"Hello! I was looking through the Equiworld website when I came across the piece in the training section on how you train horse in western pleasure, and I was wondering if you could give me some tips. My horse is a Waler stallion, he is about 14.1, but he is still growing. I'm still training him and I want him to be a western pleasure horse and barrel race him, but I still need to mouth him properly and teach him to lope and do the other things. But I just need some tips before I start. Please help."
I recently received this response to the western pleasure article on Equiworld , and I thought it would be a good peg to hang a story on western pleasure training on.
First of all, barrel racing - or any kind of timed event - and western pleasure are hardly compatible. While a horse can certainly learn to do more than one thing (I don't like horses that can't be used for more than one event), it is counterproductive to run barrels or poles on a horse that you want to make a competitive pleasure horse out of.
In order to successfully train a western pleasure horse, you must first pick the right kind of horse. Your training can improve any kind of horse, but to end up with a competitive pleasure horse you need to start with the kind "raw material". The most important requirement is that this horse is a pretty mover. Pretty may be different things to different people, but in western pleasure it means a horse that naturally moves in a more or less collected way, with fluent, flat strides, its hind legs always well under him, and with its neck and head carried level. The more strong-out horse can be improved on, but will never become a tough pleasure horse. Our western pleasure prospect should be a pretty horse of good size, preferably even a flashy one, that moves gracefully - an eye catcher! You are dealing with an event where maybe 20 or more horses are in the arena at the same time, so the first thing you need to accomplish is to get noticed by the judge and impress him positively. It is a fact that a rather small horse doesn't make quite the impression that a good-sized one does, so size is a factor, too.
In your actual training, your goal is to teach your horse so he never wants to go fast, waits for your cues without ever getting in a hurry, but still stays collected. You want him to do all that on a slack rein and while staying in the same "frame" all the time, no matter what gait you are executing.
After your horse has the basics, knows what walk, trot and lope is, picks up the correct lead on command, and can easily be slowed down or stopped, your main project is to get him to relax and not be in a hurry. A lazy horse - contrary to what some may believe - is not a good pleasure prospect. A horse that you constantly need to push forward will most likely not be a pleasure to watch (or to ride). You need a horse that moves out willingly and briskly, but without getting in a hurry or pushy.
Here is what I do to get my horses to find their ideal speed at the jog, and later the lope, and maintain that speed on their own: I jog them on a slack rein along the rail. I am very careful to squeeze them into the jog as easily and smoothly as possible - ideally, they don't even realize at first that they made a transition from walk to jog. If one cues them too hard, they will almost "jump" into a trot and you are in a situation where you'll have to slow them down directly. If you softly squeeze him into that jog, his first strides will be soft, slow, and with his hind legs under him, and he will have no reason to raise his head or become tense.
These first few strides give you an indication of how slowly he can comfortably jog, i.e. accelerate without falling apart. Your goal is now to get him to maintain that speed on his own, without you having to check him. At first you will most likely have to check him after a few strides, as because the reins are hanging slack, he feels no restrictions and will soon accelerate a bit (or quite a bit). As soon as he does, I grab the outside rein (and be sure the inside rein remains slack) and pull him into the wall/fence. That will slow him down, probably break him into a walk. I squeeze him just as softly back into a jog, and as soon as he goes faster than what I feel he should, I again use the outside rein and let the wall stop him or slow him down. I repeat this as often as he needs it. At some point he might really try to set his neck against the pull he knows is coming, then I might pull him all the way against the wall and into the opposite direction.
The principle behind this is: If you use both reins, the horse can lean on you (on the bit). It's very easy and tempting for a horse to lean on the bit if he wants to go forward, it's much more difficult for him if you use only one rein. In addition, the wall/fence helps you to slow him/stop him. But there is more to this: It's the difference between manipulating the horse's mouth and the horse's brain. If I check him via the reins, I'm mostly manipulating his mouth. Through the process described above, I'm reaching his brain. I'm repeating this consequently until the horse decides for himself that he better quit accelerating, because it's no fun to be pulled into the wall all the time. . . Once he's made that decision himself, he finds out how nice it is to travel on a slack rein, staying in the same mode (speed), and not be bothered by any checking in his mouth. That's when he starts to relax, that's when his head drops, that's when he begins to look pretty to a judge's eye.
What you could do wrong.
