Western Pleasure for the Standardbred
Even the most ardent Standardbred devotee has to admit that the breed isn't the first to come to mind as a western pleasure candidate. Certainly, the Standardbred is a solid choice for pleasure riding on the trails, but show pen western pleasure, largely the domain of slow-moving Quarter horses mincing around the ring with low heads and loose reins, seems a little far-fetched for a breed developed to fly down the racetrack, pulling on the lines at the trot or pace while hitched to a sulky.
But two of the breed's greatest attributes, willingness and a good work ethic, coupled with a good measure of patience and perseverance, make the Standardbred a surprise contender in the western show pen.
Start With a Good Foundation
Before you venture into any specialized riding discipline, whether dressage, jumping, or western pleasure, your Standardbred needs a solid foundation under saddle. Your Standardbred should be comfortable carrying a saddle and a rider, and should have a working knowledge of basic aids and commands. The horse should know the basics of steering, speeding up, slowing down, and stopping in response to rider cues. He should be able to be ridden at the walk and trot, should halt and stand quietly, and should know how to back. In addition, teaching the green Standardbred to yield to the bit is key to submission and obedience in any discipline. Standardbreds are raced with an overcheck which holds the horse's neck in an upright, somewhat hollowed position. This encourages the horse to maintain his racing gait while making it harder for him to break into a gallop. This head carriage may take some time to overcome, as this upright position may have become a "comfort zone" for your horse. It is easiest to initiate yielding to the bit at the halt or even on the ground. I like to lightly see-saw the bit back and forth in the horse's mouth, rewarding even the slightest amount that the horse gives to the bit. I also teach the horse to give laterally by gently tugging on one rein at the halt until the horse bends his neck around to touch my foot or stirrup with his muzzle. Be sure to work both sides. There are also methods to encourage yielding to the bit through side reins and other training aids. Whatever methods you use, be consistent and forgiving.
Comfort Is Key
The green Standardbred under saddle is likely to be forward moving, bouncy, and uncollected in the initial stages of his western pleasure training. Because of this, it is often easier to start them in English tack, whether a dressage, hunt seat, or cut-back saddle. In any case, the rider should select a saddle that they are comfortable riding the horse in, and one that allows the rider to maintain a balanced, correct, and effective riding position no matter what awkward efforts your green Standardbred may throw your way. An effective riding position means that, at the halt, your heels should be aligned with the center of your hip and with your ear. Your elbows should follow a natural bend which allows your forearms to align with the bit when your horse's head is in a neutral position. Your stirrups should be short enough to allow some heel flexion and to allow you to post to the trot without losing your balance or relying on your hands for balance.
One of the hallmarks of a finished western horse is the ability to work in a curb bit with very light contact, guided with just one hand on the reins. This is achieved only through hours of slow, meticulous training and a solid foundation. This foundation is achieved by starting the horse in a simple snaffle bit or even a bosal or hackamore. DO NOT BE IN A HURRY TO TRANSITION THE HORSE TO A CURB BIT OR TO RIDE WITH ONE HAND! Rushing this step will make it difficult to teach the horse proper self-carriage, softness, and collection. Use the mildest snaffle that the horse will consistently respond to. As a racehorse, your Standardbred was encouraged to take hold of the bit and drive down to the finish line. As a result, you will initially need more rein contact than if you were starting with a previously unbroken horse. Having some contact with the reins will allow you to administer rein cues more quickly, smoothly, and subtly than if you first have to reel in a foot of loose, flopping rein.
Half-Halts & Collection
Now that you and your Standardbred are outfitted with correct and comfortable tack and have mastered basic riding position and cues, it's time to start refining your western pleasure performance. During your day to day riding, work on slowing your horse's tempo and shortening his stride at the walk and trot. You want your horse to be collected and stepping under himself, but unlike in hunt seat, dressage, and saddle seat pleasure classes, he should not track up or overstep his front feet with his hind feet. Initially, his jog will probably resemble a collected trot more than a western jog, but over time, he will learn to soften his steps and relax into a jog. Use your voice, seat, leg, and hands to perform a half-halt to slow your horse. When my horse is jogging faster than I'd like, I use the command "Easy" (pronouced Eeeee Zee with the emphasis on the first syllable) when I ask for a half-halt. On the second syllable, I squeeze the reins, resist his motion slightly with the seat, and use just a bit of leg to keep him moving into my hands. Eventually, he will learn to associate the vocal cue with the half-halt, and your other aids can become more subtle or even non-existent. When you need just a little slow-down, you can resist his rhythm with your seat ever so slightly to encourage a slower tempo, You can also use frequent but methodical transitions and changes of direction to rate his speed, slow his tempo, and encourage relaxation and focus while keeping his balance centered over his haunches. For the horse that just doesn't seem to grasp shortening his stride, 3-5 trotting poles placed just a few inches tighter than his usual trot stride can help him learn to shorten up. Over time, the distances can be further shortened until you have achieved a more acceptable jog.
As your horse tries to figure out what you are asking for and how to move his body at the jog, he may have a tendency to get a little disjointed and fall into an ambling, half-walk/half-trot gait. Calmly add a bit more leg and a little less hand to correct him back into a slow 2-beat trot and then repeat your efforts with the half-halt. Being overly harsh and kicking or spurring him will only destroy his relaxation and willingness to try to go slow. Some horses have more aptitude than others, but be sure to recognize and reward whatever honest effort he gives you. The same basic premises apply to the lope, but in depth discussion is beyond the scope of this article and will be addressed at a later date.
