THE WESTERN PLEASURE HORSE
The arena gate swings open, and the huge glom of horses gathered in the warm up ring begin to swarm (slowly!) towards the in-gate. Like snails, they somehow form some semblance of order, and one by one, the horses begin to jog into the arena.
Lovely horses...most with long, billowy tails, and most with long, loopy reins...they seem to glide over the ground as their riders "suck it up," and prepare for a test of grace and eloquence under fire.
Such begins (my own rendition anyway) of a typical Western Pleasure class. I have always loved watching the horses in the classes, and when I began competing "seriously" in the division, I began to realize the thousands of "little things" that fall into place to make a truly phenomenal Western Pleasure horse.
Western horses, first and foremost, need to be naturally comfortable moving at a slow(er) pace. Because it is being judged on it's grace and fluidness, the last thing in the world the rider wants to have to worry about is having to keep his horse in check, constantly saying "whoa!"
About two years into my Western Pleasure "career," I came to realize that it is not necessarily a good thing to have a really slow moving jogging horse! My gelding had this really nifty jog...he could almost jog in place. While it was totally comfortable to ride, and he could seemingly go on forever, HE NEVER WENT ANYWHERE! He was probably the only horse ever to get lapped by his peers at the jog. While judges want a "slow," fluid gait, they also want to see horses who cover some ground...horses that go somewhere with their fluid gaits.
The lope is a gait that gets most "breed" exhibitors into a lot of trouble. Most of us have heard horror stories about the nasty things trainers supposedly do to teach horses to carry their heads in a certain set, and/or how to teach their horses to go slow. Quarter Horses are (used to be?) notorious for a four-beat lope, which was essentially the horse loping on his front end, and jogging/trotting on the hind end.
A fluid, easy loping -- and ground covering -- horse is one who will turn the judge's heads. You don't want to "put the pedal to the metal," just allow your horse to move forward and be comfortable in his frame.
The hand gallop. A hand gallop is meant to show a true extension of the lope...this does not mean it is an excuse to burn rubber...nor is it an excuse to go "heck bent for leather" and endanger other horses and riders in the ring. Control your speed, yet show the judge that your horse can move forward, freely, and also pay particular attention to a soft transition to the slower gaits. My personal favorite transition is the hand-gallop to the lope, and with my horse it's been a grand deal of fun to teach him to do this on a nice loose rein.
Before I close, I want to mention something about loose reins. Most people think that a successful Western Pleasure horse "must" be shown on a loopy rein...one that has the reins loose enough to tickle the horse's knees. Not so. The rules specifically state that a horse must be shown "with light contact." While there are thousands of different interpretations of this, horses DO get pinned who are not necessarily being ridden on a loopy rein.
Western Pleasure is an art...as is any discipline in today's competitive arenas. Take your time, do your homework, and the successes will begin to build.
(I apologize for such a short piece...due to unforeseen circumstances my time at the computer will be limited through the month of January. Your contributions are always welcome, however!)