Q. I'm interested in western pleasure. I want to know everything about it! I have a horse I ride western, and I want to compete on him! I have a lot of questions because this is my first horse to ride and I want to do everything right.
How do you show in a western pleasure class? Does the horse's conformation matter a lot in western pleasure competitions? Goldie's neck looks a little weird like he has a little too much up top. He's also kind of fat! Do you know of any associations or 4H activities that include western pleasure, because I'm also very interested in 4H and raising an animal?
A. Western is one style of riding, also referred to as stock seat. It is most commonly associated with cowboys and trail riding, though it actually encompasses an amazingly diverse array of mounted activities, all performed under western tack. The definition of western pleasure varies depending on the specific area of interest. If you consider the broadest definition, you must include any riding done in a western saddle and not associated with a specific *working* activity (cattle ranching, rodeoing, etc.). This would include trail riding, pleasure riding, showing in pleasure classes, etc. Although any horse can be ridden in a western saddle, the breeds most frequently associated with this style of riding are those referred to as the "stock horse types". These include the Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, and Paint/Pinto, among others.
The requirements for competitive western pleasure classes vary somewhat depending on the governing competitive association and on the breed of horse involved. Generally speaking, a western pleasure class is judged primarily on the horse's ability to deliver a pleasurable ride through his responsiveness, attitude, and way of moving. Your horse will need to respond readily and willingly to your subtle cues. He should have smooth, steady, relaxed gaits and a natural, relaxed head position. Transitions from one gait to another should be smooth and accurate, and your horse should be easily maneuvered around and through groups of other horses in the ring without fussing or changing gaits. All riders as a group will be asked to walk, jog (slow, sitting trot), and lope (on the correct lead) in both directions of the ring, after which you will be asked to line up in the center of the ring and back-up one at a time as the judge addresses you.
Although the rules call for western pleasure classes to be judged primarily on the horse's performance, it is important to make the proper visual impression as well. Buy an appropriate western outfit, including hat and boots. Make sure your tack is immaculately clean and properly fitted to your horse. Wash your saddle pads/blankets. Bathe and clip your horse. Polish his hooves. All this improves the impression you make on the judge.
Goldie's conformation should only be a consideration in western pleasure competition in respect to its effect on his responsiveness, movement, and carriage. If his throatlatch is so thick that he can't flex at the poll and respond lightly to the bit, that could make a difference to the judge. If he's so flabby and out of shape that he huffs and puffs his way through the class, that may make a poor impression as well. You should spend all necessary time to get him into decent shape before taking him into the show ring.
The best advice I can offer you is to determine the type/level of show you're interested in (breed association shows, regional association shows, 4-H, county fairs, etc.) and request a copy of the official rulebook from the target association(s). Then attend shows sponsored by the association(s) of your choice, observe, and take lots of notes. Pay attention to all of the western pleasure classes, noting the riding style of the most successful riders, the movement and attitude of their mounts, the way the horse and rider teams handle the demands of the judge and juggle ring traffic, even the apparel worn by the riders and tack worn by the horses (though these last two aren't supposed to influence the judge's decision).
Once you have an idea of the requirements and realities of showing in a particular western pleasure event, find a good riding instructor in your area whose students have done well in the same shows and classes in which you wish to compete. That person will be acquainted with the association rules and standards and be able to teach you all you need to know to show competitively. As you've said, you want to learn to do it right!
For more information on western riding technique, I suggest you read Western Horsemanship by Richard Shrake. To become involved in 4H, contact your local state extension agent (probably at your county courthouse). The extension agent will be able to get you in touch with the 4H horse project leaders in your area.