Ahhh, Western Pleasure Saddlebred classes. This entry goes out to the saddle seat riders who scoff at the western classes, using their time to shine to get cheeseburgers and cocktails and use the restroom. I used to be one of you, you know. Checking the schedule to see when these classes came into the ring so I could strategically plan my French fry addiction and check out the jewelry vendors. Yawning at the unbelievably slow pace and complaining about going blind from all the sequins.
That kind of riding, it’s not very exciting after a road horse class or five-gaited smack-down. The organ music is even more boring, like Ennio Marcone played at half the speed.
Boring, boring, boring. That is, until you show in it. I would like to go on record as saying that some of the most challenging, anxiety-riddled, brain exhausting, sweaty horseback riding I have ever done was show a western horse. For starters, putting on fancy chaps is a two-man job. Unless you’re an avid attendee of yoga classes and you have excellent hand/eye coordination, you’re going to need to set aside at least ten minutes just to put on your damn pants. The shimmery gold chaps seemed like my childhood cowgirl dreams come true until I had been wrestling with them for fifteen minutes and no one else at the barn seemed to understand them, either. I’m told it eventually gets easier but I think whoever said that is a dirty liar.
Next, I’d like to point out that western horses tend to look really easy to ride. Slow, amicable, relaxing, they look buttery in their bridles and like they were born cantering smoother than a Mercedes on a freshly paved road. I have come to learn, with the exception of a few (I’m looking at you, A Magic Surprise, you saint), that this is not true. Wildly untrue, in fact.
I have a horse that showed many years in the Park and Pleasure divisions, and we are pretty much best friends. He’s getting older, and since he was easy to equitate and he responded well to neck reining, we decided to give western a go. "Show western," they said. "It will be fun," they said. I find it necessary to add at this point that my horse, Starlight Voyager, is what many would call "naughty." I prefer to say that he has an "excellent sense of humor," but potato, puh-tah-to.
Fast forward to our show ring experience. While Voyager and I had success in this division, winning at Lexington and Devon and ribboning at Lousiville, I need to express that it was not easy. In fact, I count these specific classes among some of the most challenging show ring experiences of my life. Every single step that horse takes must be perfect. You must be slow, collected, with a loose rein, transitioning seamlessly from one gait to another. Your horse’s manners better make the saddle seat Country Pleasure class look like a herd of untamed Chincoteague ponies. And when you’re riding a horse that doesn’t necessarily agree with your … suggestions, it requires finesse, creativity and a well of patience you never expected that you had. Many times in the ring, Voyager expressed himself creatively. And by that I mean he would suddenly change directions, run sideways, run backward, not stand in the line-up, not back and throw his head all over the place. You say "mistakes," I say, "dance moves."
After showing a few other western horses, I realized something. Voyager may be on the tougher end of the spectrum but he’s still a fine example of what it means to ride western. After you ride through that gate, every second is carefully calculated. Every step your horse takes, you must be three steps ahead. Western requires the supernatural ability to think at one hundred miles per hour but remain relaxed and pleasant-looking. It requires silent arguments with your horse that go something like, "I understand that you’d like to lope the second direction but you will continue to flat walk where I tell you, do you hear me??" and sometimes, their response is quite rude.
So to everyone who uses this class as a bathroom break, who doesn’t respect a rider who artfully navigates through a pack of twenty-two going approximately 0.2 miles per hour, please rethink your stance on this class. The next time they call the western horses to the ring, I urge you to think about what I have written, stay, and watch them. You may just learn a thing or two.