The Evaluation and Training of Equine Western Pleasure

Equines in this country are commonly used for competitive show events or leisure recreational activities. It has been a long-time tradition for people to own horses and participate in various activities via horseback. Over the years, the number and variety of events offered for horses to compete in have expanded. The specific event an animal competes in determines the intensity of exercise and particular conditioning/training program the animal athlete needs to have put in place. Equine animals are very similar to human athletes as they must be conditioned and trained to participate and excel in their physical performance. Specifically, a very popular equine competition event that requires moderate intensity, medium duration exercise is western pleasure.

Horses at Quarter Horse congress
Figure 1. Western Pleasure Horse at the  American Quarter Horse Association Congress.

Western pleasure is a judged event in which only the horse’s performance and quality of movement are judged on, not the riders. The event is judged by one or more individuals based on the horse’s ability to be a “pleasure to ride.” Some of these characteristics may include the horse being broke and quiet, soft and smooth, functional correctness in terms of movement, a proper headset or carriage, and responsive to the rider’s cues while riding on a loose rein/light contact. During a western pleasure class, the horse and rider combination performs near the rail or outside portion of the arena in which they are asked to perform three different gaits in both directions. These three gaits include the walk, jog, and lope on the correct lead. When competition is tough and the judge is having a hard time choosing the best horse in the class, he or she may also ask the riders to show their horse with a lengthened or extended stride at any of these three gaits. The most common extension gait that is typically called for in a western pleasure class is a moderate extension of the jog. At some point in the class, the horses will also be required to back up in the reverse direction. On average, this event will last for about 5-10 minutes depending on the class size and how many participants there are during competition. Figure 1 illustrates how a western pleasure performance class is performed near the rail/outside portion of the arena. The judge(s) stand in the middle of the arena so that they are able to watch all of the riders and place the class accordingly. Particularly in this image, the horses are being asked by the judges to perform the left lead of the lope.

Behind the scenes of actually showing at competitions, there are many hours or even possibly days of preparation of getting the horse adjusted to the new scenery, exercised/worked down so that they become tired, and lots of practicing so that the horse/rider combination is able to perform at the best of their ability. During horse shows, western pleasure classes are often broken down into different categories and age divisions. This way the youth kids and adults can show separately from one another. The judge will choose the class winner and place the rest of the horse/riders accordingly based on what they watched and viewed during the class. Many people within the horse industry believe for this class to be very political as it is based on personal preferences and opinions of the judges rather than a class that is timed or scored.

When beginning training an equine who is new to an event, the most important factor the handler needs to focus on is exercising, training, and conditioning their horse. They are going to have to practice and prepare so that the animal is physically fit and in shape to compete for the event. An owner should never want to impact the health of their horse because of their lack of preparation. It is also important that the owner is taking into consideration the nutritional requirements of their performance animal because of their increase level of exercise. The primary nutrient of concern in performance horses is energy. Horse must have enough energy to achieve and maintain their ideal body condition as well as to perform their work. A training program that is orientated for a western pleasure horse would consist of exercises that are focused on conditioning for a slow speed and medium/moderate intensity level. With slow speed, there will be improvements in aerobic capacity, limb strength, and adaptation of skeletal muscle. The horse is going to need an adequate amount of both stamina and endurance to do well in this event. They will need the stamina both physically and mentally to properly move/carry their body in the correct form and stay focused on what the rider is asking them to do. Also, the horse will need the endurance to push through the hard times of training when the rider is challenging and asking more out of them. The horse may experience times of struggle and frustration during this training as they are trying to learn a new discipline and are not fully aware of what the rider is wanting them to do. Training a good quality western pleasure horse can be difficult. Therefore, often, owners tend to send their western pleasure horses to professional horse trainers so that an experienced rider can train, ride, and work with the horse. 

Horse on longe line

Figure 2. Western pleasure prospect horse being lunged for exercise and training.

            First of all, the single most important step in training a horse is getting them to move forward properly at the walk, trot, and lope in the correct leads. Once a horse can perform all three of these gaits correctly, then a trainer can start to go in depth and train specifically for the event that the horse will be performing. With a western pleasure horse, the trainer will do a combination of both lunging and riding the horse for exercise. Lunging is a method of horse training in which the handler holds the end of a very long lead rope, approximately 20 meters, called a lunge line. On the other end, the rope will be attached to the horse’s halter so that the handler has control over where the horse goes and which direction they want them to perform. A handler does this by using their voice and body language to communicate with the horse. When lunging is done correctly, this type of exercise technique can benefit both the handler and the horse. Lunging builds respect and trust between horse and rider and can also be an excellent source of free exercise for the horse. Lunging is a common solution to horse behavior problems and should be employed if the horse is full of energy such as bucking or running off. Once lunging is completed and the horse seems quiet, trainers will then mount the horse to ride. Figure 2 illustrates lunging where the handler has the long black rope in her right hand and a whip in her left hand. This way the handler is able to use a combination of her voice and body language so that the horse proceeds forward in all three gaits. The horse seems to be very calm and relaxed in this image which is a very good sign.

