By Linda White
With a 10-gallon hat, a fast horse, and a six-shooter on his hip, the American cowboy – or Hollywood’s version of him, anyway – galloped into our culture long ago. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickok, Bret Maverick, Ben Cartwright and his boys on the Ponderosa; Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, of Gunsmoke fame …. They were our heroes, and we were their faithful sidekicks. Ever after, when adults and children take up horseback riding, they yearn to ride on a western saddle, and dress like the cowboys they idolized. Fashions come and go, but a cowboy hat, chaps, a saddle pad and a western saddle are still de rigueur for any western outfit.
Ironically, the saddle we call “western” was never a product of the Golden West. Those high pommels (front) and cantles (rear) were devised to provide a secure seat for armored knights in the Middle Ages, jousting, and riding off to the Crusades. The longer stirrups were developed because bending an armor-clad knee was almost impossible for a knight, mounted or afoot.
The western horse’s slower, more relaxed gaits made a cowboy’s endless miles in the saddle more comfortable. A thick pad under the saddle protected his horse’s back, and the western saddle’s wider fork eased everybody’s journey.
“A cowboy spent most of his day on horseback,” concurs Gordon Potts. “He needed a comfortable ride, so the horse’s slower gaits evolved by necessity. Holding the reins with one hand also arose from necessity, because cowboys had to have one hand free to hold a rope. Their horses learned to ‘neck rein’, or move away from rein pressure on the neck, and the saddle horn was made with a strong tree underneath, to withstand a struggling cow tied to it.”
Potts describes his ideal modern western pleasure horse: “It should have a free-flowing stride, with forward motion in relation to its conformation. The head should be carried naturally, with the poll even with, or slightly above, the withers. It should have smooth, ground-covering gaits, and give the appearance of being a pleasure to ride. The western pleasure horse should have a good neck with a lot of shape, and should be quiet in the bridle. He should be supple, and have a rounded back with hindquarters engaged, giving him impulsion from the rear. He should be balanced, and should appear pleasant, accepting, unhurried, and happy doing his job.
“As a judge, one of the most important things to me is a horse who carries himself, without being helped or held by the rider. I like to see moderate gaits: not unnatural, or so-o-o-o slow.”
Potts is not alone. The late Tom McNair once observed that if actual cow horses moved like the western pleasure horses in the show ring, the cattle would be long gone by the time they got there. [Note: The 2015 USEF Rule Book, available online, contains the Arabian (AR) subchapter, with the breed’s western pleasure class specifications, including gait speeds, described in detail.]
Trainer Stanley White III looks for a western prospect with short cannons, low hocks, and a shorter back. “The neck can be long, but more important is its shape, and how it comes out of the shoulder,” he states. “A horse whose neck doesn’t come out of the shoulder quite right, English or western, will always look uncomfortable, no matter where he sets his head.
“I like to see a young western prospect with presence: a horse who is bright and happy, uses its ears, and carries itself naturally. I want to see a horse looking forward; looking where he’s going – not with his head down, looking at the ground. I start all my young horses in a smooth snaffle, and teach them to move softly, both forward and laterally. If a horse has the right conformation and athletic ability for the job, his acceptance and enjoyment of the work usually follow naturally. Some horses come along faster than others, so I never set a timeline. Each horse is different, so it will take as long as it takes. And if I see that a horse doesn’t like this work, I’ll find him something he does like. You can’t force a horse into a job he dislikes, or is poorly suited for, and then expect him to perform well.”
Rob Bick agrees. “You can’t force a horse to be something he’s not. When I was training in California in the 1980s, any horse who couldn’t do English, got shuffled off into western. But for all the reasons he didn’t make a good English horse, he didn’t make a good western horse, either. But I was young, and didn’t recognize that. Then I got *Acadia, a Numizmat daughter. I made her western, and she liked the job. She was pretty, she had a good, quiet mind, and could gather up underneath herself… I lucked out! She started winning Class ‘A’ and Regional western pleasure championships, and had a long, successful career.
“When we moved to the east coast, [Note: The ‘we” he refers to is himself and his wife and partner, trainer Caralyn Schroter] we rode Tommy Garland’s overflow western horses. They were better quality, they were built for the job, and they had the right mentality. They were also pretty, and had the right energy and frame to become good western pleasure horses.
“At Dolorosa Arabians, clients Frank and Sara Chisholm wanted to breed western pleasure horses. They discussed it with us, and I suggested that they wanted to breed a western pleasure horse who looked like he would be a pleasure to ride all day … rather than one who looked like he already had been ridden all day!
“Frank Chisholm wanted to breed a very specific kind of performance horse,” continues Bick. “We helped him select the right mares for Sundance Kid V (Desperado V x Sweet Shalimar V, by Ali Jamaal), the stallion they had bought at Varian’s in 2003. As a result, the offspring all thought like western pleasure horses; they liked the work; and were bred to do it.
“The four things I look for are pedigree, balance, flexibility, and ‘pretty’, or quality,” he adds. “I depend a lot on pedigrees. I can pretty much look at a pedigree and get an idea of whether or not this horse could be a prospect for what I want. I can usually tell within a month or two if I made the right call. It’s easier now than it used to be, because our disciplines are more highly developed. We’re making better, more specialized breeding selections, and that means we have less trial and error.”
“A lot of people are drawn to western because the cowboys they grew up admiring in the movies and on TV rode western,” says Tommy Garland. “Riding or showing western, they can control the horse on a light rein, with subtle cues. And western is slower-paced, which helps riders build confidence at any age or level of experience.
“When I look for a prospect, I want a pretty horse with a ‘Look at me!’ mental attitude; but not a horse that’s hot all the time. I want one with a slower, quieter mindset. It should be an athletic horse, because a western horse should be able to move well. The day of plodding with your horse is over. He should carry his head where it’s comfortable, in relation to his conformation. I like to see the poll level with the top of the saddle horn. The horse should present an overall smooth picture, using his ears and keeping his tail quiet; he should look like he’s a pleasure to ride.
“My Number One goal is to suit the rider to the horse,” he says emphatically. “Let your riders enjoy their horses – and put them on a horse they can ride. Don’t over-mount them. Don’t scare them! If they have too much horse, nobody’s happy. Build their confidence. Take them to shows where they can be successful. As they get better balance, they can fine-tune their ride with more contact and control, and increase the subtlety of their cues.
“The journey is about enjoying their horse. Sometimes we put so much emphasis on winning, but only one horse and rider can win, so the experience has to be fun. When the focus is only on winning, the rider begins to feel like winning is a second job, and it’s not fun anymore.
“Whatever the owner’s expectations when they bring a horse to you, you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. It has to be the right job for that horse. The client has to trust the trainer, and not second-guess him. If the horse is never going to be what they wanted, I tell them about other alternatives. I always follow through, and try to help, especially when it’s an amateur or young rider.
“From the beginning, western riding is all about creating softness,” Garland continues. “You want the rider to be relaxed and confident, and horse to be soft, supple, quiet and relaxed – and that takes time. In the first 90 to 100 days, I let the horse soak it all up. I’ve had some that learned in 90 days; others, it takes much longer, but in the first three to six months, you begin to see what you’ve got. When I have a young horse who starts doing what I’ve been trying to teach him, it can give me cold chills. I even get choked up sometimes. And when an amateur has a good ride – whether they win or not – and I can see the excitement in their eyes, that means more to me than any ribbon I can win.”