UK trainer Alan Payne answers a common question regarding headset in western pleasure classes.
Q. Where should my horse's head be for a western pleasure class, and how do I get it to stay there?
The answer 'where' is in the rule book of the society that you are competing under. For clarity's sake, I like the explanation in the NSBA rule book, which describes both a good and poor top-line. In both the NSBA and the AQHA rules, western pleasure faults include; 'head carried too high', 'head carried too low,' 'excessive nosing out' and 'over flexing or straining neck in head carriage so the nose is carried behind the vertical.' Low headedness and over flexing, if consistently exhibited, can also become a cause for disqualification.
Western Pleasure Competition
The western pleasure class exhibits the fundamentals of correct self-carriage, and although it is often seen as an easy class when you start western riding, however, to be genuinely correct in this class takes training and dedication. Many people are quick to note their disapproval for a pleasure horse with his nose on the floor displaying incorrect movement. However, letting your pleasure horse run on with his head overly high, and his back hollowed is equally undesirable.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to 'make' your western pleasure horse hold his head where you would like him to, just like there is no fast track to a finished reining manoeuvre; it takes consistent repetition.
Head and Neck Frame
Many elements contribute to achieving the best head and neck frame for your pleasure horse and looking at your horse as an individual is an excellent place to start. What is the horse conformation? Is he physically put together in a way that, with some work, he would be able to achieve this ideal top line without making the rest of his movement appear unnatural? Has he been specially bred to find the requirements of this discipline easy naturally?
A horse that has been bred to move like an ideal western pleasure horse will take less / different training for this class than one that hasn't. Regardless of how your horse is conformed or bred or at what level you want to compete, I cannot stress enough how important it is not to bypass the basics of western pleasure and to revisit them daily.
Western Pleasure Training Basics
Initially, assuming that you have good control of your horse, it is a good idea to start by ignoring his head and start with the very basics. Does your horse have lift, drive and cadence? By this I mean, is he using his hindquarters and hocks to correctly 'drive' himself up from behind? Can he 'lift' himself through his back and shoulders to enable him to move freely and correctly? If he is truly doing both of these, then chances are you will have the natural stride that you would need to maintain cadence through all three gaits and in his backup. If your horse is carrying himself correctly in a round frame it is more likely that he will naturally choose to move with his head and neck in a more correct position. You can then work on tweaking your horse and yourself, if you are striving for perfection, in the show pen.
Don't expect a 30-minute miracle. But if you are willing to put in the work on the fundamentals of self-carriage and body control you will find that you have a lot less work to do than you may have thought initially with creating the appropriate head and neck position for your western pleasure class. The finer details of helping a horse to carry his head in precisely the perfect place for a pleasure class is no small subject, and there are a huge variety of techniques that can be employed by the rider including the use of various pieces of training equipment. But none of this is relevant until he is carrying himself correctly and you have suppleness and control over every part of his body - and of course, he has become strong enough hold himself in that frame.
For this kind of finishing and fine-tuning, I recommend that you seek assistance from a professional horse trainer as they will be able to assess exactly what stage your horse is at. If you are unable to visit or ask a trainer for advice, I would recommend the 'Showing To Win: Western Pleasure' DVD, which was a joint production between the AQHA and the NSBA.
NATIONAL SNAFFLE BIT ASSOC. RULE 124
POOR TOPLINE: The horse's head may be too high or too low. If the horse's head is consistently higher than his eye level with his withers, his back becomes hollow and he loses his drive from behind. When his head is consistently lower than his ear level with his wither, he becomes heavy on the forehand and has no lift or flow. In both cases the horse loses his self-carriage and appears to struggle.
GOOD TOPLINE: This horse will display a level topline with the tip of the ear level with the wither at the lowest point or his eye level with the wither at the highest point. He also displays a consistent top-line that exhibits self-carriage.