You've probably seen the equine victims of Western pleasure burnout. They're the horses that drag themselves along the rail, ears pinned, lips wrinkled, moving with lurch-along gaits, and looking as though they'd rather be anywhere else--and doing anything else--than their current job. These horses aren't much of a pleasure to watch. And, they aren't much of a pleasure to ride. They're a classic example of the fact that the toughest challenge with any broke horse is to keep him from getting bored and hating his job. (See below for four sour-horse signposts.)
But it's a challenge you can overcome, because there's no reason a pleasure horse should burn out. Sure, it's a physically and mentally demanding event. But smart maintenance on your part can keep your Western pleasure partner as fresh and happy as a 2-year-old just hitting the rail. I know, because I've developed a maintenance strategy that's enabled me to keep my horses winning national titles when a lot of pleasure horses have been put out to pasture.
So you can keep your horse working happily, I'll share with you my smart-riding strategies for keeping a seasoned horse physically and mentally prepared to excel in the Western pleasure pen.
- Less can be best.
Reevaluate your current program. Are you riding your seasoned show campaigner every day? Do you need to? I ride my seasoned show horses only two or three times a week in the middle of show season. That's because these horses are getting concentrated tune-ups at shows. If I were to drill them every day, I'd risk burning them out. On non-riding days, I keep them legged up--either on the walker, by ponying them or ponying off them, or with limited turnout.
- Step off the rail--and out of the arena. If your average training session consists of walk, jog, lope, reverse, ditto, your horse may be well on the road to burnout. Repetition leads to boredom, which can lead to resentment. You can improve his movement--and spare his mind--by doing your work outside the arena. And when you do work him in an arena, keep him off the rail. (I work a seasoned horse on the rail only when I'm correcting a rail-specific problem.) Your seasoned veteran knows what the rail is about and doesn't need to be drilled there. As a matter of fact, the more stuff I do outside the arena, the more my horses seem to consider the rail a vacation.They get left alone to do their jobs there, so it becomes a "happy" place--and it shows in their attitudes.
- Change things up. The only way you can keep a horse fresh is by adding different things to his repertoire. Change leads on him. Work cattle on him. Swing a rope off him. (You don't have to do any more than long trot up to a steer or a fence post. Your horse doesn't know you're not Clay O'Brien Cooper!) Gallop him across the pasture (one with good footing, of course). Pony horses off him. Open and close gates with him. Be creative. But above all, be different!
- Don't be afraid of speed. It's a myth that you always have to go slow on a pleasure horse. Horses evolved to run. I long-trot and gallop all my horses. It makes them use their full range of motion, which helps keep them strong and supple, which in turn helps their movement on the rail. It also works as reverse psychology. Say you gallop your horse across the pasture. He'll figure out darn quick his real job is quite a bit easier than what you're asking him to do. His slow gaits then become a reward.
- Demand show-pen perfection regardless of where you ride. Ask for every maneuver correctly, and demand a correct response, whether you're long-trotting through a herd of cattle or galloping across a pasture. Above all, insist on consistent cadence from your horse. When you can get stride consistency out in the open, it'll be a snap in the show pen. For instance, at the trot, count each stride as a one-two cadence. (Think "tick-tock," like the pendulum of a metronome.) Then see how far you can go on a straight line (and eventually, through a herd of horses or cattle), and maintain that consistency by marking a "start" spot and heading out from there. You'll probably be surprised at how far you can't go. Your horse will likely speed up (in which case your "tick-tock" count would speed up); or slow down (in which case so would your count). Instantly correct any speed changes, then start again, building on distance every time you ride.
- Stay focused. If you were to ease up on your ride-every-stride demands just because you left the arena, you'd be setting your horse adrift mentally. Your horse would then begin to interject his opinions on changes in direction and speed. I guarantee you'll run into trouble when you have to squelch those opinions later (especially in the show pen), which is counter to our "fresh" focus. Your horse should be like a car. He shouldn't go forward unless you step on the gas. He shouldn't slow down unless you take your foot off the accelerator or step on the brake. And he shouldn't veer from your established course unless you steer him in a new direction.
- Plug any holes in your program. For instance, if you ask your horse to back up, does he raise his head and stiffen his jaw and neck? If so, he has a "hole." And I'll guarantee that stiffness and resistance is going to haunt you somewhere in a forward gait. It'll also decrease his longevity, because you'll end up having to constantly pick at him. Your ability to locate--and fix--such holes will add to your horse's freshness in the pleasure pen. If you find problems that you can't seem to fix, ask a reputable trainer for help. Also, you may want to have your veterinarian examine your horse to rule
out any physical reason for his resistance.