One of the most popular classes within the spectrum of western riding is the western pleasure class. It is a typical class for beginners to the show ring to acquire experience and control over themselves in a show scenario. In contrast to events like reining, western riding, trail, and others, in a pleasure class the contestant is not alone in the show ring. He/she can "hide" among a group of other competitors and is not judged individually.
Of course, hiding among fellow competitors isn't what western pleasure is all about, but for the novice show rider it usually helps enormously not to be the only one under scrutiny and not to feel the eyes of all the spectators focussing in on him. In a pleasure class, one can get used to being in the show pen. To be sure, winning a western pleasure class is NOT easier than winning any other class! In order to win or do well in a pleasure class, one needs to stand out in the crowd - which is the more difficult the more riders compete in the class.
Being competitive in a western pleasure class necessitates knowing what the judge is looking for - and being able to present your horse in that way. What is the judge looking for?
The western pleasure horse must, above all, look like it is a pleasure to ride. Obviously, a horse with rough gaits, a horse that's difficult to control, tricky to get to pick up the correct lead, and ill-tempered towards other horses is not a pleasure to ride.
In a pleasure class, horses are shown on the rail at the walk, jog, and lope, and in both directions. Over the loudspeaker the different gaits are requested: "Walk your horses", "jog your horses", and "lope your horses". When the commando "reverse your horses" is being given, the riders are required to turn away from the rail, turn around, and go back to the rail in the opposite direction, all without breaking the gait they were in. The western pleasure class also includes a backup. This may be asked for on the rail ("stop your horses, and back up") or from a line up. In the latter case, the commando "line up" is first given, and the riders are required to form a line in the middle of the arena, parallel to each other, and facing the grandstand. The judge will then step in front of each contestant individually, at which time the contestant is expected to back up his horse for as long as the judge is watching him.
There is a chance for another command to be given: "extended jog". This means that you are expected to move your horse out at the jog more. While the jog is ideally a rather slow trot, ideally as slow as your horse is able to trot in a relaxed way and without losing the clean two-beat cadence, at the extended jog you are supposed to go faster, as fast as you can make it with your horse remaining relaxed, under control on a lose rein, and without any tendency to start loping.
If you want to impress the judge (and that's the name of the game in showing), you obey the commands given immediately. You're not in a big hurry, you do have the time to prepare and cue your horse in a subtle way, but don't look at the other contestants and wait for them. If, for instance, you all are at a walk and the request "lope your horses" is announced, and the rider in front of you is waiting for the rider in front of him to pick up the lope, don't wait for any of them; cue your horse, pick up the correct lead, and pass them if necessary.
What does the judge want to see in particular? A horse that is relaxed and happy, that carries his neck and head relaxed, which means fairly level, that has a true rhythm to his strides, and that never appears like you have to hold it back. He wants to see a flat, natural, ground-covering walk, a flat, natural, ground-covering, two-beat jog, and a smooth, relaxed, clean three-beat lope. The horse is supposed to stay at the relaxed speed natural for it, never wanting to go any faster, never on the brink of breaking gait. Your reins should have a bit of slack. You should be sitting comfortably in the saddle, no cues necessary that an observer could detect, and whenever a transition is called for, you make it happen promptly, smoothly, without the horse losing its over-all composure, without the horse slinging its head, or leaning on the bit, or any other unpleasing habit.
Many horses have the basic ingredients - they are nice movers at all three gaits, and they are pretty to look at, they are good enough in not trying to run away, but it's most often in the transitions that problems occur and a class is lost.
To win a tough pleasure class, you'll have to have a pretty horse (conformation is judged to a degree under most rules, too) that's a real smooth mover, that's a natural as far as carrying neck and head level, one that's not fazed by other horses crowding it, passing it, or jogging and loping ahead of it, and that will respond in the transitions willingly, readily, and without considerable work on your part. You'll also have to have a good posture in the saddle and a winning attitude. When you look down on your horse, you are telling the judge: I don't trust this fellow. So the judge's response would be: If he doesn't, why should I? If you sit your horse like a monkey on a whetstone and not proud like you had already won the class, the judge's subconcious reaction would be: If he isn't proud of that horse, why should I think enough of it to make it the winner?
When "walk your horses" is announced, the class has officially started. Usually, the next request will be "jog your horses". As soon as the jog or lope is called for, things tend to get a bit unruly. Especially if there are some bad ones in the class, you are in danger of losing your safe spot you had found on the rail. That's why it is important to monitor the whole pen at all times and see what's going on. Only then do you have a chance to avoid trouble by steering clear of trouble in time.
Even if all the horses are well-behaved, you may after a while get crowded. Horses travel at different speeds; there may be some going a bit faster than your horse, they pass you, but it takes them a while, and before you know it you have two or three horses next to you on the inside. If at this point in time the command "walk your horses" is given, you are trapped for the time being. With a well trained horse you can get out of such situations smoothly and elegantly. The ones on the inside may be going at a speed only slightly faster than yours. The reason is that horses tend to go faster as long as they see another one in front of them; when they caught up, they lost their desire to go faster, thus staying with you for a time. Now if your horse is limber and responsive and has been trained to go deeply into the corners without losing its stride, you will have those bothersome participants way ahead of you after the next corner, because you went deep into that corner and the others did not. If you have a horse in front of you that's traveling just a tad slower than you do, you don't have to pass it if you always restore the distance by going deeply into the corners.
On the other hand, if you see a horse in front of you that the rider seems to have trouble with, or that's considerably slower than you go, don't hesitate to pass or cut a corner if that means you are getting your horse out in the open, gaining a nice space again where the judge can see you and your horse isn't getting bothered by others.
Don't fret if the judge never seems to paying you any attention. If you know you have a nice horse and things run well for you and the judge never seems to even look at you, chances are he's already done that and has you high up on his list. Usually, when I had a nice horse and the judge hardly ever looked my way, it turned out that my horse placed first. The judges have a tough assignment, especially if it's a large class, or a bad class. It usually doesn't take them long to find the horse/rider combinations they like. They write down their first, second and maybe third horse and then try to figure out which ones of the lesser horses aren't quite as bad so they can use them for the lower placings. They don't watch their favorites all the time because they don't want to see them make mistakes, which would force them to start all over again with their order of placing. They spend the rest of the time determining which of the bad ones are a little better than the rest.
You don't need to have fancy, silver-mounted equipment or a lot of glitter on your attire. Be aware of the fact, though, that judges are only human. They expect you to show showmenlike. Your hat should be shaped properly, your attire should be fashionable and showy, preferably color-coordinated with your saddle pad. Some riders enter the arena and have novice written all over them. Their whole outfit cries out loud: I DON'T HAVE A CLUE! Their horses would have to be double-tough to convince the judge that he ought to place them. Others enter the arena and give the judge a picture right off the bat that he loves. He is tempted to put that rider directly down as his number one. . . In showing, you are selling a picture to the judge. You want to make it easy for the judge to plus you. There is no western class where this holds true more than in western pleasure.
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 "Training the Western Pleasure Horse" by Hardy Oelke