Western Pleasure: It’s Time to Move Forward and Straighten Things Out
Originally appearing in March 2015 issue of Show Horse Today
Rarely has a discipline received more criticism throughout its history than Western Pleasure. From the peanut-pusher headsets of the 60’s and 70’s, to the excessive slowness of the 80’s and 90’s, to the recent criticisms of horses going sideways today,
Western Pleasure has evolved from a class to showcase working horses’ ability to ride comfortably and obediently on the rail to a specialized event that has been perfected over the recent years with extraordinary breeding and record-setting purse money. However, one has to ask why a class that seems basic and straightforward on the surface, has become a source of controversy over the years. Show Horse Today sat down with renowned trainer, breeder, and three time NSBA Hall of Fame inductee, Tom Chown, for his take on the current state of the western pleasure industry, how far it’s come, and the changes that may need to be made.
“We are in an era where we have bred the best moving horses in the history of western pleasure, but the current training methods have taken these horses and completely torn apart their natural movement and changed the way our horses are going,” he explains. “We’ve gone from movement that is flowing and natural with true collection and self- carriage, to something that is mechanical and labored.”
How did we get to this point? After years of breeding horses with self-carriage, natural lift, flowing strides, and level top lines, how did the western pleasure horse become something that receives so much criticism? Is it simply a misunderstanding by outsiders who don’t “get” the discipline, or is there more to it? We have all heard many people, both those who show and those who don’t, cringing and even turning their heads when they see some of the horses in the western pleasure class laboring as they go down the rail in the show ring. If these reactions are not enough to suggest a significant problem with the current training of the western pleasure horse, simply look at the decrease in western pleasure numbers at most shows in the last few years.
“I think it comes down to a lack of knowledge,” Chown says. “A lot of the younger generation is used to seeing horses that move so slow they aren’t even doing a true gait at the jog and the lope. Once they have seen this win, they think this is how it’s supposed to be done. Many people also have the mindset that if going slow is good, than figuring out a way to go slower is even better. This applies to the slowness of the jog, the speed of the lope, the lack of knowledge of the gaits, and the desire to create the illusion of the split in the hock.
However, that’s not a good way to look at it. An effective trainer will look at how little he or she can do to enhance the natural movement of the horse and to the self- carriage that they are born with, not break the horses into parts and attempt to fix one part independently of others, and make it nearly impossible for most horses to perform the gaits with perfection.
Appreciating True Collection, versus Mechanical Movement
As with anything, it’s all about balance. If you go to the extremes to have the lowest headset, the slowest horse, and the deepest hock, you’re going to sacrifice the balance and integrity of the horse’s natural way of going. A horse that is loping in the pasture carries itself with “self carriage,” in a way that is comfortable and natural. He naturally lifts his ribcage and back, or his “core,” and uses his head and neck for balance. However, for those who have never seen this natural flowing movement, it can be hard to visualize.
Chown explains that the topline of the horse should always be parallel with the rail. In order to maintain that parallel topline, and show the roundness in his back, the horse has to be able to lift his ribs and back, his “core”, and use his legs like a pendulum. If the horse does not lift his “core” and instead hollows out his back, then the result is a discombobulated gait with the horse struggling to compensate for the lack of lift and the front end moving separately from the back end. When a horse correctly lifts his “core,” and uses his body like it’s designed to be used, the result is a smoother, free-flowing stride that is pretty to watch and shows the beauty of the animal.
Another issue that is commonly seen in today’s western pleasure ring is excessive slowness.
“People tend to have the perception that the slower the horse goes, the better he must be, but that isn’t true at all,” he says. “A horse has to be able to have forward motion with the ‘lift’ that we talked about before. If you look at today’s western riding horses, they move through the pattern with impulsion because they wouldn’t be able to change leads without it. Their backs are lifted and they have free-flowing movement, which allows them to carry their heads and necks in a natural position, without excessive movement. This is what we refer to as self carriage and is how our western pleasure horses should look as well.”
