Saturday, August 13, 2011

Western Pleasure, The "Easiest" Class

Let me remind you that I am not the End-All-Be-All of knowledge, but that this is based on my experience as both a shower and judge, and also my experience with real horses.

While you’d think from its simplicity that western pleasure would be an easy place to start performance showing, pleasure is both one of the simplest and also one of the most challenging classes you’ll face. My best guess on the main reason for this is that a lot of people probably have the same idea and thus the classes are fuller, requiring the judge to get more and more nit-picky to make their placings. When I show pleasure at big shows, I think of it as a gamble. There are SO many phenomenal entries out there, sometimes it really does come down to which set up the judge finds prettier and presents the best package.

What you’ll need:                        Optional Additional Items:
  ~Western Saddle                      ~Breastcollar
  ~Pad                                         ~Doll
  ~Bridle                                      ~Arena Fence/Footing *depending upon show rules

Western Pleasure is a “flat” class, meaning no obstacles are used, judging the style, manner, movement, and obedience of a horse at each of the different gaits. Generally these gaits include a walk, jog, lope, halt, and back. Gaited breeds may omit or add additional gaits. The gaits should be slow moving and comfortable, appearing a “pleasure” to ride. Any breed can generally be used, though those that excel most are general riding types, particularly stock and light breeds.

Each breed type has different desirable characteristics for movement and headset. Stock breeds tend to be slower with a level headset (poll even with withers), and the nose close to or slightly in front of the vertical (meaning face is straight up and down). Many of you may have heard the term “peanut roller” and it comes from the trend of pleasure horses dropping their noses so low, it was joked that they could roll peanuts on the ground. Though I hear in the real horse world there are still arguments over its popularity and correctness, in the model horse world we’ve unofficially made it a major fault. The poll should never be lower than the withers. Light breeds have a higher headset with the poll above the withers, and the nose on the vertical. Their movement generally has much more flair and animation than the stock breeds.
A crappy photo, but a prime example of a peanut roller... don't do this - bad juju!

Excellent Examples of a stock breed and light breed pleasure horse:

Tails are always loose, and manes are either pulled and banded (preferred for stock breeds) or left loose (absolute for light breeds). When dealing with OF models, molded on braids may be tolerable, though it will depend upon the judge if they are marked down for them.
Some great OF models for western pleasure are Zippo Pine Bar, the CL QH Mare, Bluegrass Bandit, TR Mule, and John Henry. I have also seen the Stone western performance horse used well, but be VERY careful about matching the action on your description card to his movement. Though I have seen them shown in massive quantities, I personally HATE the use of the Stone ISH as a pleasure horse. There are tons of molds that can be used, these are just a few of the better possibilities.
In model horse showing, generally any style western saddle can be used for pleasure, however the fancy ones heavily stamped and/or carved, and festooned with silver and beads are very desirable in today’s show ring. Still, a correct entry is more important than a fancy one. A rear girth is not required but can be used. My personal experience with real horses is that this back girth does not need to be snug and in fact can have a small amount of space between the horse and girth (no more than 1/16” on a TR scale model). Because of my personal experience, I do not mark down an entry adjusted like this, though I have been marked down by other judges for it in the past.

Bling is the thing!

Generally a curb bit is used, however a bosel is allowable as are snaffle bits up to a certain age. Different breed registries have differing rules, but 4 or 5 is generally the cut off to move to a curb. Reins must be either split reins (required for a snaffle bridle) or romel style. A bosel bridle will have mecate reins, which is a single long rein tied in a loop with a free “lead rope” end. This lead rope end should be tied to the saddle horn loosely with a  slip knot (meaning it should have no contact to the nose or else it will affect the signals being given from rider to mount) or hung on the latigo, but should not drape so loosely as to be a risk for the horse to step through or trip on. My general rule of thumb is the lowest part of the drape should be about even with half way between the elbow and knee of the horse.
Split and Romel reins should have a gentle drape between the “hands” and bit, and not show direct contact to the mouth, except in the case of when the horse is backing or being signaled to change gaits. They should never be tight. In the case of a snaffle bit, there should be light contact with the mouth, but not appear to be tight.

