God is Great, Beer is Good, and This Western Pleasure Thing Has Gotten Crazy

246507_309397709150429_2062996370_nI’m pretty much the worst blogger ever. They say you’re supposed to write at least a post a week, but for some reason, I only write when I’m inspired. If I don’t have anything particularly relevant to say, I don’t write. (I find it a useful practice when it comes to actually talking as well. More people should consider it.)

But now, it’s Congress time. That month or so long Central Ohio event, where dreams are made (and sometimes go to die), lots of money is spent, and thousands of American Quarter Horses and their people travel to see who is the “best of the best”. (At least in some sense, given that you don’t have to qualify to show there.) The All American Quarter Horse Congress, if you’ve never been also attracts equine enthusiasts from all breeds and disciplines, presumably because both the pecan rolls and the shopping are so fantastic. This year, however, it seems to be attracting people for a different reason…it is Internet open season on the Western Pleasure horse. Unfortunately, I can’t even type the words without feeling like I should duck at minimum, or put on a flame retardant suit at worst.

Several videos have been circulating via social media “highlighting” the best, (or the worst), the class has to offer, depending on your perspective. Many of those who are currently involved in the Western Pleasure world are raving about how good the horses are moving these days, by and large, but a seemingly more vocal majority is condemning the horses, the people and basically everyone who has ever come within 10 feet of a western pleasure horse be they owner, trainer, judge or stall cleaner. To this point, I haven’t really said much, as talking about western pleasure on social media is about as effective as trying to negotiate Middle Eastern peace via Twitter, but after giving it some thought (a less than popular concept in the social media world, it seems) I decided that I do have something to say.

Those who are condemning western pleasure riders, trainers, and owners are typically doing so “in defense of the horse”.   Horses don’t naturally move that slow (true), horses aren’t naturally that mechanical (also true), and horses clearly have to be abused to perform that way (ok, I know that part isn’t always true).

Let’s stop and think about Grand Prix dressage for just a minute. Horses don’t naturally trot and canter in place either, yet that seems to be perfectly acceptable and highly revered in the Dressage world. I think it has something to do with the difference in animation, lift, and suspension, and training progression demonstrated by Dressage horses as compared to stock type horses, which sometimes don’t have much of any of those things. I don’t mean to pick on Dressage, it just happens to be another sport where horses are asked to perform difficult, unnatural maneuvers. You can insert reining, jumping, or even trail riding here if you like. I’m guessing not all horses think 7 hours on the trail is big fun either, by the way. It depends on the horse.

Anyway, my point is this. I don’t care for how many western pleasure horses are asked to move these days…but I DO appreciate a great one, and I do appreciate the fact that when asked, the horses can and do move differently…more forward, and in some cases, more comfortably. (If all horses moved at about the speed of a good western riding horse, that would be swell.) When I judge, I try to encourage people to move their horses forward a bit when I can, while trying to help them understand how to collect their horses and develop some self carriage. (At least as much as any judge can do in the 5 seconds the have to talk to exhibitors at open shows).

Anyway, I also appreciate great reining horses, great racehorses, great draft horses…any horse that is good at their game. Even if that game is simply teaching a little girl how to ride (which for some horses may be considered abuse in itself).  If they aren’t “good at their game” I typically don’t take to social media and drag the entire sport or discipline through the mud.  But at this point western pleasure is like shooting fish in a barrel. People seem to think there are prizes for bashing western pleasure, and they come in the form of “likes”.

But most people who own western pleasure horses aren’t actually monsters. I know quite a few, and to be honest, they love their horses, and go out of their way to make sure they are well cared for, and have the best of everything. Many DO turn them out when they aren’t showing…sometimes (gasp) with other horses, even! Many trainers will have frank discussions with owners letting them know that their horse is better suited for something else if that’s the case. And often, horses start as western pleasure horses go on to have long careers as all around horses…despite what some would have you believe.