Repetition & Relaxation
A winning western pleasure performance should look relaxed and effortless. This is the result of hours of practice and repetition, as well as preparing the horse for the sights and sounds he will encounter in a horse show environment. I like to cross-train my Standardbreds in a variety of disciplines to prevent boredom and sourness, and also to make them well-rounded and adaptable. If your horse is sour or tense and nervous, he will not be able to give you his best performance. Though horses will be horses, my goal is to get my horse used to as many unusual sights and sounds as I can and bring him to believe that horse shows are boring and nothing to get excited about. Since I show primarily in judged events that focus on obedience and harmony, I don't do any speed events, games, or other events likely to get him riled up until I'm sure he has a very solid foundation of showing and has proven that he can keep his wits about him in most circumstances.
Gimmicks and Short Cuts
Western pleasure has gained an untoward reputation in some circles relating to artificial head sets, stilted gaits, and two-tracking horses. You may hear some people swear by equipment and techniques like tie downs, hock hobbles, or weighted bits. You may see 4 beat lopes, riders popping their horses' mouths to "correct" them every time the judge isn't looking, horses traveling with their haunches canted to the inside to keep them slow, or horses being made to hold their head down by their knees. I don't practice these techniques; I believe that there is no substitute for steady, methodical training and time, and that a true pleasure horse is one that enjoys his job and is a pleasure to ride, no matter what the breed or discipline.
Look the Part
While you don't need a blinged out show saddle and trendy custom outfit to compete in the western pleasure pen at a typical open show with your Standardbred, you want to give the impression that you and your horse belong. You should be at least as well turned-out as the average competitor at the shows you compete at. Your presentation gives the judge their first impression of your horse-rider team, shows your level of respect and understanding for the discipline(s) in which you are competing, and gives the judge their first clue as to whether you are an imposter or true contender.
For your horse, a good working outfit is acceptable for most levels of western showing. A leather saddle is preferable to a synthetic one for giving the impression that you are a serious western competitor. Whether plain or ornate, your saddle, bridle, and cinch should be clean and well-fitting. An underpad with a woven wool or cotton/acrylic saddle blanket is considered correct for the show ring. Most everyday work pads work fine as underpads so long as the saddle blanket you use is large enough to completely cover them. Suitable basic saddle blankets can be purchased for less than $20 new so there is no excuse for showing with a gaudy fringed Navajo rug hanging askew under your saddle.
For yourself, if you are not familiar with the ever-changing world of western show fashion, it is best to err on the conservative side. Western pleasure is judged on smoothness and the ability to give a pleasurable ride, so fringed shirts should be avoided as their movement will make your horse appear bouncy. Likewise, it is preferable to avoid busy and gaudy shirts sold by so-called western wear stores; most are meant to be worn to honky-tonks and country western bars rather than the show ring. You really can't go wrong with a solid colored button-down shirt and contrasting handkerchief tied around your neck. Clean, starched jeans or dress pants are acceptable with or without fringed chaps. Paddock shoes or cowboy boots are appropriate; your pants should be worn outside your boots, NOT tucked into them. Tie it together with a coordinating western belt and belt buckle. Though they lack the traditional western look of a cowboy hat, riding helmets are acceptable if you do not have a cowboy hat or simply prefer to err on the side of safety; one or the other should be on your head when you enter the show pen. Before your first show, check the overall impression that you and your horse make by having a friend photograph or video tape you and your horse during a practice ride, fully outfitted in your show ensemble.
In the Show Ring
There are a few subtleties about showing western pleasure that are different than flat classes in other disciplines. Technically, only horses 5 years of age and under should be shown two-handed in a snaffle bit or bosal. At open shows, this rule isn't generally enforced unless the classes are divided by age of horse into Junior (5 year olds and under) and Senior (6 year olds and over) Western Pleasure. Given that most Standardbreds won't begin their riding training until much later than a western pleasure futurity prospect, I feel that most judges would be understanding of making an exception for a green older Standardbred, though you may have to explain yourself. It is certainly better than overbitting and overfacing your horse. Besides bitting, another difference between western pleasure and English flat classes is that circling to avoid traffic is generally frowned upon. Passing on the inside of a slower horse is acceptable, though it is preferable to minimize this as much as possible. Use the corners of the ring to your advantage to maintain space between yourself and the other horses. If you are gaining on a slower horse in front of you, try going deeper into the corner to buy yourself a little space. If you just finished passing a slower horse and the announcer then asks the class to reverse, take your time changing direction to put more distance between yourself and that horse. Before you even enter the ring, try to gauge which horses are likely to be slower than yours, and don't tailgate them through the in-gate. Also, be prepared to back at some point during the class. In 95% of western pleasure classes, you will be asked to back, either on the rail or in the line-up. Have your reins short enough to cue smoothly for the back in the line-up if the judge hasn't already called for the back on the rail.
It is my hope that these hints will help you venture successfully into the western pleasure show pen with your Standardbred. Good luck and have fun!
About the Author
Long-time Standardbred owner and amateur trainer Laura Harbour has trained and ridden her Standardbreds Veruca Salt and Heavymetalthunder to multiple Standardbred National and World Championships in a variety of disciplines, including western pleasure, and competes regularly (and successfully) against Quarter horses and other traditional western horse breeds at open shows in western pleasure, horsemanship, trail, and other western disciplines.