it!

  4. risingrainbow says:

    Jackie, as you might have guessed western pleasure can mean different things in different breeds. While the AQHA horses are using long sweeping movements, a pretty moving Arabian is considered to be a horse that lifts its knees and hocks in a fluid motion. The most important part is the smoothness of the gait. There should be little movement on the part of the rider if a horse is indeed a nice mover that however does not mean riding with a stiff back. Also a good moving horse will bob its head very little at the lope or hand gallop.

    Also cues can be specific to training style. A jab with a spur is only a correction, not a cue, with many trainers that I know. Light leg pressure is all it takes for the cue although some trainers will use the click for a jog and cluck for a lope. My horses slow down with a slight move forward of my feet and pressure from my seat. The amount of movement of the feet and pressure of my seat will determine how much that slow down is to be.

    It’s also interesting to note that many well- trained Arabian horses can be cued by just the rider’s thought. No other cue is necessary the horses are so intuitive.

    It isn’t just difficult to ride a western horse. It is difficult to train as well. I know from personal experience it is much easier to finish an english pleasure, hunter pleasure or lower level dressage horse than to finish a western pleasure horse. There’s much more collection required to accomplish those slow western gaits than the longer gaits of those other disciplines. Obvioiusly the more collection required, the more difficult it is for the horse which equates to more work and skill for the trainer. Although I might add that is if the horse is taught to do the gaits correctly instead of being intimidated into slowing down. There’s a big difference between those two types of training as well as in the finished look of the horse.

    For me personally, I don’t care what discipline people ride. I think it’s important the discipline be suited to the horse. Trying to make a horse that wants to move out like a hunter become a western horse can only result in frustration for both horse and rider.

    Oh, and good for you! Taking the risk and trying something new!!

  5. Jackie says:

    risingrainbow – thank you so much for chiming in with the brief tutorial in Arabian Western Pleasure! I’m a long-time reader of your blog and thought of you the whole time I wrote this post – knowing that stockhorse western pleasure was still a completely different beast from the Arabian style. I have a feeling I would be much more successful riding an Arabian western pleasure – the cues are more similar to my hunter/jumper and dressage style. Plus I love horses with a little bit of spirit!

  6. Christine says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I ride western, and am the only one who does at my barn. Even though they are nice they seem to be slight english snobs, and it appears as if they look down on me for it. I just think to myself, “If only you would get on my horse right now, you’d see it’s harder than it looks…”
    Thank you for publishing!

  7. Sue says:

    Nice overview, thanks! I’m English I suppose, but only recently in life. The nutty horses I rode Western when I was young certainly didn’t go like this one! He’s lovely.

    But I have to confess, I just can’t get used to the head set. The horses look depressed to me. Otherwise, it looks so smooth and easy for the rider – guess that’s the point, eh?

    Ride on!

  8. katphoti says:

    I don’t understand this current trend of the shuffling horse, peanut roller headeset, and dead tail. These horses do not seem to be any kind of pleasure to ride, whether English or Western. Bumping your horse repeatedly to make him go? That should deaden his sides pretty quickly. Squeezing your legs to stop? Stiffen up when riding? No wonder these horses hardly move and look crippled. That is counterproductive and ridiculous riding instruction that ruins both riders and horses alike. True riding, no matter what discipline, is based in moving with your horse and using your seat and leg aids to encourage forward movement, balance and cadence. These poor horses have none of that.

    Overall, there are snobs in every discipline, and WP is no different. I have met plenty of snobbish WP riders. Everyone thinks their own discipline is the best and that no one else understands how it works. The sad part is that in most disciplines, all I see are horses that are purposefully forced into a certain look that is desired in the show ring and that judges keep rewarding, so we are creating parodies of what our horses once were.

    I have spent years riding gaited horses wrong until I realized that how I was riding was actually hindering them and forcing them into a frame that was counterproductive to them being sound over time. (And no, my gaited horses do not wear heavy shoes–they are barefoot and are shown naturally with sound horse organizations using basic dressage principles.) All of us need to start making the realization that forcing a horse into moving poorly for the overall conformation of the horse, no matter what discipline, is not only creating unsound horses, but it’s creating a poor image and is a detriment to all types of riding. May we all stop succumbing to trends and fashion and start riding our horses correctly overall.

