In Celebration Of The Western Pleasure Horse
Great “Strides” are Being Made
By Robyn Duplisea
For the past week I have seen many comments floating around social media in a flurry of controversy about the western pleasure horse. The opinions vary greatly from source to source and the comments have left me defending the industry I love, every time I open my computer.
That horse they are talking about as “abused” and “crippled” is in fact someone’s treasured partner. His “Stepford wife” temperament is actually what I would call good minded. He is the horse I trust my non-riding husband on, and the one we all trust our children to learn from.
He is the horse I watched in awe from the moment he stood and nursed and then loped across the pasture with perfect cadence and deep hocks.
He is the ”baby” I place with the best trainers, who I am confident will develop his natural ability and not “break him.”
He is my dream come true. His personality and soul are celebrated, (including his goofiness outside the pen) and he is my comfort during the toughest days. His mane has soaked up many tears when life has been rough, and the sound of him munching his hay is better than any therapy, in my opinion.
The lope that some feel is unnatural and mechanical is the result of breeding the best of the industry for decades. His head and neck are level as he rounds his back to use his hocks and maintain his impulsion. It is natural to this horse. He was born this way.
Like the cat-like cutting horse that gets low to the ground and cuts with all his heart. You have probably seen them on videos. All the spectators celebrate when they keep cutting even though the rider is no longer there.
Like the reining horse you applaud for his 30-foot slides and rollbacks, the Grand Prix dressage horse capable of a perfect piaffe and canter pirouette, the show jumper that clears 1.6 meters and the racehorse who captures the heart of the nation by winning the Triple Crown.
None of these actions are “natural” to a wild horse, but then again, these animals are not wild horses.
These elite athletes share a history of breeding practices and training. Each excels in his or her own “arena” and each should be appreciated for what they are. My horse may lope differently than yours, but that does not mean he is lame or abused. While you may feel it is kind to let your horse gallop free with his head in the air, my horse would have to be terrified to move that way, and to force him to do so would be cruel.
Debbi Trubee of North Farm has vast experience with the western pleasure breeding programs that have created the modern pleasure horse.
“It’s a very complicated subject,” says Trubee. “We strive to breed horses that have natural self-carriage and superior conformation and movement. It is easier for the young stock to hang their necks low as they have been bred to do that, and it’s easier for the young stock to jog slow and lope with lift and a big hock because they have been bred to do that.”
I have been in this industry long enough to be the first to say it is not perfect. Yes, there are some people who have cut corners and have forced an animal to do something it was not born naturally to do. Yes, we have had trends and fads that even the most devout pleasure lover shakes their head at. I think we have to remember where we have come from in order to move forward, and not tolerate the mistakes of the past.
Heads no longer dangle on the ground, “peanut rolling” like they did in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The horses are fat and shiny and are not starved or drugged into submission (I remember those days too). The ones that win do not look intimidated and overpowered; they show with expression. And the great ones keep winning even as they age. Look at A Certain Vino.
The modern western pleasure horse is a different animal. Our judges are looking for a natural horse; one that has self-carriage, one that flows and uses himself with balance and cadence. They place the horse that is the most consistent with great movement. The head bobbing, 4 beaters do not place. We have seen vast improvements over the years. Many of our pleasure horses go on to have all around careers where they compete in horsemanship, trail and western riding. The training and natural movement of the western pleasure horse helps to create an athlete capable of the challenging maneuvers of these classes.
I watched a large pleasure class at this year’s Congress and I was impressed. I saw horses moving with flow and momentum. I was happy to see that hips were not over canted and these horses were moving straight for the most part. My view is that ours is an industry that is ever evolving for the betterment of the horse. Our judges ask for extensions of the jog and lope and the riders comply and show the horses at the more forward pace.
Judging is key to continuing the progress we have made and changing the perception of the pleasure horse. Debbi Trubee comments, “The problem comes into play when the trainers try to emulate the few horses that can go slower than the rest of the pack and do it correctly, resulting in a class that is judged on speed or lack thereof and not quality of movement.”
Dean Ross is a well-respected AQHA Judge and professional horseman and shared his opinion on the horses he is seeing jog into the pen and, as a judge, what he’s looking for as he places a class.
“The western pleasure horse is a balanced, free flowing horse that presents quality of movement, cadence and a willingness to please. They are judged on performance, condition and conformation. I have had the privilege throughout my judging and training career to be involved and see these horses soar to incredible heights. Specialized breeding programs and the introduction of many new classes through the American Quarter Horse Association and the National Snaffle Bit Association have opened the doors to increased success and levels of competition. The integrity of the breeders, owners, and trainers has skyrocketed the western pleasure horse to the very highest degree of difficulty and quality in movement of gaits. I personally have seen the pleasure horses improve and shine! They literally float across the ground and present beautiful expression while maximizing their movement and balance. As in every discipline there will be those who pass judgment with a negative implication. I believe education and appreciation for what these horses can do and what they achieve as show horses is the best avenue to follow. Take the time to explore what every discipline has to offer and become educated about them. Ask a professional horseman or horsewoman! There are many out there who are always willing to show off what these great pleasure horses offer to the industry.”
We have created the Ranch Horse Pleasure class as another option for the horses that do not have the natural ability to move in the slow pleasure frame. As an industry, we have encouraged the Maiden 3 year old classes to allow our horses more longevity in the show pen and we have continued to educate those in and outside our industry on the desirable traits of a pleasure horse.
Bret and Candy Parrish are Multiple Congress champion trainers specializing in western pleasure horses. They, too, see the improvements and progress that has been made.
“We believe pleasure horses are more naturally talented and are positively better than they have ever been. Honestly, any negative talk about pleasure horses comes from people who are not educated about this discipline. Things change and progress over time and if you look back at videos of pleasure horses in past years it’s obvious how far we have come. Our horses today are bred to do what they do. They lope around in the pasture with rhythm, naturally level top lines and self-carriage. Show horses are so well taken care of and pampered; they are happy and healthy going around the show pen. We see a lot of positive strides in pleasure horses!”
I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to watch a pleasure class at a large show to do so. The judges are looking for the modern pleasure horse and you will see the changes and the improvements. If you have the chance to view a video from a class in the 1990’s as compared to what you see today, you will see the positive direction this industry in moving in.
I also encourage those who do not understand the discipline to please come and speak with those of us who love these horses, At every show you will find someone passionate about western pleasure who would be happy to show you how these horses are treated and share with you why we love what we do. You may be surprised by what you learn and would hope, at the very least, you could walk away respecting the horses for their incredible talents.
There are so many positives to be celebrated in the pleasure horse industry. The love of showing, camaraderie of great friends and colleagues, the momentum of change and progress and most importantly the incredible animal that honors us with the opportunity to have an industry at all.
I love the western pleasure horse, and I am proud to stand and say so.