by Shari Maguire
The training sessions are easier and more successful if you start with a horse that has the conformation suitable for this particular discipline.
Ideally, the Western or English pleasure horse should be long across the topline of the neck and short on the bottom line. This makes it easier and more natural for the horse to carry its neck in the right spot. Not too high or too low, just about level from the poll to the withers, the nose no more than 3-5 inches in front of the vertical not behind the vertical or “behind the bit”.
The horse should have a totally level top-line from their poll all the way to their tail. This nice long neck and short bottom line makes it easier for the horse to carry its neck at the ideal level. It’s called a “balanced horse”. Of course, there are exceptions; in your Arabian, gaited and some pony breeds. However, if your goal is to succeed in western pleasure showing the conformation breeds, i.e. AQHA, ApHc, and APHA, and most pony breeds then the natural head carriage and conformation play a big roll in how much work you have a head of you and if you want to be in the winners circle.
Don’t misunderstand me, if your horse’s neck isn’t long or their bottom line short that does not mean they are not a pleasure horse. Typically, I like to see a horse with a long pretty neck that comes flat out off the top of the withers. Not too long because then they are to hard to train to keep level, they want to naturally carry them too low and if you aren’t sure what you are doing up there then you will have your horses head too high. You don’t want a neck that comes straight out of the top of the shoulder either. Truly, it is more difficult for a horse to relax its neck and drop down to pleasure mode when they are built like that. Again, depending on the breed there are a few that do and want this style of pleasure horse so we don’t rule out their way of traveling.
Winning in the show ring or just out on the trail achieving proper head and neck carriage; that nice slow comfortable flat kneed jog/trot and lope, well, this all comes as the end result of a lot of hours in the schooling pen. If the horse uses their body correctly they will carry their head and neck in a relaxed comfortable position and naturally. It won’t look artificial. It is a matter a teaching balance.
Before I go any further, all the ground work needs to be finished. I’ll cover this is a separate article. Let’s get back to the more advanced part of training the pleasure horse.
The slow moving comfortable “pleasure to ride horse” has nothing to do with the type of bit or gimmick you use. It is a huge mistake to think the slow gaits and headset can be achieved by using a high port or long shanked bit that forces a horse to cram their head into their chest and made to go slow. I don’t use a bit when I first start my horses. I begin with suppling the head, neck, poll and withers. I use a rope halter, the one with the knots placed at the sensitive parts of the head, and a lead rope. I ask them to bend from side to side, up and down, a little at a time, day after day. Relaxing those muscles teaching the horse to be relaxed at these points so they become supple and responsive. Another exercise I do for my horses is the simple “bow.” I ask them to give me their head between their knees and reach back as far as they can. Stretching the neck and shoulder muscles. Remember, baby steps, horses can pull muscles, tweak a tendon or simply sore up from to much over extension.
It’s a give and take because the horse responses to pressure. As soon as they give, you give. It’s got to be that quick. If you don’t, the horse will become hard, leaning against the pressure instead of the opposite and not responsive enough for you to continue.
The only training aids I use are the sidepull and “The Collar“. The sidepull is a light weight headstall with a rope nose band and snaffle bit. I can bend and flex without pulling on the mouth continually. The sidepull works well for me because it puts the pressure on the nose as well as the mouth equally
At this point I am not asking for a headset. I am asking my horse to stay quiet and supple and telling them where they can’t go. Depending on which direction I am going, my hand dropped behind my knee, I start bending each direction. I am not forcing the bend just tipping the nose in towards my toe using my inside leg to help guide my horse around my leg and follow their nose. I ask them to do this by giving me their head and by following the pressure on their nose. This starts the circle. Once they give, I release the pressure immediately, but continuing the circle, around and around. This exercise is done both directions. Within a few sessions the neck, shoulders and withers will start to relax, then the horse’s head will start to drop in a comfortable position. After awhile I ask for more flexing. What I mean by more flex; I ask the nose to come closer to my toe. Soon the nose can touch my toe at a walk, this usually takes about two or three weeks, I then do the same exercises on to the trot. Eventually, I can actually lope a horse in a circle with their nose almost touching my toe, no restraints, on a loose rein. It’s a good method. They just get so flexible. With repetition you will get that natural headset without using restraints.
I will typically do this for ninety days. Yes, it’s a slow process all that bending, flexing, and boring no doubt but it works. My arena is set up so I can use the polls to bend around, in and out around in circles figure eights, I just keep it up until my horse is so relaxed that the rest of the session is easy.
The next step for me is introducing them to a snaffle. I use a mild snaffle usually with a full cheek. Not a Tom Thumb. There is no curb strap. The proper name for this snaffle is “a full cheek snaffle”. Since the bending, flexing basics are done I start to refine them by going back to those basics of give and take. Now I begin working on the lateral movement, taking the left rein and asking them to give to the left. Same on the right. This exercise will help supple the poll too. Don’t pull on the horse; bump instead, little bumps, several times if you need too, until you get the response you wanted. Add more pressure if necessary, just keep in mind the horse needs the release for the reward!
All this time I am working on the horses body I teach them to move away from pressure much like the way I do with their head. If I put my leg on them and they move, I take my leg off. As they become refined I start moving their shoulders around their hindquarters and their hindquarters around their shoulder. Using the give and take from my legs until they start responding to the leg pressure.
Despite good training, a lot of hours and perhaps a lot of money, headset faults and rigid movement can still occur. The most valuable lesson here is to recognize the problem before it gets out of hand and work to correct it accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The pleasure horse doesn’t come easy. There are no short cuts. Once the horse is properly trained and the conformation is close to being correct for this type of performance everything else just falls into place.
Now that you have the basics let’s begin with the daily regime of exercises to put you closer to the winners circle.
About the author: Shari Maguire, the owner of Rolling M Ranch, has trained and shown pleasure horses for more than forty years. Throughout her career the style of pleasure horses changed a number of times from the Vaquero Style California Headset to the peanut roller, now the level topline traveler. However, her training style did not. Still her techniques stay the same to this day. “It doesn’t matter the style of pleasure horse, the techniques I have learned throughout my apprenticeships with some of the best equestrians have proven to work all these years and I am not about to change my routine”. The exercises or techniques used are the fundamentals you need to begin any training session. Young horse, older finished horse will benefit by this daily regime of suppling and relaxing the mind so the body can follow.