At the same time, if you do own a western pleasure horse, it’s pretty naïve to suggest that all of those people who don’t like today’s western pleasure horse are “ignorant”, (and they aren’t monsters either). Many of those people are horse people who have left the western pleasure arena because they can’t stand to watch what is (sometimes) happening. They too love their horses, and it pains them to see horses shut down to the point where they barely move at all.  They don’t like seeing horses excessively spurred, jerked on either, by the way, and its even worse if you don’t seem to have an end point in mind. In some cases, they are still showing, but avoid the western pleasure class altogether. Realizing that you may be asking your horse to physically and mentally do things he can’t actually do to satisfy your own competitive ego can be a tough pill to swallow. I know because I’ve swallowed it. Fortunately for me, the horse is still standing in my barn, and has forgiven me, it appears.

Love or hate western pleasure, I believe that more want what is best for horses than don’t. The most important lesson I ever learned was that if we’re going to ask animals (any animals) to do things for us, we owe them the highest level of care and consideration. It may be that rather than post videos and inflammatory comments on social media, everyone needs to take a step back, talk face to face, consider the genetics, training techniques, and daily life of western pleasure horses, the perspective and point of view of both sides, and then make their own decisions about what to do.  But then, that’s not always popular in this day and age. There isn’t always a “like” button (or a bronze trophy) for taking personal responsibility.

44 Comments on “God is Great, Beer is Good, and This Western Pleasure Thing Has Gotten Crazy

  1. Absolutely excellent. Your intellectual honestly is refreshing and sadly, rare. But this is very well said and if you save blogging for when you are this inspired, so be it, this was worth the wait. 🙂
    (swallowed the same pill for the much beloved gelding in my back yard barn. I hear you on so many levels.)

  2. Excellent and thought provoking as always. And although WP is not my ‘cup of tea’ (regardless of breed) your point about the beauty of a good horse in any discipline, and the fact that most horses in competition are asked to do some thing they wouldn’t do in the pasture, is important. And don’t underestimate the power of the genetics. Generations of horses have been bred to jog slowly in a horizontal frame, or piaffe and passage, they are conformed for this. The key is, are we asking horses to do what they are built for, or asking them to do something that is difficult based on their structure and conformation? Regardless of discipline, you should be asking that question.

  3. THANK YOU. Exactly what I have been saying all week. I’m not a big fan of western pleasure, but I appreciate the training it takes to make it happen. The mob mentality has got to stop. BTW, I’ve been trained by an Olympic Grand Prix rider, and it’s not all sunshine and roses there, either.

  4. I respect what you have to say, but many of us have shown and do know what it takes to get a horse hobbled down to this level. I have talked to both trainers and owners and have been banned from the show area of our state fair for asking if it was really that important to show a horse that was showing obvious signs of lameness both in the ring and moving from the stall to the warmup area. The trainer didn’t want anyone else to hear the questions and the show management backed them. Not what I would call good policy.

    • Guess what? So have I. But it was one unethical/uneducated trainer, not all of them. I’ve shown at Congress a few times myself, and while not all perfect, it’s not all terrible either.

  5. You have nailed it! Many of us amateurs do not show western pleasure because we ride our horses mostly at home and are unable or unwilling to ride them in the manner necessary to be successful at shows in WP. It still falls back on the folks who are judging the shows – and that would require a brave leap – if you disqualified the horses who are not moving as described in the AQHA handbook, there might not be a class to pin – and unfortunately, those judges brave enough to do it might find it difficult to continue getting judging jobs. But I keep hoping that there will be judges who will take that chance and get the WP back to the way it was meant to be – beautiful horses with a beautiful, relaxed cadence that doesn’t require bobbing sideways down the rail.

    • exactly……the professionals are in a quagmire…..they need to “when in Rome” to make a living…and when Joe Public sees the winners, he wants his horse to ride that way also…..it’s a tough situation

    • Karen. A few years back when I started seeing this unnatural way of going for wp, I looked at the standards by which a judge is to asses the horses in front of him/her. And what it says there does not match what they are pinning…head carriage is another strange thing. So if the judges could be bold and pin to the standards, it would be fixed…like that. Trainers train horses for $$.. the clients want ribbons…the trainers do what was pinned at the last show and over the years, this is what we get…lame looking horse….training methods which do not respect the horse. So I ,for one, think the social media call out is a wake up call. Hope the judges are listening…because if they change, training will change.

      • Yes!!! As long as judges pin it, trainers train it. Bring life back to WP horses!