  9. carolyn Hatch payne says:

    I used to ride western pleasure back the 70’s I have found the rules and way of going has changed quite a bit. I was originaly taught englsh pleasure, and hunter jumper syle. I found the cues were basicly the same but as I said times have changed alot. The love we have for horses should unite us no matter our riding disipline. I ride TWH’s now (flat shod) and tell the twh people there is no such thing as a bad horse or style it depends on the person! Just love em and enjoy the ride no matter what style it is!

  10. Cut-N-Jump says:

    As a few others have said, there are snobs to be found in every breed, every discipline across the board. From my screen name you may see that yes I ride both. Or maybe rather all three. I ride hunter/jumpers as well as cutters, but since our horses are all started with the basics in dressage- well it’s pretty easy to do any of the basic reining patterns and pleasure classes too.

    Hunters or WP- cluck, click or kiss for any gaits, problem is, your horse hears another rider asking for a gait change, they could anticipate and pick it up too. So much for your horse listening only to you.

    The problem with the show rings anymore- the trends are a gross display of how far off from their origination each discipline has gone. Many people want to win and they want it NOW! Shortcuts, gimmicks and cheat methods abound and the horses are the ones who pay in the end. Futurities encourage the start them young and show the horse before they are ready. While people abhor the racing crowd for starting babies to have them racing by 2, futurity barns are doing the same, yet go unscathed.

    I wouldn’t say English riders are snobs. I have seen just as bad in some of the tougher sports like rodeo. Now there is a real clash worthy comparison! English vs. western is one thing, but showing vs. rodeo- whole different dogfight. I can handle being considered a snob for expecting my horses to behave, being well trained and being able to ride them. Actually it doesn’t bother me a bit. Because where I have ridden a number of horses in a variety of sports, I can ride yours, but can you ride mine? If so, why should I consider you a snob? If I do, that doesn’t really say much about me.

  11. Elena says:

    Hello, thanks for this article. I’ve recently had a similar experience to that of yours – I’ve been riding English all my life and sometimes sat on an English-trained horse with a western saddle. And I thought that I was riding western… I couldnt be more mistaken :)

    I thought that both styles of riding were the same or at least the “gas and brakes” were the same. That’s why I didn’t think there should be any problem when riding a new horse in western style. However, that hour didn’t end very well, as I was arguing with the trainer all the time. I thought to myself that I have to look up if she was right that there are so many differences in both styles. After browsing the web through a lot of basic articles about English vs. Western riding for beginners (which were absolutly useless for me, I surely know there is a different saddle..!), I found this article, which describes almost the same experience as that of mine, thank you :)

    I just have a dilemma, as I am not sure if I want to start learning something new from (almost) the very beginning, or better find an English riding club and continue where I stopped :)

  12. linda says:

    I purchased a qh called winderadeen th mini doc and I need help.. what do you mean by ” move away from outside leg preasure ? I got myself a champion reining retired western pleasure gelding and there was no manual with him. I am a hick bush rider who rides bare back and uses a western bit and neck reins, but in a bush baby style. My poor expencive qh keeps looking at me like I am a dope and he is right. I squeese to move forward and use the riens to turn but dont understand leg on leg off stuff. but he is 19 and very calm with me, I want to learn how to comunicate with him on his level, poor sod.

  13. Jackie Baker – Horse Blogger of the Week « All Pet Guide says:

    […] A Tutorial In Western Pleasure Riding For Us English Snobs […]

  14. HannahBanana says:

    This was great. I do ride western but the way you explained it was great. Could you do me a FANTASTIC favor and maybe write one on english? Your explinations seems so thorough and I am SOO lost when it comes to english aids.

    When people say the horse “bends around their inside leg” they really do mean the horse just curves itself around the leg right? The horse isn’t responding to pressure from the inside? It kind of confuses me, thank you.

  15. Julia says:

    I really like this article. I cannot help but wonder why people have this snobbish atitudue, as you say its all about the love of horses isn’t it? Pleasure for both horse and rider, enjoying each others company is what matters. I have met people who are snobs over horse related english ways and to be honest they have no idea just how stupid they make themselves look and sound. To all snobs… Is there any sunshine up there dear?

