When judges look at the consistency and quality of the horse's movements, they are evaluating how accurate the gait is performed, the smoothness and speed of the stride, the softness of the footfall and how consistent the horse carries himself throughout the class. These features are influenced by both conformation, conditioning and training.
Conformation faults or lack of an athletic build can affect performance and limit a horse's ability to travel both smoothly and softly. A horse with a straight shoulder and upright, short pasterns will inherently have a shorter, choppier stride than a horse with a more correct shoulder and pastern angle. Likewise, a horse whose croup is higher than his withers has “downhill” conformation. This type of horse will be heavier on the forehand, making it more difficult for him to travel with a soft stride.
While a horse's conformation cannot be changed, training and conditioning can help improve a horse's shortcomings. For instance, a horse's speed at the jog can be slowed down by either slowing the tempo or shortening the length of the stride. Although slowing the tempo is always the best choice for a western pleasure horse, it's a necessity for horses that are already predisposed to having a short stride due to their conformation. Further shortening of these horses' stride would only increase the roughness of the gait.
For years, Western Pleasure classes were dominated by artificially slow gaits which leads to unnaturally low head carriages and unbalanced movement. Note how the lower head carriage makes the horse appear heavy on the forehand and how alternate hooves are not striking the ground in unison. This horse is not performing a two-beat trot.
In Western Pleasure, functional correctness refers to how well a horse and rider carry out the requirements of the class. The judge will be evaluating the horses as to how well they can make smooth and timely transitions. He wants to see horses that move quietly and promptly in response to light or invisible leg cues. The horse that lurches or jumps into the jog or lope will not only lose points for the transition, but his speed will almost invariably need corrected within a few strides. Likewise, the rider who is repeatedly clicking or kicking his horse's sides to make him go will lose points even if the horse does a smooth transition to the next gait. For down transitions, judges want horses that respond willingly to light bit pressure. Getting above or behind the bit are considered signs of resistance, but are not penalized as severely as gaping at the mouth or throwing the head.
The horse is also expected to maintain gaits and to lope on the correct lead. Dropping back to a slower gait can indicate inadequate conditioning or a horse with a lazy disposition. The horse that needs constant “nagging” to maintain a gait will not be viewed as a pleasure to ride. The amount of deduction a judge might award for the wrong lead would depend upon the severity of the deviation. For instance, a horse that picked up the wrong lead, but was immediately corrected would not be faulted as severely as a horse that was allowed to continue loping on the incorrect lead. Likewise, changing leads by dropping back to the trot is more likely to attract the judge's attention and indicates a lower level of training than performing a flying lead change. Failure to maintain the correct gait or being on the wrong lead are both considered major faults in Western Pleasure.
Functional correctness can also refer to the rules that govern the class. Incorrect tack, such as using an illegal bit, will result in the judge disqualifying the competitor. Likewise, holding the reins incorrectly or cueing in front of the cinch can result in elimination. Since rules can change, it's wise to periodically review the rulebook that governs that particular show. The United States Equestrian Federation is generally considered the authority when it comes to horse show rules. Most show organizations and associations either follow USEF rules or use an adaptation of the USEF rulebook. The USEF rulebook is available for online viewing at their website:
You don't have to be a famous celebrity to like winning! Chances are, if you are hooked on showing, you not only like to win but you work hard to achieve that goal. So it can be downright frustrating when your show ring performance hits a plateau. If blue ribbons haven't exactly been coming your way and you don't know why, maybe it's time to take a look at how judges evaluate one of the most popular horse show classes.
The class requirements for Western Pleasure are fairly easy – walk, jog and lope both ways of the ring and back the horse several steps. In some venues, riders might even be asked to extend the jog. The premise of the class is also easy enough for even novice competitors to understand – the horse that looks like it is the most pleasurable to ride wins the class. But anyone who has competed in Western Pleasure knows winning isn't always so straightforward.
When evaluating a Western Pleasure class, judges will be looking for horses that exhibit a basic level of training as well as a natural ability to move well. The criteria that judges generally use to place western pleasure classes include manners and responsiveness, functional correctness, and the consistency and quality of movement.
In simple terms, judges are looking for a horse that is well-broke and well-behaved. The horse should respond willingly to the rider's cues, without resistance or undue delay. Horses that are not ridden on a loose rein, require repeated or excessive cues, or gape their mouth in response to bit pressure will not make a favorable impression on the judge. Likewise, horses that don't look “happy” in their work, as evidenced by tail wringing or laid back ears, will be marked down accordingly. A lower score would also be given to horses that buck, rear or balk.
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Judges are now looking for horses that have a more natural and balanced movement with true gaits. The jog should register two distinct beats and the canter should have three. Note the level top-line and synchronized leg movements of this horse at the trot.
The accuracy and speed of the gaits are two areas that generally create the most confusion for western pleasure competitors. For years, Western Pleasure classes were dominated by artificially slow gaits which leads to unnaturally low head carriages and unbalanced movement. This ideology has steadily changed in the past decade. Judges are now looking for horses that have a more natural and balanced movement with true gaits. The western lope and jog are still slower gaits than the English trot and canter. However, when riding at a slower speed, it is essential not to lose the integrity of the gait. The jog should register two distinct beats and the canter should have three. Likewise, the walk should be flat-footed and not indicate nervousness or jigging. Failure to correctly execute these gaits is now considered a major fault, while gaits that are too fast or slow are scored as minor faults.
Lastly, western pleasure horses are expected to perform consistently throughout the class. Each gait should maintain the same speed and smoothness in both directions. Horses that perform well on the left lead, but fall apart when asked to canter on the right, will lose points for inconsistency.
Likewise, the horse's head carriage should not vary between the gaits. Ideally, western pleasure horses maintain a level topline, meaning the neck, back and croup are carried parallel to the ground with the ears not dropping below the point of the withers. However, due to conformation or breed differences, some horses have a naturally higher neck placement. These horses are generally more comfortable and balanced when they carry their heads a little higher than the ideal. Whether or not the horse is balanced is the key to determining if a higher head set is penalized.
When evaluating the competitors in a western pleasure class, judges will compare each horse to the image of the ideal pleasure horse. They will determine how well each horse presents itself in terms of training, accuracy and performance. They will then rank the horses in comparison to each other. Horses that have made multiple mistakes or committed major flaws will be placed below those with few or minor infractions.
It's not uncommon for the other competitors to try to mimic the performance of the winning horse. After all, the horse that leaves the ring with the blue ribbon has been declared the most pleasurable one to ride. But competitors should realize that even the winning horse might fall short of the ideal. Rather than trying to emulate that horse, develop an image of the ideal western pleasure horse and use that image as the goal you wish to achieve. As you ride, train and work your horse, evaluate your performance using the same criteria that a judge would use. Then work to correct any shortcomings. And before long, you'll be WINNING!