Prepare your pleasure horse for the show pen with five gymnastic exercises.
A western pleasure horse must be in top physical shape to compete and win in today’s arenas. But when it comes to conditioning a rail horse, there’s more to it than just walking, jogging and loping.
In a way, a show horse is like clay. You keep working and working clay until it becomes flat and mouldable, then you can make anything you want out of it. Bare in mind however that if you set the clay on the counter and let it get cold again, it’s going to get stiff and hard to shape. What I want with my horses is that warm, soft, mouldable piece of clay all the time.
I don’t care how finished a horse is or how long he has done western pleasure, he’ll go back to that stiff piece of clay if he’s not worked. He needs calisthenics (gymnastic exercises) to keep him supple and allow him to do his job properly. To prepare my western pleasure horses for the show ring, I use five simple exercises to enhance movement, transitions, flexibility and balance. The exercises consist of long trotting, shoulder and hip work, departures and transitions, loping squares and backing up.
Before I move into the exercises, I warm up the horse by longing him and riding him lightly. I want to make sure the horse is mentally with me. When I longe, I do not take the horse out there and just crack the whip and make him run around. I take the horse out and I try to get a feel for where he is mentally. Is he excited or is he quiet and ready to work? I don’t want the horse to come out with his tail over his back and run around like crazy on the longe line. If he is a little crazy then I will let him work himself down and maybe tie him up for a little while and let him recoup before I ride him. I don’t like to ride right off a hard longe because then the horse is breathing hard and is not really mentally open.
When I get on the horse, I walk him around and check his mental capacity again. If he’s pretty quiet, then I’m going to do a little lifting exercise where I see if he is attentive. I will raise the reins and ask him to lift his shoulders, head and neck. If he answers correctly, then I will ask him to move into a jog and see if he continues to pay attention to me. I will then tap him with my leg and ask him to move his body and see if he answers my cues. I also ask him to move into a lope and check my leg and hand cues again. I will then check my brakes and maybe ask him to yield off my leg.
If I feel he still has too much energy or isn’t paying attention to me, then I would not necessarily drill on the movements and the calisthenics. Instead, I’m going to say, ‘What do we need to do to get your energy level down? Do you need to get out and play? Do you need to go on the horse walker?’ If he is willing and listening to me, answering all my questions correctly, then I move into the calisthenics.
Exercise 1 – Long Trotting
In this exercise, I use a medium working trot with the horse using a full stride. It is more than a jog but isn’t fast. The purpose of this is to emphasise balance, strength, complete extension of the legs and use of the back while keeping it rounded. Although the horse is in a working trot, he is still expected to maintain a proper frame, which is a show ring frame with the horse’s head and neck as level as possible. One of the most important things when long trotting is that the horse is responsive to my spur, leg and seat cues. So when long trotting, I will check with the horse to see if he is listening to my cues. For example, I might vary it by asking him to ease his rhythm down a bit and do a slower extension, and then ask him to speed up to a faster extension.
This exercise is a real attention-getter and helps to harness the body and the mind as one. It really emphasises obedience in a greener horse who is not accustomed to going into a working trot without breaking into a lope or slowing down. This exercise is a way to tell him, ‘You go the pace I ask you to go. No more. No less.’
Exercise 2 - Shoulder and Hip
In this exercise, I focus on a shoulder or hip. For the shoulder, I place my outside leg a little forward and ask my horse to move its shoulder.
For the hip, my leg is behind the relaxed leg position. I usually do this exercise with two hands on the reins, and I am typically in the middle of the arena or riding across it diagonally.
The purpose of these exercises is to make sure the horse is obedient to my legs and my requests. If I find an area of resistance, then I know I need to focus longer on that.
Exercise 3 – Departures and Transitions
In this exercise, I mix up my departures and transitions to determine what I need to work on. Sometimes I go from a lope down to a trot, then trot to walk, lope to walk and walk to lope. I vary it all up to make sure the horse is obedient to my requests. If the horse doesn’t do a transition correctly, I stop him, back him up and then ask again. If he does it right the next time, I leave him alone.
At every transition, I want the shoulders up at the neck level. In the lope departure, if the horse is broke, I leave my hand very steady. If it’s a greener horse that needs a little bit of help with lifting his shoulders, head and neck, I move my hand slightly forward and raise my wrist a bit. This is the cue that I teach my horses. When I move my hand slightly forward and bring my wrist up, this is a cue for elevation of the horse’s whole front end.
Exercise 4 – Loping Squares
In this exercise, I am basically loping a square. I lope in a straight line, stop, push the shoulder around to make the turn and then lope off again. When I cue the horse to lope, my body is in a normal riding position with a relaxed leg. But when I go to make the turn, because I am moving the shoulders, my legs come forward, with my outside leg of the square a little more forward than the inside leg.
After I move the shoulders over, I might ask the horse in this particular exercise to lope off a little more through the shoulders and with my leg a bit more forward. I may also throw in turns on the hind quarter or forehand, depending on what I think the horse needs and the placement of his body. In this exercise I work on keeping the horse straight and from getting over canted (when a horse is moving down along the rail of the arena with its hip pushed to the inside).
Exercise 5 - Backing Up
At the end of the exercise session, I always do a backup. I don’t bring the horse to the middle because I don’t want him to think of being at a horse show. But I also don’t do it right on the rail either. For the backup, I close both spurs, keep the horse straight and then release to stop him. If he didn’t do it right, I will ask him to do it again. If he did it correctly, then I will get off of him, pat him and loosen his cinch for immediate relief. This tells him he did a good job, and we’re finished for the day.
When exercising my older, more experienced horses, I keep it pretty mixed up. I might work on long trotting and loping squares one day and departures and transitions the next. There are even days that I might come out and just walk and stand the entire session. I don’t want to go out every day and do the same exact thing. I will do that on a younger horse because they need to learn the rhythm, but on an older horse I vary it up a lot. If you take a horse out there and just run him through a routine every day, he gets savvy to that. So there are days when I am going to surprise my horse and just take him out and walk him and let him stand and look in the pasture.
For my older horses, I will ride them two or three days a week with activity of some sort on all the other days. Those activities would include turnout or being put on the horse walker. When it comes to preparing for shows, I want to make sure that the horse is ready to go to the horse show and be shown without straining himself. I try to make sure that athletically the horse is ready for what’s coming up. Exercise-wise, that would mean some long trotting again and doing what I call my checkups: ‘Are you doing your transitions correctly? Are you basically moving the way I want you to move?’ I would continue with my conditioning coupled with a turnout programme.
Now if I’m getting ready for the All American Quarter Horse Congress or the AQHA World Championship Show, I’m going to be pickier about everything. At that point, my horse’s mental readiness and my requirements are going to definitely increase. I might ride two or three times a day or whatever is needed at the time to make sure that everything is in perfect working order. If I’m going to a smaller show, I won’t be quite as critical.