      • Great to hear but in the end it is the judges whose opinion matters most. It is the judges who can DQ a whole class rather than saying the chicken thing” I have to judge what I am given” as their excuse to award bad movers.
        Please quit pushing ownership of this problem onto someone else and help fix the problem. Follow the rules, no heads below the vertical ( see this on every jogger) , quit placing 4 beaters, and recognize that speed is not bad and the slowest horse in the pen is not the best.

    • the breed associations do nothing about it and most of the judges are trainers! So it will not change been going on for years

  6. My thoughts are the upper level dressage horse takes years to perfect and are usually over 7…my issue is with taking a 2 year old and cranking it down the rail before it’s hocks, stifles, etc are fully developed . Not waiting until the horse is mature enough to physically and mentally capable do what’s asked. and now required to complete in the extreme is my biggest problem. Just like racing we need to allow these amazing creatures to grow and develop. You don’t see a 2 or 3 year old upper level dressage horse. We are creating crippled 4 year old horses requiring injections and worse. I personally feel if we stopped showing the 2 and 3 year old babies we could be much better stewards of our horses. Unfortunately, money Rules…

    • Nancy, this was my thoughts exactly. You will never see any upper level dressage horse competing at 2 or 3 years old. The breed associations themselves are creating these crippled 4 year olds, needing injected hocks to continue to perform. Stop with the two year futurities and Masters classes. Again, as you mentioned, they need to mature both physically and mentally before putting them through the rigors of the strenuous training needed to be a Western Pleasure horse.

    • $$ talks is so right! And you are absolutely correct about the age thing too.

  7. I’m glad to finally see something like this! One of my greatest horses began his show career as a western pleasure horse, and he’s moved on to reining, roping, and speed events. In fact this past weekend we showed in our very first working cow horse show! Granted, he can still move like a pleasure horse if I ask him too, that’s not the only speed that he has. I really agree with what you said in this article!

  8. I found this to be a good read and loved the comparison to many other disciplines of riding..I get it…thanks. It did make me open my thinking

  9. Having shown western pleasure for many years I feel a need to jump in. Those competitors who are at the top of this sport will blanket, wrap, massage, chiropractic, feed hundreds of dollars of supplements, inject every joint that may think of hurting, and then jerk the crap out of a rein when riding because the horse didn’t do what was asked. Then pet them and think that makes it all better. Watch the Horse Training Channel on You Tube! “It’s not jerking, it’s bumping!” Well, guess what? That horse has more nerves in his mouth than you have on your fingertips. “It’s not spurring, it’s lifting!” Lifting the back alone is tantamount to saying the most collected animal in the animal kingdom is an aardvark. It is nonsensical with training practices that are borderline insane. (Insane defined by doing the same thing over and over and expecting it to work.) Look at the trainers ride. Look in the warm up pen. Oh, and another thing, horses DO trot in place in the wild, when they’re excited or challenged by another horse. Horses DO lift their necks and add energy to their gaits when they play. It’s called being proud. “What a horse does under compulsion he does blindly and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet dancer taught by whip and goad” Simon of Athens ca 430 BC. “Dressage (training) only has meaning if it results from the search for the most correct processes…methods that are both efficient and gentle, because they are not contrary to the horse’s nature.” Philippe Karl.

  10. This is the best opinion I have seen on the whole issue of what WP horses are doing in the pen these days. I am one of the people you mentioned, used to show WP, I still plan to show, probably HUS since those horse move more natural and prettier, but done even thinking of WP. Just sold my Bob’s silver show saddle last month. The WP class has become such a trainer bound event, perhaps because the trainers have moulded it over time, not the riders, judges (they can only judge what is brought to them) or rule books, and very rare an amateur who works has time to train what is going on in the pen all by themselves or with little help. I’m thinking I want more freedom and more choices and hire a trainer because I want to perform better, not because an absolute necessity for the horse only.