  16. Holly says:

    Amazing article! It just goes to show that yes, any person in any discipline can indeed not be a snob and take the chance to learn to ride another discipline! You described WP very well, it is confusing! I have been riding trail most of my life, and a year ago my trail horse and I were thrown into showing with very little time to learn to ride WP or English, or speed for that matter. My horse didn’t know anything but trail either, so we both learned to do everything wrong in the short time we had to prepare for showing last year. This year, we were shipped to the trainers to learn to ride BOTH disciplines correctly, and it is MUCH more difficult and confusing then I had ever originally thought! But we’re both doing good, and I’m hopeful that we’ll do much better in both disciplines now that we both know what were doing!

    Thanks for the article, it explained a few things that my trainer tried to explain to me but I didn’t quite grasp- good luck to you in all the riding you do!

  17. giovanna says:

    hi linda i was skips old owner how is he?

  18. linda says:

    skip is great. he bucks like a pro now. he can do approx 16 bucks in a row without missing a step at the canter and he can rear straight up and stay statue still for the count of 30. I had a lot of vetting done to him because he had a displaced knee, a stretched tendon, his teeth were a shocking mess which my dentist said had not been addressed for 14 years by the damage he found.his teeth were so bad , for so long, that his face has sunk on one side. I spent $2500 on vetting, dentist, and horse manipulator to get him sound again.Now that he is fit again he thinks he is about 3 instead of 20. I don’t hard feed him or anything ,I think he just feels fantastic after years of pain.I don’t care which past owner is at fault. all I care about is that now he is sound and healthy and no one is getting him back 😉

  19. Farrier says:

    Great article! As a western rider, I would love to see something similar written about English riding. I really have no clue about that type of riding.

  20. Diane says:

    I know exactly what you mean, I grew up riding hunter and dressage. When I saw how quiet QH were I decided to give western riding a go! English people poohpooh western, but I can tell you it is very difficult. After many years effort, have decided to return to dressage, only this time with my Appendix QH. My daughter learned to ride western, and she is an awesome rider. Loads of confidence.

  21. shelly says:

    wow…..thanks SO much, cant wait to try it tomorrow. I have ridden English for 40 years and bought a paint trail horse to putz with and I have been so out of of synch with him… English is all about going FOWARD, bending etc….. and I gave up today and dropped the reins and he was wonderful and I was befuddled. I always thought I knew how to ride, guess not. I’ll try the stop without spurs first though

  22. Linda says:

    You seem to be Saying that the spurs are used to stop and to go ? How does the horse know which jab of the spurs is go and which is stop ???

  23. Linda says:

    ok, I got my daughter to read all this and she explained that the leg on outside to turn is with the leg forward near the shoulder not straight down or moved back..I am a raw beginner here to western and english . I have been riding my whole 45 years but never had a single lesson.
    ( its like teaching someone to bake a cake who has never seen an egg – you say put 2 eggs in and I throw them in shell and all as I have never seen an egg, so how would I know to crack it open and use the inside stuff only ? )
    where the leg and foot are is obviously important too X__X
    My daughter says English is forcing your horse to obey and western is asking your horse to obey. ( anglish- drag it round, western, guide it round ) lol. she rides english.
    So do you mean squeeze to stop and jab to go ?
    Im thinking I need beginner lessons before my poor qh can understand a single thing I do. No wonder he trots with his head in the air and bounces like a trail riding pony :(

  24. Emily says:

    I am an English rider but i am becoming obsessed with western. Being snobby does not come into riding, snobbiness is completely different it is human nature, there are lot’s of snobby people envolved in a lot of things encluding riding every style. Anybody even if they ride western or English can be snobs, snobs are people that are too taken up with themselves and what they do and how they do it. I think English riding is beautiful and classy but i think Western riding is beautiful too, but oh the western horses-they are stunning. Yes i am soon going to be an English and a Western rider because i am looking into buying some western tack-as cheap as i can find.

    These two horses are of English and Western-the first English and the second Western

    They are links……very long links.




    Both of these horses are as incredibly beautiful as each other.

