AQHA Professional Horsewoman Robin Gollehon gives the low down on selecting a western pleasure prospect.
What things should I look for in a western pleasure prospect?
Conformation, body style, correct movement, disposition, attitude, handling, colour, attractiveness. For the more serious competitor, nominations into any incentive or futurity programmes.
What is 'good movement'?
Good movement means the horse has an overall flow that looks effortless without any man-made, artificial influence. The jog should be crisp with a slight up and down motion as opposed to flat and waddling. The length of stride of the two front feet should be the same as the length of stride of the two back feet, and there should be as much distance between the front leg and the back leg when they're on the ground.
The lope should be free and forward with lift in the front and plenty of drive from behind. There should be little or no bend in the front lead leg ('flat-kneed'), and the back lead leg should reach far up under the horse's belly. It should swing from the hip and not jerk or lift upward as it is brought forward. The split between the two front legs should be the same as the split between the two back legs. The feet should stay on the ground an equal amount of time as they are in the air and overall should be slow legged. The back should be round, and the motion should come from the hindquarters without any neck bobbing.
What does the term' body style' mean?
Body style refers to a horse's 'look' just standing still. Horses have evolved into speciality athletes. A cutting horse has a different body style than a hunt seat horse, which is different again to a halter horse. To take it one step further, a horse's talent has to fit his body style to be competitive at the higher levels. For example, A 15 hand quarter horse that can't jog, but instead moves like a hunter, is really an English horse trapped in a western horse's body. He may be competitive at a low level but not at an AQHA breed show. It's no different in people - you wouldn't expect a 300-pound man to make a good ballet dancer. The horse's ability must match his body style.
Is it possible to tell a horse's propensity for western pleasure by the way it is built?
Yes. The modern western pleasure horse must be balanced, attractive and very athletic looking. A steeper slope to his shoulder will make him less ground covering and will allow his neck to come out of his body leveller. A strong top line with withers higher than the hip will give him more balance when in motion. The angle of his shoulder will also help him to swing his legs from the top line, rather than bending at the knee, and the knee should be low to the ground. He should have short cannon bones and sloping pasterns, which will help him hit the ground softly. Unlike halter horses, a good pleasure horse's hock should have some bend to it to help him reach under himself, and there should be more angle in the hock than there is in the stifle. The hip should be more parallel to the ground, rather than perpendicular, to allow the hind leg to move from the top line. Allowing him to swing his leg forward from the hip, making it easier for him to reach deep underneath himself and stay in the air and on the ground longer, so he'll be slow legged. To verify these points pick out the best mover and you'll see this conformation.
Does it matter if a pleasure horse is not straight in his movement or has any blemishes?
As long as a horse doesn't interfere with itself, it doesn't matter if it's not perfectly correct, but it would be something to take into consideration for long term soundness. Similarly, scars and blemishes don't matter unless they're too unsightly or affect a horse's performance in a pleasure class.
What other things beyond conformation should I take into account?
Colour, charisma and overall prettiness matters, the more serious rider should also check which programmes or futurities the prospect is eligible for.
What about smaller horses?
You don't absolutely need a 16 hand horse. Smaller horses are not a problem in the show pen.
What things should indicate a prospect would not be successful?
In addition to the above list, attitude is a really big thing. No matter how talented a horse is, if he's pinning his ears and saying 'no' a lot, he's not a very willing candidate. Don't confuse pretty halter horse conformation with pleasure horse conformation. There is a difference. Once you understand the angles necessary for a great moving pleasure horse rather than halter or reining, for example, you'll have more success picking out a pleasure prospect.
Is it possible to find a pleasure horse that hasn't been bred for the discipline?
The Quarter Horse has evolved into such speciality athletes that these days it would be pretty unlikely that you'd find a great pleasure horse that wasn't bred to be one. Years ago, horses did it all - they raced, they showed in halter and performed in pleasure. They were the original all-around western riding horse. But in today's tough competition, you should start with a horse that's made to do what you want it to do.
What proportion of a western pleasure horse's success is down to its training over its conformation?
You can start with a talented western pleasure horse and make it better or worse with good or bad training. But if you begin with an untalented horse, great training will never make it great. Training should not get in the way of the horse or cover up its natural goodness. An overtrained or man-made look is undesirable.
What is the 'ideal' horse that judges look for?
Judges are looking for the most talented horse that is presented the best for the western pleasure class. They want great movement and consistency. Great movement is very important but a good moving consistent horse will beat a great moving inconsistent horse every time, so consistency is the key. They must be consistent in cadence, transitions, manners, speed and in executing class protocol. The horse with the most talent will be the one that can go around the show pen effortlessly and happily. He doesn't know how good he is; he just does what comes naturally.
The modern western pleasure horse must be balanced, attractive and very athletic looking
Look for a steeper slope to the shoulder, a strong top line with withers higher than the hip, short cannon bones and sloping pasterns
A good western pleasure horse's hock should have some bend to it to help him reach under himself and there should be more angle in the hock than the stifle
The hip should be more parallel to the ground, rather than perpendicular
The jog should be crisp with a slight up and down motion as opposed to flat and waddling
The lope should be free and forward with lift in front and plenty of drive from behind. The horse's back should be round and there should be no neck bobbing
At the lope there should be little or no bend in the knee and the back lead leg should reach up under the belly
Don't worry too much about blemishes, straightness of movement or size
An overtrained or man-made look is undesirable
Judges look for the most talented equine that is presented the best
Consistency in cadence, transition, manners and speed with good movements will beat inconsistent great movement
A good western pleasure horse is one that can go around the show pen effortlessly and happily