  11. I am a judge and I won’t place a western pleasure horse that cannot demonstrate clear rhythmic gaits. Period. A pleasure horse should appear comfortable and fun to ride. He should look as though he could be ridden all day, but he should not look as though a pebble could trip him as he travels because he’s so forehand heavy. Weight should be distributed evenly on a long relaxed frame that travels well with enough energy to get somewhere while still maintaining a slower than at Liberty gait for comfort’s sake. He should be uncomplicated, quiet and obedient in the ring and out and about. The rider should be balanced, with quiet hands and excellent use of seat & leg. A kind bit is also noted. That’s my winner every time.

    I would caution your comparison of dressage training and gaits. They are ill-informed and wrong. Dressage horses have an average active competitive career from age 4-18/20. Even to the Grand Prix level. I think that speaks to quality their training and athleticism. The training is a system that develops in step by step fashion, more folks should learn it. All movements can be demonstrated by the horse in nature, from passage to pirouette. Not interfering with the horse’s natural movement is the foundation of dressage. Their principles can be wisely applied in any discipline.

    • Thank you for your comment. I too am a judge, and agree with all you’ve stated save one thing. The suggestion that the point of the dressage comment was to “compare” dressage training and gaits. The point was to suggest that we do quite a bit with horses that is “unnatural” in all seats, disciplines, and venues. If you truly think I am comparing dressage to western pleasure, you have missed the point.

      • “Horses don’t naturally trot and canter in place either, yet that seems to be perfectly acceptable and highly revered in the dressage world”

        They don’t canter or trot in place in dressage. If you are referring to piaffe, this is frequently performed by stallions in nature. Then you did go on to compare the two, which you can’t. I’m only refuting the comparison between WP & dressage in the post.

        Regardless, you are spot on with your assessment of WP. It could truly be a SPECTACULAR asset to the discipline, more judges need to be prepared to absorb some backlash when they choose a proper moving animal over what is now common place. Hopefully you still get hired for the next show, so show committees need to understand that the judge has to come from a place of being a horse advocate first, and let politics fall to the wayside and leave them there. It’s an uphill task.

  12. What would be really cool would be to have a competitor go into the show ring at congress this year,,have a horse who shows at natural gaits and has his poll level with his withers….that would be awesome…it would certainly raise eyebrows

  13. I have shown pleasure way back in the late sixties and early seventies, on a mare that was pretty tough to beat, in side or out doors after a heavy rain, I have pulled draft horses in pulling competition, and I have done some barrel racing,and now I consider cutting my favorite thing to do, that is where if you do not that the horse think for him or her self, they will not express them selves and make moves that you can not teach, but come from their heart, because they are free to make any move they want, and when you get them on a cow and they go to working that cow , and dropped down and just shiver their hole body wanting that cow to move, you know they love what they are doing , and so to do you. That can not be taught but in the wrong hands it can be taking away.
    I do not know you but you say you are a judge, and I believe what you say. I watched these videos a little but I do not like what I see, but my question to you is what about the dog tracking, and what does they announced ask for ,for gates, or , do you the judge tell them you want to see the horse do.
    I wrote on here that this is Ann AQHA problem, and that I bet that there would not be many mares showing in the pleasure class at the congress, and a lady came back at me and said where do you think, good pleasure horses come from, I then ask her what was the percentage of mares showing in the pleasure class at the congress but she did not answer back to that, and you and I both know why.

    • Hi there,
      Thanks for your comment. I think your question is “do judges call the gait and/or ask for what they want to see”, and the answer to that is yes. AQHA is asking judges to ask for more forward movement (although I am not an AQHA judge), and often they will do so. They still have to ask for the basic gaits, and some extensions of those gaits. Then it comes down to the exhibitors having horses prepared to do that. Hope this is what you meant, and someday I hope to ride a great cutter!


  14. I have been involved / horses & showing for many, many years. I went to Congress last week– I enjoyed the Hunters & Jumpers & watched 2 cuts of the Maturity WP class before I had to leave. I couldn’t watch any longer. (The couple in front of me left before I did—complaining about the horses’ movement.) The horses moved so crooked and awkward at the lope that I could only wonder how their bodies could tolerate it. They moved their legs suspiciously at the jog—suggesting some very questionable training methods. I have no problem with the horses moving more slowly than they would in the field– slow is more pleasurable for the rider. But the crooked lope was even twisting the bodies of the riders, surely not pleasurable. The horses’ heads have elevated after years of AQHA mandating judging changes. AQHA needs to put more pressure on judges and trainers to follow the rulebook, rather than the trend. It is hard for individual judges to stand against the trend. How long before something happens to return the horses to a more natural line of movement? I cancelled two scheduled return visits to Congress this year—I have no desire to see more of that lope! I’ll spend my $ elsewhere.

