What to Look For, Part 2

What were the judges at the 2009 AQHA Judges Conference taught to look for?

What were the judges at the 2009 AQHA Judges Conference taught to look for?

A judge and his ring steward mark their cards at the 2009 AQHA World Championship Show.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

This is the second in a two-part series. Want to review part 1?

Every December, more than 200 judges gather for the annual AQHA Judges Conference, an event they’re required to attend once in a two-year period to maintain their eligibility, according to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.

Think of it as continuing education for AQHA’s judges. Learn what judges were taught to look for in a winning western pleasure run.

Western Pleasure
David Dellin, Purcell, Oklahoma
Top-100 National Snaffle Bit Association money-earning rider

A couple years ago, the top western pleasure riders in AQHA and NSBA met, and there were five things that came out of that meeting that we focused on as positive characteristics in pleasure horses – and they link to what is listed in our rulebook.

What we presented was based on that and is really also in AQHA’s DVD “Showing to Win: Western Pleasure” ($19.95, plus shipping, for AQHA members at www.aqhastore.com).

To judge western pleasure correctly, you have to keep your priorities straight, and that’s what we focus on. Sometimes judges will get “off” on how they value certain characteristics, and when that happens, you have people upset.

First and foremost, rhythm and cadence should be the highest priorities in a judge’s mind to look for in a western pleasure horse. Rhythm is the speed of the horse’s footfalls as they hit the ground, and cadence is the accuracy of those footfalls.

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That’s the biggest thing exhibitors need to focus on. When that horse jogs down the rail, it can’t be so slow and uncollected that the jog is not a distinct two-beat gait. As that horse is walking down the rail, it must have a four-beat gait; there can’t be a pause in the stride where the horse stops or hesitates or has a loss of forward momentum.

At the lope, it’s the same thing. When you present your horse, he must be accurate in his stride.

Expression and manners are second in priority. We want to see a horse look happy. It says right in our rulebook that we don’t want a horse to be “dull, sullen or lethargic.” We want a horse to be bright in his expression, use his ears, look alert and be bright as he travels around the pen. When he takes a gait, we don’t want to see him look irritable about it, but be comfortable and happy in his job.

Third is consistency. We want a horse to stay the same all the way around the pen. We like to see a horse that can take off at a certain rhythm and cadence and maintain that rhythm and cadence all the way around the arena during that gait, and in both directions.

Next is a level topline. When a horse’s neck is up and level, that’s only part of the picture: He also needs to be elevated in the shoulders and in the back, and that’s harder for people to see, especially sitting in the stands.

If you drew an imaginary line from a horse’s poll all the way back to his hip, it should be level. When that topline is level, that horse is balanced and collected in his way of going.

It’s important in a horse going around the rail because it will carry over into all the other events that these horses do.

And that is fundamental for western pleasure as the foundation class for every other western event out there.

If you get a horse that’s pulling himself around on the front end, and you try to take him over a Tim Kimura trail course, he’s going to hit every pole in there. But if you have a horse that’s balanced in his way of going – he can even be low-necked in the course, addressing the poles – but if he’s elevated in his shoulders and back and hip, he’ll be able to move through that pattern cleanly.

People have to look at topline as more than how the neck looks. It’s the whole picture, from the poll to the top of the hip; that’s what we’re shooting for in a balanced horse moving down the rail.

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Last is length of stride: All we are looking for is a length of stride in keeping with a horse’s conformation. You don’t expect a 14-hand horse to cover as much ground loping down the rail as you would a 17-hand horse. If a big, pretty-moving pleasure horse has to move off the rail to maintain his cadence and rhythm, you don’t want to penalize that horse for being off the rail. We don’t want to restrict a horse’s natural way of going.

Judges are taught to judge on the positive. I try to find the most complete horse, the horse that does the five positive characteristics to the highest degree, in the right priority.

A lot of times, people get wrapped up in a tree. You’ll hear something like, “I can’t believe they let that horse win because his neck was two inches below level when he was jogging to the left.” But that’s a tree in the forest. He might have had the best rhythm and cadence at the walk, jog and lope.

He might have had really good expression and was completely consistent all the way around the pen. Yes, he’s got a negative in the topline going one direction, but the rest of the time, his topline was good.

You have to look at the forest, each horse, as an overall picture. If you get caught up in one tree, then it’s easy to begin judging on the negative.

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5 thoughts on “What to Look For, Part 2”

  1. I love what AQHA does for the equine industry, especially for the yout, and they say this is what they’re looking for and that the face of Western Pleasure judging is starting to change, but at Congress this year I watched the Junior Western Pleausre class, they were still placing and awarding the class to the same ‘old, same ‘old. Horses moving so pianfully slow that you literally could not tell the difference between that three gaits asked for in this class, along with the heads still being canted inwards toward the rail.

    Until AQHA really starts to stand up to these trainers that are still training this way and DQing these riders, all of this stuff will be just empty words.

    I heard a comment after this class was over that described it best by a vendor that came in to watch: “If somebody brought any one of those horse to me and asked me what I thought, I would likely tell them that the horse needs shot to put it out of its pain and misery”.

  2. How would you address the “flat knee” within the context of what you look for? Is that part of cadence or stride? My horse has the level top line, beautiful & happy expression, no head bob, consistent frame, free flowing movement, but has a little more knee action and is a little faster in the lope than others. It just doesn’t flatten out totally in the front at the lope. He gets placed below horses that have alot of head bob and cant, with less proper cadence and poor expression. This happens consistently. I am wondering why this is.

  3. Hi Becca,

    Look for the answer to your question in the “Ask an Expert” for the first week of April. David Dellin will be answering your question.

    Hope that helps.

    Julie Preble
    Web Content Manager
    American Quarter Horse Association

  4. I am a dressage rider of many years and attended my first western show this fall because my niece is showing – I am looking for a horse for her and if I saw any of those in the ring loping I would say they were nodding lame and had no cadence at all – trot (jog) should be a two beat gait and canter (lope) should be three beat – these horses original purpost was to work cattle and to be comfortable for all day on the trail and now they do not fulfill either purpose to the eye

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