The most common mistakes I see people make, which might result in not making any progress, are:
If he has found out and has become pretty solid at the jog, which is usually a matter of a few days, depending on the horse, I do the same thing at the lope. It is more difficult to teach at the lope, that's why you need a good foundation at the jog, so the horse has grasped the basic concept and lost his initial urge to go fast. However, it works the same at the lope, although it usually takes longer until you get your horse loping as slowly as he is capable of. Once he starts to relax at the lope and you don't have to check him all the time, you can little by little work on getting him more on his rear end, loping slower but more collected, without ever needing to take a hold of him because he wants to go faster. Whenever you use your reins now, you can do it in a very subtle way, squeezing him lightly so he won't fall apart, pushing him into the bridle. As soon as he responds, you give him slack again as a reward.
The rest is transitions. Going from a walk to a jog is usually easy. Teaching the horse to pick up a lead without raising his head or getting a little tense takes more time and wet saddle blankets, but if you are subtle and consistent with your cues and patient, you will succeed.
The more thoroughly you work your horse dressage-wise, the better you will do. I do a lot of two-tracking with my horses, as that will make them very responsive to my legs. I again use the fence for assistance, riding the horse on "two tracks" - the front legs on the rails, the hind legs on another track somewhat to the inside of the arena. But I want the horse to do this while being bent in the direction that he travels, with his head and neck parallel to the fence or wall, and his rear end to the inside. And I want him to do this not because of my rein aids - I try to hold my hands very still, with both reins making the same amount of contact with his mouth. You can't perform this without the horse responding properly to your leg cues, and you can't perform it without having control not only of his rear end but his shoulders as well.
Although in two tracking and lead departure you put the horse basically in the same position, you don't do it as exaggerated when showing, and you don't position him toward the fence. Judges discriminate against that. When showing, you bend your horse slightly, but then his neck will be a little to the inside of the arena.
I don't have a recipe for downward transitions. It's easy enough from a jog to a walk, but it's not really easy from a lope to a walk, and can be even harder from a lope to the jog that the judge came to like about your horse. This is where feel comes in, and feel is something you can't explain, or teach. It's communication with your horse by way of feel. If you are too abrupt in your cues, the horse will not transition downward to a walk, or jog, but stop, and you will have to push him into the walk or jog again - doesn't look pleasant. If you aren't precise enough in your cues, or the horse doesn't respect them sufficiently, he may break into a trot, then a walk - again, nothing that will impress the judge. This is something one needs to practise over and over again, until the communication between rider and horse is just right.
Finally, the back up. More and more - especially in big classes, judges don't ask for a line-up any more but call for a stop, and let everybody back up out on the rail wherever they happen to be. To your horse, it's all the same. Your horse should be taught to back up when you squeeze with your legs and at the same time make minimal contact with his mouth to let him know that he is not supposed to go forward. This will result in a relaxed back up on a reasonably loose rein.
If the judge calls for a line-up and asks each rider individually to back up for him, the secret is to be ready before he gets to you. Observe where the judge is, how many more until it's going to be your turn. If he is two or three riders away from you (depending on your horse), you get prepared. Squeeze your horse while making soft contact with his mouth, thus getting him on an edge where he is almost going to back up, then, when the judge is in front of you, you add the "final straw", the final bit of leg pressure that will send him backward. If you pick up your reins when the judge is already in front of you, chances are that the horse will first raise his head before he will bridle up and shape up. The judge will get to see a picture that is less pleasant and that you didn't want him to see. If you get ready ahead of time, all the judge is going to see is a horse that backs up framed up nicely, backing willingly and fluently, without any visible cues.
The western pleasure horse is nothing spectacular, but by design a horse that's a pleasure to ride - and to watch. The pleasure class is not a contest which horse can go the slowest, but there is certainly no place for a horse that is in a hurry, or tense. Be sure you demonstrate that you don't have to check your horse. If your horse is moving along happily on a slack rein without speeding up in all three gaits, that's your main prerequisite. Pick up the correct leads, make smooth transitions, and be efficient at the back up, and you will be in the winners circle.
This article and the accompanying illustrations are courtesy of Hardy Oelke, a highly renowned trainer of Western horses and riders. Please choose this link to learn more.
Please click here to read "Western Pleasure Riding and Showing" by Hardy Oelke
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Updated: October 2005.