Western Pleasure: First, Be Correct

Not sure how today’s pleasure horses are supposed to look as they perform? Here are specific do’s and don’ts, based on new rules.

Editor’s Note: Dave Dellin is director of judges for the American Paint Horse Association and president of the National Snaffle Bit Association; formerly he was an American Quarter Horse Association world champion trainer and judge.

Everyone wants to see Western pleasure horses moving correctly. Toward that end, judging rules now emphasize pure gaits and correct movement over the event’s “degree of difficulty”—an unhurried, easygoing pace. Under the new rules, horses traveling incorrectly at any speed are to be penalized.

What does this mean for people who train and show pleasure horses? I’m going to tell you. I’ll explain the most recent rule changes and the rationale behind them, then show you with photos exactly what’s considered right and wrong in the show pen.

A Question of Priorities
In recent years, both the American Quarter Horse Association and the American Paint Horse Association have amended their rules for judging Western pleasure. The changes emphasize correct gaits that show balance and self-carriage, plus no interrupted strides as a result of excessive slowness. Then, earlier this year, the National Snaffle Bit Association, the organization that promotes Western pleasure and hunter under saddle horses, modified its judging rules to introduce a hierarchy in the judging of Western pleasure.

That new hierarchy requires judges to evaluate correctness of gait first, followed by quality of gait second, and finishing with degree of difficulty. When degree of difficulty becomes the least important aspect of a horse’s performance—rather than the most—it can override the “don’t pass” mentality we too often see in the show pen.

Allen Mitchels, chair of the NSBA judges committee, has summarized each of the elements of the new judging hierarchy as follows.

Correctness. Horses must show a four-beat walk, two-beat jog, and three-beat lope. The distinctness of the designated cadence for the gait being performed is essential.

Quality. After the horse is confirmed as correct in his gaits, the judge must consider overall gracefulness, relaxed presentation, consistency, expression, topline, softness of movement, and length of stride.

Degree of difficulty. If a horse is both correct and of good quality in his gaits, then the judge may consider degree of difficulty, which involves the appropriate pace for the gait in question. A free-flowing, ground-covering walk has a high degree of difficulty. A jog or lope performed with a slow rhythm without sacrificing correctness or quality has a high degree of difficulty. On the other hand, slowness that sacrifices correctness or negatively affects quality is to be considered incorrect and a poor performance, at best.

These rules are intended to preserve the essential qualities of a good pleasure horse.

What Makes a Modern Pleasure Horse?
There are enthusiasts who believe a correct, high-quality, slow-moving horse is the ideal and what makes this event unique. To my way of thinking, it’s no different from valuing the fact that a reiner can run down hard, melt into the ground, and slide effortlessly for 30 feet. Neither of these horses should be earning credit from their respective judges if they lack correctness or quality, no matter how much degree of difficulty—that is, the presence or absence of speed—is involved.

Many pleasure horse enthusiasts also value the soft, slow feel of a good pleasure horse, plus what I call the “floating effect” when one is balanced and well trained.

There are, of course, also those who dislike the pleasure class when an overemphasis on slowness creates artificial movement and undesirable traits.

Both sides have valid points. And that’s precisely why correctness first, then quality, and lastly degree of difficulty should be the way Western pleasure horses are shown and evaluated.

A key reason speed has often been overemphasized is that it may be the only factor that’s easy to identify and emulate when you’re preparing to show your horse. In other words, you assume that if you lope on the rail behind a multiple world champion, well, then at least you’re going at a world champion pace, right?

The problem with this thinking is that the horse you’re following is likely a multiple world champion because he can go at that pace and maintain correctness and elegance. Your horse, by contrast, may wind up lacking basic correctness—not to mention elegance—to go that slow. Not every horse can be a Michael Jordan of pleasure.

Thinking It Through
To avoid this pitfall, simply be sure you never show your pleasure horse in a way that interrupts his cadence or destroys the purity of his gaits. For example, don’t go so slowly that your horse actually has four beats to his jog instead of two—an all-too-common mistake. Exhibitors do this when they believe that if they don’t go slowly enough, judges won’t use them. They believe that going faster—even if it results in a more correct jog—will hurt their chances.

The change in NSBA rules corrects this by expressly requiring judges to use a horse moving more forward and correctly in his cadence over a slower-moving horse that doesn’t maintain a two-beat gait at the jog—or a correct cadence in any gait.

That being said, what you have to keep in mind when considering the judging of any class is the level of competition and the quality of the other exhibitors in the arena. For example, can a reiner win a class with minus scores on all his stops?

Actually, he can, depending on how he scores on the rest of his maneuvers plus how well the other horses score. Each maneuver is scored independently, and a total is added up at the end of the run.

Western pleasure isn’t scored, so judges must make these evaluations in their heads as the class is going on. The new rules encourage evaluating a horse’s entire performance, within the correct hierarchy, and not getting wrapped up with speed or any other single part of the go.

Staying with the reining comparison, imagine a reining pattern calling for four spins. If the horse executes those spins but can’t remain “in place” as he does so, he’ll receive a negative maneuver score. If the spins are correct, the judge then evaluates the quality of the spins—how willingly the horse listens to the rider, the way the legs cross over, the consistency of the horse’s topline, and so on. Only after that would the judge evaluate the degree of difficulty, or how quickly that reiner can spin correctly. The faster the spins, as long as they were correct and had quality, the higher the score.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t matter if the spins were lightning fast if the horse were fighting the bridle or spiraling halfway across the arena as he did them. He’d still receive a negative maneuver score.

In Western pleasure, we put that same focused scoring process into words, and that’s where the hierarchy comes into play. After the judge looks for correctness of the gait, he or she evaluates the quality of the gait—the topline, expression, flatness and softness of movement, and so on. Only after that should the judge—or the exhibitor—be concerned with speed.

The editors wish to thank Angie Cannizzaro of CAC Show Horses in Purcell, Oklahoma, for serving as demonstration rider for this article.

Dave Dellin lives in Elmore City, Oklahoma, with his wife, Julie, and their three children, Gage, Lane, and McKenna. He can be reached through the APHA Web site at apha.com.

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