During riding, trainers will work on all three of the different gaits in both directions by doing various exercise practice drills and teaching the horse what they are wanting of them. With young, new, and learning western pleasure prospect horses, it is better to ride these horses for a shorter duration at approximately 15-20 minutes in a riding session. Since these horses are not fully mature yet, they are going to have a much shorter attention span and not as much strength/power to hold and collect their bodies like a more experienced western pleasure horse. After a short riding session, trainers will often keep the horse saddled, tie him/her to the wall of her stall, come back in an hour or two to ride the horse again, and repeat the process until the horse is performing well. If horse trainers ride the horse multiple times throughout the day but only for short durations, this can help teach the horse about repetition and consistency. Trainers can also reward the horse for good and proper behavior.

For an equine horse to become properly conditioned and trained for western pleasure, two different exercises that work well for this discipline. Though western pleasure horses typically perform at a much slower pace compared to many other equine events, it is still important for the horse to learn how to move and stretch themselves out at forwarding motion. Therefore, one important exercise that a trainer can work with the horse is long trotting. Long trotting is a key aerobic exercise for horses as it involves moving a horse out into an extended trot which causes the horse to cover more ground and raises the heart rate. Long trotting, as opposed to slower jogging, builds muscle faster and encourages a horse to stretch his muscles, tendons, and ligaments. With long trotting, it is important to work both on straight lines and large circles in both directions. Long trotting will improve the overall strength and top line of the horse as well. If a trainer works on long trotting every ride, they are going to be able to get the horse into a proper condition much faster.

Arena exercises

Figure 3. A variety of different arena exercises and patterns that a rider can work on with their horse.

Another important exercise, that often gets overlooked by western pleasure riders, is working to ride square corners. Many riders seem to focus heavily on working on riding in straight lines as when they compete they will be maneuvering their horse down this straight line against the rail of the arena. Arenas are always built with round corners as well, which naturally encourages the horse to be able to drop their inside shoulder and not hold themselves together. Therefore, to help fix this issue and make the horse more correct in their movement, it is important to also practice the exercise of riding square corners. This exercise will naturally require the horse to pick up their shoulders and to stay balanced. The horses will need to drive off their back end and have a cadenced gait to successfully complete a square corner. Working on square corners when practicing can also be a fun, yet challenging way to improve the horse’s handle and horsemanship skills. Therefore, I believe that long trotting and riding square corners are two very important exercises that western pleasure horses need to work on while in training. Figure 3 shows a variety of different arena exercises and patterns that a rider can work on with their horse. With western pleasure horses, their minds often get bored of constantly performing in one large circle and doing the same thing over and over again. These arena exercises will freshen the horse’s workout routine and improve overall responsiveness. The pattern on the bottom left is very similar to the idea of riding square corners. 

Since horse showing can be a year-round event, full-time horse trainers often implement a macrocycle type of training cycle for western pleasure horses. By definition, a macrocycle is an annual, yearly plan that works towards peaking for the goal competition of the year. This means that the training program needed for the horse will consist of a proper balance of overloaded training followed by an appropriate rest/recovery period. There are three different phases to a macrocycle training style which are preparation, competition, and transition. First of all, the preparation phase focuses on the training, exercising, and getting the horse prepared to show and do well in their event. The competition phase is when the horse is getting the chance to start competing in the show ring against other horses and riders. The last phase, transition, is the recovery time that is needed for a horse. For example, let’s say a horse trainer just got home from the AQHA congress show that lasts for several weeks. After the show is over and the horses are back home again, it is best to give them some time off as it is good for them both physically and mentally. We do not want the horses to become body sore, lame, or dislike their job of being a show horse. Therefore, when appropriate, it is best to give a western pleasure show horse show time off when it is earned. A macrocycle training type of cycle is very important for horses that are in training for western pleasure, especially those that are competing at a much higher level.

The development of an effective training program for a prospect horse begins with evaluating what event the horse will be participating in. A general starting evaluation of fitness and health should be recorded on the animal before any serious type of training occurs. A western pleasure trainer needs to be able to train the horse properly so that the exercises that are being done each day reflect the physical need and fitness of the animal. To evaluate the condition of the training program, the trainer should monitor changes in endurance, stamina, heart rate, muscularity, and recovery time of the horse. These aspects will indicate how well the horse is adapting to the exercise program and if it is performance ready for the show arena.

By Jalyn Brownell and Peggy Auwerda.
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals


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