    English riding is not snobby it is some of the people that partake in this style that get snobby. It’s not all about wearing black and white and having pretty ribbons in the horses mane. I ride English but just hack out/trail ride for fun, i wear jodhpurs ofcourse because that is the appropriate apparel, a t-shirt and/or hoody with my helmet, short boots and half chaps, i do have white breeches but i find them good for riding in very hot weather because light colours reflect the heat.

    Have you watched Flica 2? well do so because in part of the film there is a very snobby brat and the film is all about western riding.

  25. Brianna says:

    I have rode my type ofwars western all my life but its not proper i can tell ya that haha! So many horses are trained so many ways i use a combination of my wana be english and western style:)
    I have trained my horse that i push my heel in once and that means walk then the second is a trot then 3rdi is a gallop then i raise my hands up the neck and ride like a jocky if i wana go fast.
    i trained my horse to how im comfortable and shes comfortable. We are not perfect in any dicipline and my psture is bad but thats how i ride. But i do tend to use english and western combined i just use what works i dont care if i look like a dweeb:) we use a western saddle and a snaffle she either neck or direct reins (i use a combination of both sometimes). Shes an either or horse haha! Their is no such thing of proper riding in my eyes i just say if it works then ill do it and i have no one to impress ill i wana do is have fun riding my horse.
    she does pole bending barrel racing cutting jumping shes naturally gaited (tennisse walker in her) we have tried dressage(sorta a fail but were still trying:) ) she does anything i want we have even been a race horse with the jocky set up and everything.
    I get judged alot by my riding because its not full western or full english but i like it! Its my own style:)I have a horse that dont mind and it works for us both

  26. Babs says:

    Wow great article, thanks! I rode English for 25 yrs in the UK and now live in US. There is a lot of snobbery and friction between the disciplines in UK. with dressage generally being (or rather, thinking) they’re at the top of the pecking order in terms of finesse, control and discipline. Of course you can’t have a good show jumper or eventer without some basic dressage training… how can you expect your buddy to be balanced over fences and in the ring without any training? I’ve always enjoyed jumping most, show jumping or cross-country (natural wood fences in the countryside). I’ve been very confused by the terminology here and wondering exactly what ‘Western riding’ means. Apparently a lot more than plonking on a western saddle and fancy bridle! Vey educational to have this 101 of Western riding aids – thanks so much! I used to compete a lot in all disciplines but now I’m older just want to have a fun horse to enjoy. Would like to try barrel racing too – looks like fun to me!

  27. cajungirl2345 says:

    not all are snobs just the ones who chose to be mean and who think they are good and have to look good or they died and frankly I am not an einglish snob I do not think im the best and I try hard unlike some people if anyone the people who are snobs are mostly western riders who chose to say they are the best in pleasure and say that no one can tell them otherwise that is a snod for u I have ben riding all my life my first time on a horse was at 1 year and 8 months I have had my own horse my whole life and I do not belive in your first statement and the only reason I read this article is for study I have my first lesson in pleasure tomorrow and was not very pleased to read

  28. cajungirl2345 says:

    thanks for the input though im sry if I seam like a snob but really im not I am curiouse to learn more on pleasure and ride in all events including all English some of this article gave me achance to learn and apritiate others oppinions and I need tyo do that more offten

  29. Dot Gingell says:

    I was so pleased to have found this site and your discussion. Trained and ridden formal English for over 40 years (would describe myself as a happy hacker nowadays) and am due to ride Western for the first time in Costa Rica in February. But, couldn’t take planned Western lessons here in England due to breaking my arm last month (not riding-related btw). Hoping I have at least gained a few key pointers and a little confidence so that I can work with and learn from my new 4 legged friends. Don’t like spurs as an aid though…..

    There can be bitchy, snobby elements in all leisure activities but I have encountered some dreadful behaviour (by owners and customers) at some livery yards and riding schools in the UK. Only thing to do is shop around until you find like-minded people who are more interested in the horses and their welfare than who earns/spends the most money and has the latest kit.

  30. Judy says:

    Thank you so much for this article. We were given a 25 year old western pleasure horse, and I haven’t ridden one since the whole style changed many years ago. You have given me a start on riding her in a way that she understands!

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