The ups and downs of western pleasure . Part 2

Popularity and controversy often go hand in hand.  The western pleasure class, while historically one of the most popular horse show events in the stock horse world, comes with its share of criticism.

 Part 2 of an article I wrote 10 yrs ago – still relevant today.

The calmness and manners expected by competitors in the western disciplines is admired by other disciplines. This was one of the factors that attracted me years ago to the quarter horse circuit – “well-broke”, they stood still while mounted, ground tied and ALWAYS loaded.   I’ve carried over the expectation of manners into the teaching and training I do with all horses and riders. In western world, whether it’s reining, western horsemanship, or competitive trail, small mistakes matter. Judges penalize poor expression, missed transitions, bobbles and glitches.  Consistency and accuracy is prized on par with quality movement.

So if calm and mannerly is good, even more calm and mannerly to the point of robotic must be better…right?

That was the swing that western pleasure took in the eighties.

An AQHA director and respected judge shared his thoughts with me. “Sometimes I dreaded getting called to judge in some areas. I knew that western pleasure here would be terrible – too carried away and there’d be a lot of pressure on me. At one show I placed just three horses. The others were too low and too extreme.”

In an effort to produce a horse that was the picture of composure, exhibitors presented horses with their heads below the level of their withers, on a draped rein and an ambling pace. I was just getting making the move from the hunter/jumper circuit into the western disciplines at this time and I was puzzled to see sullen, “peanut rollers,” placing at the top of the class, while showing off their four beat lope.”

“During this period of these fads we lost the horse’s movement, getting caught up in the idea of “the slower, the better”, says  Manitoba quarter horse breeder and AQHA specialized judge, Christine Little. “Suddenly horses went from being natural movers to these mechanical looking animals, dragging their heads, loping down the ring sideways, and not truly loping as a result. Trainers were making western pleasure twice as hard on themselves and the horses since we were changing so much of their natural way of going. I believe there was a time that the horses were forgotten about and it may have suddenly became a competition to see who the best trainer was; who can create the best “robot” so to speak. Then suddenly everyone took a step back, or maybe listened to the outsider’s criticisms, and said “wow, our horses really are not moving like horses anymore”

The times they are a changin’

Among stock horse breeds AQHA has led the pack in terms of rules, guidelines and revisions. Each year upon receiving my handbook I scan the pages for the underlined rule changes. They are always plentiful, and many of them over the past decade have pertained to western pleasure. Amendments have been quick to put out the fires of undesirable fads.

Trends…. and changes

Headsets (even the word grates on me!) In an effort to display the submissiveness of the pleasure horse, head carriages became so low that they were a picture of subservience. The term “Peanut rollers” was fitting for these competitors.

Rule changes followed, stating that horses shown with their ears below their withers or noses behind the vertical would be disqualified.

Four beating. The walk, jog and lope lost their natural cadence and slowed to crawl. Normally, a three beat gait, the lope gained a beat and lost any suspension at all. It deteriorated to a flat shuffle which, I realized, would result in most horsemen calling the vet if seen out in the pasture.

Gaits became slower as competitors made every effort to lay claim to the rail, never to pass the horse in front. When a gait transition was called, judges endured a long delay before someone was brave enough to initiate, which inevitably necessitated pulling out to the inside lane.

One judge recalls, “Sometimes as a judge you have to do things to make them show their horses. At one large show I chose not to cut a large western pleasure class so the riders would have to get out and pass.

At another I had to keep calling for more extension until they got up to speed. The people were just about ready to hang me “What are you doing to the western pleasure?” That ain’t western pleasure” I said. I like a good challenge.”

In 1991, AQHA responded with a rule that penalized excessively slow gaits, followed by rules that required forward motion and prompt transitions when called for.

Like Whac-a-Mole, stock horse associations have hit at the fads of overly canted hips, illegal drug use, unnatural tails, overused spurs, low head sets and draped reins.

The challenge has been to get the judges, many of whom also compete, to get on board and enforce the rules. At recent judging conferences I’ve attended, we have been reminded to judge by the specifics in the handbook and watched videos depicting both unacceptable and breathtakingly beautiful moving western pleasure horses.

Next post… How did we get caught up in this stuff?