Give your western pleasure horse a leg to stand on, says Tom Chown.
In today’s western pleasure, it is a sad fact that many horses are trained and shown with little regard for natural movement. They are forced to move uncomfortably causing them to appear laboured or lame. While we do have many great horse trainers that are doing an excellent job, and some amazing horses that look comfortable and happy doing theirs, there are many more that don’t.
The only way any positive change can come is through knowledge, and I want to share with you my ideas of good, natural movement.
Try to put a silhouette of a great horse moving around in the front your mind. Compare this to the ones that you see in the show pen today. That can be a problem if you have never seen a great horse move; you have no frame of reference, nothing to compare the ‘bad’ ones too. So the bad ones end up looking good, especially after they have placed or even won the class!
The image of the western pleasure horse as shown today is not the image that we should be using as an example to train our horses too. Below you will find the ‘rule’ for showing in the western pleasure class taken directly from the AQHA handbook:
465B. Western Pleasure a) A good pleasure horse has a free-flowing stride of reasonable length in keeping with his conformation. He should cover a reasonable amount of ground with little effort. Ideally, he should have a balanced, flowing motion, while exhibiting correct gaits that are of the proper cadence. The quality of the movement and the consistency of the gaits is a major consideration. He should carry his head and neck in a relaxed, natural position, with his poll level with or slightly above the level of the withers. He should not carry his head behind the vertical, giving the appearance of intimidation, or be excessively nosed out, giving a resistant appearance. His head should be level with his nose slightly in front of the vertical, having a bright expression with his ears alert. He should be shown on a reasonably loose rein, but with light contact and control. He should be responsive, yet smooth, in transitions when called for. When asked to extend, he should move out with the same flowing motion. Maximum credit should be given to the flowing, balanced and willing horse that gives the appearance of being fit and a pleasure to ride.
As a horse trainer, I not only train horses, I try to teach my customers as well. Not my way of thinking, but what is correct - how a horse carries himself. I like to look at a horse for its conformation and the real beauty that it possesses and teach what a great mover looks like by watching them running around in the pasture. When you see how they, in their own way by using their own momentum, come back to the lope you want in the show arena, you will start to understand how a horse can use their body to the best effect. That is what western pleasure horses are supposed to look and move like. Anything else is an imitation.
I want you all to read the last part again and now, with pencil and paper, draw the horse that you have in your mind. Draw a line under his feet to represent the ground, a line from the point of his shoulder through his stifle, and one more line starting midway down his withers that is parallel with the line under his feet. That is where your guidelines of training and showing that horse needs to be to make him his very best.
Now, picture your horse moving down the rail at a horse show. The top line should stay parallel with the fence. How can that horse move forward staying in that frame without lifting, or picking his ribs up to walk, jog, trot, or lope? He cannot maintain that top-line without the ‘lift’ allowing his legs to swing like a pendulum.
If you still don't understand the lift I am talking about, get off your horse while you are next to the fence, stand back and imagine throwing a rope up over your barn rafters. Imagine holding one end in one hand and tying the other end to the gullet of your saddle. Now think what that horse would look like if you pulled on that rope, just enough to lift the saddle off of his back an inch. Where do his legs go and where does his head and neck fall? Where is his rib cage? Are you ‘lifting’ his rib cage? If you kept pulling and lifted him off of the ground, would his legs swing freely?
Just think what picture you can create by moving him around like that. Is he ‘rounded out’ or is his back hollow? Can his legs swing freely and naturally forward if his back is sunken? Nope! With his back sunken or hollow, when asked to jog or lope he can only hop forward in a broken, unnatural, and uncomfortable way. He is only physically able to move forward freely and naturally if his back is rounded – period!
Compare the horse you have created to what is showing in today's arena. Tell me which one can hold the level topline and which one has the best collection of his gaits? Which one is the smoothest to ride? That my friend is the definition of self-carriage.
A horse has three very important parts that must work together to achieve maximum performance. A head and neck for balance, shoulders, hips or back end for power, and tying it all together are the back and ribs (the ‘core’). This allows him to pick himself up and get somewhere correctly. Without the back and ribs working together, we end up with something that resembles two men in a horse suit - broken, painful and, at times, even comical to watch.