Here is your tacking up checklist. No matter what class you’re setting up for, doing a mental checklist like this for each one helps you eliminate any simple errors the judge might mark you down for:

                1. Rein position: are your reins the proper amount of contact or drape for the event and the horse’s activity. I HATE reins just left lying over the neck if there is no doll. This was common practice back when I started showing in the 90’s, but now WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS! The reins should be either held by the doll or sticky waxed to the neck in place.
                2. Headstall straight and not in the eyes… a far more common error than you could believe
                3. Bit in mouth and at the proper angle for rein tension: just like their real counter parts our models frequently spit their bits out whenever they can, particularly during the summer shows when the sticky wax is all melty. Additionally, know how your bit works! When you pull on one end – how does the bit move with or against the horse.  It drives me nuts to see all those curb bits straight along the horse’s mouth but with tight reins that would be pulling it back.
                4. All straps buckled and in their keepers. Have to loosen something so much it doesn’t reach to the keeper? Then sticky wax the end down. No flappers!
                5. Saddle straight on the back. If you were sitting in that saddle, would you want to ride crooked? No. Hurts your back, hurts the horse’s back, and looks sloppy
                6. Breastcollar fit. If the breastcollar is SNUG on a standing horse, it’s going to yank and hurt when ever that horse moves it shoulder forward while in motion and pull the saddle forward. With a traditional standing model, it should be snug against your pointer finger stuck between the horse and the breastcollar. This is not to stay it should stick out that far! It should drape nicely against the model at that tension. If one shoulder is moving forward, remember that the breastcollar would move with it.
                7. Girth tight. Unlike a real horse, you don’t have to worry about them holding their breath while you tack up, or falling off because your saddle slid sideways during a drill team performance (… never did get the stain out of my white jeans from that night…) so generally as long as I can’t see between the model and girth, that’s good enough for me.
                8. Curb chain. A curb chain should not be so long as to bang the horse in the lip and flap around. On a model, stick with lightly snug with no space between it and the horse.
                9. The doll. We’ll have a whole article on my beef with dolls coming up soon, but for now the three most important little things:
                ~ equitation: I don’t care if it’s not an equitation class, Butts in the saddle! You WILL see me holding up a pencil up to make sure the shoulder-hip-heel are all in a vertical line. I am well known as the Doll Nazi, and if you’re doll doesn’t sit well, you’re better off not using it.

                ~looking where you’re going. We’re emulating the real world here people and like the real world both horse and rider need to be looking where they are going. This means a model like the Caprice resin should not be shown with the description “walking down the rail”.
                ~Hold the reins properly. Each type of rein – mecate, split, or romel are held differently. I’ll do a tutorial on them in the future, but for now – research people. RESEARCH. 

Depending upon the show, you may or may not be allowed the use of additional props for pleasure classes. These would include an arena fence and/or arena footing. An arena fence should be simple and not distract from your entry and footing must be IN SCALE and appropriate. Do not, I repeat DO NOT use kitty litter. Why? Would you ride your horse in an arena filled with driveway gravel? NO! (At least, I hope not.) Sand, coffee grounds, even felt or velvet or velour fabrics make great footing. My personal favorite is sand or coffee grounds because then you can create nice little footprints – an excellent added detail to your set up. To keep it contained, head to walmart or the nearest craft store and pick up those cheap clear plastic “box frames”. I think it’s less than $20 for a poster sized one which is big enough for most traditional scale performance scenes. THESE are what I use, I just happened to find them in a local craft store in more sizes. 

~ The way I judge:  When judging western pleasure I always start by making one quick loop around the ring to rule out any blatant errors – bits out of the mouth, incorrect or illegal equipment, etc. I get rid of the fast and easy ones first. Then, I start looking at my personal priorities: 1) is the horse doing what its description card says and is it doing it well, 2) is all the tack adjusted properly, fit well, and being used properly 3) does the horse look like a pleasure to ride and 4) does the entry have an overall finished and polished look. Generally western pleasure is one of my least favorite classes to judge because I have to get so nitpicky between a large number of really beautiful entries. It tends to be the absolute most difficult and also the one I get the most challenges against my placings on.

SO let’s go ahead and judge a class! Here are 4 western pleasure entries from my old photo show files:

Entry #1

Entry #2

Entry #3

Entry #4

Each of the models is an excellent choice for western pleasure, but each entry has a minor fault or two. Entry #1's reins are a touch too loose and the browband looks a touch too small and to be pinching on the ears. The hoofprints in the sand are an excellent touch. Entry #2 is excellent except for the fact that it is on the wrong lead, as is entry #3, however entry #3's reins appear to be laying on the horn instead of in the rider's hands. Entry #4 has absolutely no control over their horse with the reins just laying across the neck and the breastcollar appears too tight around the neck for the horse just standing there. 

I would place this class #1, #2, #3, #4. Had entry #2 been turned the opposite way along the rail, it would have won the class. 


  1. Cool new blog! A lot of great information.
    I do want to add that a new trend in quarter horse western pleasure is to show with roached manes. I've also seen a few people leave their horse's manes long and do a basketweave mane. I'm not sure that either trend will be that long-lived though.
    Also, why is it that you see breastcollars and rear cinches so often in model western pleasure classes? In 10 years of showing in aqha competition, I don't think I've ever seen a horse in a wp class wearing either.

  2. I love this! Hopefully, I can start up in performance soon, and this is so helpful! Thanks :)