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Western Pleasure - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Horse and rider on the rail in a Western Pleasure class. Western Pleasure Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

The discipline of western pleasure is one of a whole array of classes at western horse shows. The name is self-explanatory, as the basic idea for this class was to show a horse that is obviously a pleasure to ride, The horse should show behavior and moves that would assure a pleasurable ride if one were to go from A to B, or just take a leisure ride across country.


Sometime in the second half of the 20th century, this discipline took a weird path, and subsequently suffered a loss of image, that it still has not quite overcome. One of the prerequisites for a western pleasure horse is that it is not chargey, that it does not constantly pull on the bit because it wants to go faster than the rider let alone run away, as that certainly would not make a pleasurable ride.

Following that logic, riders showing in this discipline started to ride with a lot of slack in their reins, to demonstrate their horses sweet temperament and that there was no need to hold them to keep them from speeding up. In the show ring, one has to somehow outshine the competitors, to impress the judge.

Pretty soon, riders began to teach their western pleasure horses to move very slowly, and for a time, it looked like it was a contest to determine whose horse could jog and lope the slowest. That by itself did not help to make the class appealing to whoever else in the horse world was watching it, but to make matters worse, a trend emerged to have those pleasure horses move with their heads lower and lower. The logic behind that was, that a hot, chargey horse, one that wants to go fast, or one that even threatens to run away, will usually hold his head high so a good western pleasure horse obviously would be one that carries his head low.

While it is true that a docile, relaxed horse, one not thinking about speeding up, or spooking, or doing anything else annoying, would hold his head and neck somewhere near horizontal, riders of pleasure horses soon tried to impress judges by showing horses that traveled with their heads way low.

All it may have taken is for one rider to have won a class whose horse was moving with his head below the horizontal, and while his horse may have generally been doing better than the other horses in that western pleasure class, the other competitors might have thought he won because his horse carried his head so low If a little is good, a whole lot is considered much better, so pleasure horses were shown with their heads lower and lower, and the term peanut rollers was invented by people outside of pleasure circles, to express their disgust.


For decades, the American Quarter Horse Association which is the leader in this field has tried to counteract this development by implementing rules that asked for ground-covering movements and heads to be carried at least level with the withers, only to find that western pleasure horses were shown defying the rules. The judges could have put an end to this any time they wanted, by not placing horses that were shown that way. However, judges are often part of what is going on, that is, they are showing themselves. Many professional showmen and trainers also hold judges cards, and usually a judge is very reluctant to peg down a fellow professional.

The judges argument was always, Show us good pleasure horses with proper head carriage so we can place them! And to a degree, they were right, because if practically all the horses in a western pleasure class are shown like that, what are they supposed to do? Nevertheless, judges were largely responsible that this bad trend could become so wide-spread, and grew like a huge tumor on the pleasure horse industry.


In this discipline, the name of the game is not, like some seem to believe, to find out whose horse can move the slowest (or hold his head the lowest), but to find the best-moving, best-behaving, cleanest-performing horse of the class. Judges are supposed to find the best mover and if that horse does not make mistakes, let him win the western pleasure class. Mistakes could be, for instance, departure in the wrong lead, break of gait, loss of form, inconsistence of speed.

What, then, is a good mover, one deserving to win? The horse’s moves should be such that the rider is able to sit comfortably, without being rocked, especially at a jog and lope. The horse’s moves should also be flat, and ideally, the front legs show full extension at every stride before the hooves hit the ground, and the rule book asks for those strides to be ground-covering.

Here, there is still a considerable discrepancy between the rule books and what western pleasure horses actually show in competition. Finally, the rhythm with which that horse moves should be even throughout the performance.

The tempo at which pleasure horses are shown plays a big role, and this is a somewhat sophisticated issue. While good judges have occasionally pegged down horses that were correct in every way, but moved along too slow and rightfully so, the fact remains that it represents a higher degree of difficulty if a horse is shown slow, but true in cadence and rhythm. So slowness per se is not what the judge is looking for, is not even good in a western pleasure class.

A slow horse can go sluggish, dragging his feet, be uncollected, and appear unattractive. While the good mover is certainly not rushing along, he is not excessively slow; he gives no indication to be in a hurry, but moves along collected but not contained , carrying himself prettily, balanced, calmly, with very even and controlled strides.

Especially at the lope, it takes a well-trained, balanced horse to execute it slowly, and yet stay in a true, three-beat gait and to do all that on a slack rein is even harder. For that reason it has been said that today’s western pleasure classes are won at the lope.

Horses that are not good enough movers, or trained by less capable hands, try to compensate their lack of training, of balance, of quality of movement, by loping slow with their bodies on a diagonal. In response to the constant checking to make them go slower they push their hips to the inside, finding it better manageable to perform the gait that way.

Knowledgeable judges therefore often stand at one end of the ring fairly close to the wall, to see if the horses bodies are lined out parallel to the rail in the western pleasure class.


Pleasure horses are shown at the walk, jog, and lope, on the rail, and in both directions. Reverses (a turn in the other direction, performed in a teardrop fashion) are always executed away from the rail, and only at the walk and jog, because at the lope it would involve a lead change.

The announcer gives the riders the appropriate commands, like Walk your horses, Jog your horses, Lope your horses, or Reverse, at a signal from the judge. At the discretion of the judge, he can ask for an extended jog (trot) to determine his placings in a western pleasure competitions.

If most competitors seem to be at about the same level, asking for an extended jog is likely to have better broke horses emerge, and stirs up the group sufficiently to reveal weaknesses in some horses. To extend the jog means to have your horse take longer strides, or to speed up, or both. At the extended jog, the good pleasure horse again moves with evenly-measured strides, calmly, willingly, balanced.

The final analysis for the judge will be the back-up, asked for in a line-up, or on the rail, after the horses were asked to stop, concluding the western plea sure class.


Besides the American Quarter Horse Association and other western breed association, such as the American Paint Horse Association and the Appaloosa Horse Club, which all offer pleasure classes, there is an all-breed association dedicated to this sport, the National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA). The name was not chosen too well, as the snaffle bit does not play a dominant part in the pleasure horse industry, and it may also confuse people who might think it has something to do with the Snaffle Bit Futurity of the National Reined Cow Horse Association. The misnomer came about because NSBA started with western pleasure futurities, in which the young horses were shown mostly with a snaffle bit or hackamore. Only later the organization developed into one for pleasure competitions in general, plus hunter under saddle competitions. NSBA workes closely with AQHA, with NSBA classes often being part of AQHA shows.

The pleasure horse should project an attractive, refined, stylish picture to the judge, in the way he moves and in the way he is turned out.

This class serves as an entry for beginner riders, because they feel more comfortable showing in a group instead of alone in the arena. However, to win a western pleasure class is not easier than winning any other contest, especially if the level is high. It’s not a spectacularly flashy class, but it surely takes a well-broke, good horse to win it.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

Larger group on the rail. Riding a Paint with snaffle bit. Horse is moving on a slack rein in front of judge. Backing with ease
Photos left to right. 1) Pleasure class on the rail. 2) In the junior pleasure class, horses up to five years old may be shown with either a snaffle bit or a hackamore or a curb bit. 3) Under the watchful eye of the judge, this young lady tries to impress with extreme slack in the reins. 4) At the end of the class, the back-up is asked for, often from a line-up. The photo at the top of the page displays the pleasure horse at a lope. This horse is level in his topline, the way the rule book wants it to be.

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