The first part of a correct three-beat lope is to provide your horse a back leg he can stand on to obtain the lift in his back which, by the way, will naturally lower his neck by coming from his core or ribs. He can then swing (not push) his hock and opposite front leg out in front of him while he is going forward. His back leg then allows the other front leg to swing out so his toe can touch the ground in front and pull the ground to him. It is this rhythm that allows him to gain momentum and move with his body parts in sync, moving freely and comfortably.
As I listen to pleasure horse trainers talk I hear the word ‘hock’ come up constantly. I understand the term, but I must say that it is becoming annoying. Why? Because it is not the only part that makes up a horse. Many trainers are overlooking the entire flow of a horse’s movement to get the deep ‘hock’ they keep preaching about, where the horse takes a giant stride underneath themselves to get the maximum split between the two hind legs. Why in getting the ‘big hock’ do they compromise a horse’s total look of flow and their natural movement?
By making them do this ‘big split’ behind, they are taking away the drive the horse needs to go forward. Also, by leaving the leg behind to start the lope, attempting to achieve the 'big split' in the hock, one is literally taking that horse’s foot away from him, leaving him standing on his toe, bearing all of his weight and providing him only this amount of leverage to start his lope.
Unfortunately, many of the trainers today are showing their horses in an unnatural manner, distorting the first part of the lope by leaving the horse’s drive leg (the one he needs to stand on) behind him to make the ‘split’ in his hock appear bigger. This leg must be under him if he is to move properly. Without it he doesn’t have a leg to stand on! From this point on he is struggling and he must lift his head and neck to catch himself with the opposite front leg of the ‘big hock’ (which is the second beat of the lope) then drop his neck to get his lead front leg the best he can to finish the third part of this unnatural gait. As his momentum shifts, he must ‘bob’ his head to pull himself up to attempt to move forward.
What this all means is that by not giving him a leg to stand on to start the lope properly, how can it finish correctly? There are horses that do have more hock than others and they are what I call a ‘tighter mover.’ If you want the ‘big hock,’ buy that kind of horse. As trainers, we must ride and train each horse as a unique individual, with or without a God-given attribute. We cannot simply run them through an assembly line. Yes, they can have some of the same characteristics, but in the end, they are all individuals and need to be treated that way.
Here is another thing for you to think about. Stand back and look at your horse from the side with no saddle on it. Look at the withers as if they were the centre point of a seesaw. Your horse’s neck and head are at one end and his back at the other. Yes, you can go sit on his head if you want! If you go up his back goes down. Now as you go down what happens to his back? Right, it goes up. Take it one step further. Where naturally would his back end go, behind him or underneath him? Remember, that he uses his head and neck for his balance. If we learn how to use it along with him and not against him, we can enhance his movement and his performance.
Now that you understand that apply this whole concept to the training that is being used today on our pleasure horses. Something is a bit backwards, no, totally backwards! Here is yet another way to think about it. When you are trying to collect or gather a horse up you take a hold, drop his neck just a ‘little’ and push his back end underneath him. If you don't elevate or lift his ribs, or core, which allows him to pick up his back, you have not achieved real collection.
A horse’s neck can be a real help in his movement and collection, but only if used properly. Just like the seesaw, if you let his head go down to the ground how can he go forward? You have shut his door for balance and movement.
When riding, think of how our teeter totter works and use it to enhance and keep the movement maintaining a level top line. There are far too many people training horses that think, "If a little works what would happen if I did it a lot?" A great horse trainer or a real horseman thinks, “How little can I do to get a lot?" The horseman also knows that a great mover cannot be made, he is born that way.
When training any horse, when it comes right down to it, the horse will tell us what he can and can't do, but we need to listen. I may think that I want to show him at a particular horse show, but he will be the one to tell me whether he is ready or not. By working to enhance your horse’s natural attributes, over time, with knowledge, patience, consistency, and understanding, you will both achieve a new level of success.