  15. What I want to know is who decided it was more of a pleasure to ride a horse slowed down to the point that the gaits are completely artificial?The class used to be about showing a stock horse that would be a pleasure to ride working cattle or riding fences all day. That horse has a forward, ground-covering walk, a smooth trot that can be adjusted to lengthen or shorten stride depending on the circumstance and a comfortable lope that can speed up and turn on a dime when needed. None of these so-called “pleasure” horses meet those criteria at all and the shuffling trot and pumpjack lope are not examples of collection or self-carriage.
    Here’s my blog on the subject: http://deserthorseinc.com/blog/2014/08/10/grandmothers-western-pleasure-horse/

  16. Great post, I completely agree. I showed wp as a child, and balked at the AQHA ring because I refused to expect my mare to move that way. We did it all; horsemanship, wp, trail, western riding, reining, even timed events. So she was definitely an all around horse who excelled at wp. It always bothered me that we could excel at the state level in the 4H pen, but never even got looked at in the AQHA shows. BTW, our state 4H program used the AQHA standards. The difference between the 4H program and the youth AQHA shows was simply that 4H judges actually adhered to the standard. That, and 4H project horses cannot go to pro trainers. Just food for thought.

    • Wow, Jess! What state do you live in? Here in Michigan 4h horses are at professional trainers all the time. Makes competition difficult for those of us who can’t afford that. But I tell my daughter she can take pride in the fact that everything her horse can do, she taught.

      • This depends a bit on what county you’re in. In some counties horses can’t be at a trainers in 4-H (In Michigan).

  17. Well said! I haven’t been a fan of WP since they started moving this way. Quite frankly, I can’t stand to watch. I’ve been less of a fan since I bought one of these horses in January. I had no intention of showing, but he was such a nice horse, I couldn’t pass him up. I started doing some digging into his past … the horror story begins. Someone spend a good deal of $$ on this horse. He’s well bred, incentive fund, trained by a BNT in Texas. then was thrown away when he was injured and couldn’t compete. Fortunately for him he was so lame the kill buyers didn’t want him. Since I’ve been doing so much research to find out what happened to I’m, I’m really not a fan. You can follow his story at http://www.tjsthebomb.com

  18. What a crazy week. I find it absolutely fascinating that some people people are so fixated on my supposed “comparison” to dressage. I was highly complimentary of dressage (“I think it has something to do with the difference in animation, lift, and suspension, and training progression demonstrated by Dressage horses as compared to stock type horses, which sometimes don’t have much of any of those things.”) yet few who take offense to the post have even NOTICED that line. But if that’s where people want to go, I will say this…if horses piaffe in nature, then it should be conceivable they lope slow, too. I’ve seen it. Especially if they’re bred to do that. Just like racehorses race each other, and reiners stop hard. When we ride them, we accentuate the things we find desirable in horses, right or wrong. All horses, any horses. Nearly every negative comment has either been in defense of dressage, when no defense is required, or coming down on western pleasure, which is sometimes deserved as I stated originally . Strangely, I’ve not heard from reiners, trail riders, or anyone else who was mentioned. In any case, what was intended to be a balanced approach to concerns on “both sides” of the western pleasure debate, has been twisted into something else, which has actually only served to support my original point…some issues are too complicated to be resolved via social media, but may require good old fashion face to face questions and conversation.

  19. Amen and Amen! Thanks for standing up and offering your point of view ! If the the naysayers don’t enjoy watching or participating in this discipline,
    then DONT!!!!!!!

  20. If I could take one thing out of this post, it would be any reference to Dressage. It has totally derailed the entire intent of the article.

  21. Pingback: Adulting is a Pain | outoftheboxstall

  22. Commentary well spoken. But perhaps it should be noted that in a dressage test, the movement is performed in “seconds” not minutes… for example: 15 steps of piaffe… not seemingly endless rounds of “lope.”

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