As mentioned earlier, the horse must use his back, or “core,” for lift and for suspension, but the power comes from the drive in his hips and loin. Any correct movement, whether it is a lead change for western riding or a proper spin for horsemanship, requires power and forward motion from the hind end of the horse, which powers the lift and the step up front needed for speed. When a horse doesn’t properly engage his hind end, allowing him to lift his ribcage/back, or core, the result is a loss of power or impulsion with the front end moving separately from the hind end preventing him from building momentum to continue to move forward, speed up or slow down even more. When the horse’s front end is moving separately from the hind end, he struggles to maintain his balance which results in the “head bobbing,” or exaggerated up and down movement in the head and neck that we see going down the rail at many shows today.
“There are two reasons a horse bobs his head,” Chown states. “He’s either lame or he is laboring, or struggling to move forward and maintain his balance. His head and neck are his balance! I don’t care what event it is. When his head and neck are moving up and down, he is not balanced at all and appears to be lame. So, is he in fact lame, or is this what we have all agreed to accept as a true lope?” Chown says. “Absolutely not. As owners and trainers, we all know to look for lameness when we see a horse move, even at the jog or trot, with his head bobbing up and down, or excessive movement. Why then do we reward this same presentation in the show ring at the lope? This is wrong.”
Chown goes on to question the jog. “The jog is a two-beat gait which alsorequires the same lift of the core that allows the horse to suspend himself to keep his diagonals true. The lift,” Chown explains, “is what provides us with the definition of self carriage.”
“The more a horse is allowed to lift through his back, or core, and bring his legs underneath him creating suspension, the slower he can actually jog and lope correctly and naturally,” he states.
It is now more common to hear the announcer ask for an extension of the gaits in a western pleasure class, and only one or two of the horses actually show a change in the speed of the gait which leaves a lot of spectators, as well as judges, scratching their heads.
“So many people I’ve worked with are afraid to push their horses forward even a little bit,” Chown says. “I travel all over the world and one of the first things I always ask my students to do is push their horses forward at both a jog and a lope, and they have their horses come back to them and slow down. Most people that I work with have never felt the lift in their horses back and core, and that comes with the forward motion of a well-balanced and correct lope. Many worry that there is something wrong when they first feel their horse engage their back and core, creating the lift that is required for him to be able to suspend himself up enough to properly move his legs up underneath him creating a true jog or lope.”
When watching a pleasure class, one of the first things many people notice is how many riders have their horse’s hip pushed inward in order to emphasize a “deep hock.”
“People really started talking about the ‘hock’ when Zippo Pine Bar was around,” Chown remembers. “He was a horse with a natural wide split between his inside and outside hocks, and everyone wanted that.
However, if all people think about is the deep hock, then they tend to overlook the other components that we’ve mentioned. Cocking the hip that far to the inside to attain the illusion of the ‘deep hock’ is just a gimmick; it doesn’t actually mean the horse is coming that far underneath themselves.”
Here is how it’s done. When a horse’s head is pushed to the inside, he is forced to leave his drive leg, or outside hind leg, behind him, creating the illusion of the deep hock. If his drive leg is not underneath him, he has no way to lift himself up and push himself forward. Instead, in order to move forward, he must “hollow” or drop his back, which then disengages his back and core, forcing him to raise his head and neck in order to keep his balance and create enough momentum to his front leg and move it forward. In other words, without being able to use his drive leg, or “have a leg to stand on,” he has lost his ability to naturally carry himself forward fluidly. The result is the “lame” or labored, mechanical movement that we see today and accept as worthy of an award. In addition, many, shamefully aspiring to win, spend thousands of dollars in training to this illusion at the expense of our horses’ health, happiness, and well-being. Furthermore, this is the reason many of our horses may become lame so early in their careers.
The Creation of a Specialized Industry
So, if people are saying that the majority of horses out there are incorrect, then doesn’t the responsibility fall on the judges to not place those horses or use them at all?
“It’s tricky,”Tom says. “I’m sure there’s some pressure and lack of knowledge in certain cases, but I think many judges want to use the horses with a level top line who are moving correctly. However, sometimes they don’t get that opportunity. Judges can only judge what is in front of them and if every horse in the class is moving the same, then they have to pick the lesser of the evils, or those that are moving the least incorrectly! This is one reason why some of the placings for a multi-judged class can be all over the place.”
It then becomes a cycle. Trainers, owners, and even youth riders see the slowest horse is what’s placing and think it’s being done the right way and that is how a horse is supposed to move. They then start training to this. This is particularly evident at the local levels, up to some of the futurities and even at the Congress.
“The younger generation watches their peers come in and they see what’s winning, yet they either don’t know what a good horse is supposed to look and feel like, or they lack the knowledge of what self carriage is all about,” he explains. “This needs to change for the sake of our discipline, and the health and wellness of our equine partners.”
Due to the event’s specialization in the last 20 years, today’s western pleasure horses are bred to be the best movers that we’ve seen in the history of the breed. The best mares have been bred to the best stallions in order to compete for thousands of dollars in futurity money. Even at three days old, these horses show they have natural forward and fluid movement as they’re loping alongside their dams.
“If you watch a longe line class, you see that natural movement, and the judges judge them that way,” Chown says. “Then, you see them in the two year-old classes and they look completely different. For some reason, people think they need to reinvent the wheel just to get them around the arena, when all they really need to do is stay out of the horse’s way, figure out a way to train them to let them show their natural self carriage, and God-given, individual movement.”
Before the staggering futurity purses began to pave the road for specialization, western pleasure was seen as a “stepping stone” class for horses to get their feet wet in the show pen and begin their careers. They often went onto become youth and amateur horses and excel in horsemanship, trail, and western riding. If it wasn’t a stepping stone to more challenging events, it was used as another class for working horses in the 60’s and 70’s to show their versatility. In these days of specialization, western pleasure is the destination for many horses, not just a stop along the journey.
“Any time you put money up, things get tougher, and people work a little harder,” he explains. “This is one of the main factors that led to the specialization of the class, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Look at the horses at the World Shows. They are much more forward moving, natural, and correct per the AQHA handbook. We need to see that same kind of western pleasure horse across the board, from the top shows on down to the local level.”
On the surface, it seems like “fixing” western pleasure should be a simple: allow them to move forward correctly, naturally, with a level topline, and with self-carriage, and judge them accordingly. However, as with all things, change can be a long and slow process and as much the adjusting of a mindset as an actual, physical shift. So many western pleasure trainers and riders have ridden and shown this way for so long that they need to be willing to re-learn effective training techniques which will allow our western pleasure partners to carry themselves the way they were meant to, with self-carriage, forward, and beautifully. Some judges will also need to be educated as to what correct western pleasure horse movement looks like. This is not something that anyone can expect to happen overnight, but if each judge/trainer/exhibitor takes ownership of their role and focuses on the solution, this is something that can be changed. Those trainers who currently show western pleasure horses with correct movement and forward motion should continue to do so, regardless of sometimes being placed below the broken, mechanical movers. Others can work toward correcting the incorrect movement and work to enhance what is natural for the horse and begin working with, and not against, his self- carriage. With the naturally gifted horses that the industry has bred, these horses will only improve upon what they were already born to do. Judges should hold incorrect, artificial movers accountable by not placing them in the top five. This doesn’t necessarily mean disqualification, but these horses should not be placed above a correct, beautiful moving horse that may be a more forward mover that exhibits true self-carriage.
Don’t discount the seemingly small impact that each individual can have. According to Malcom Gladwell, bestselling author of books like Tipping Point- How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, 80% of work and change is often done by 20% of the people. By each person taking responsibility for change, it can spread to others and eventually an entire industry, in much the same way certain fashion trends appear on a few at the Congress and World Show and are then seen everywhere the following year. In an era where we have bred gifted, natural moving horses, we should be literally moving forward, and lifting our horses to a higher standard of excellence.