Developing Western Pleasure Collection with Gil Galyean

Developing Western Pleasure Collection with Gil Galyean

AQHA Professional Horseman and $1 million trainer Gil Galyean says careful training will teach a young horse self-carriage for western pleasure and beyond.

Developing collection in young horses. (Alexis O'Boyle photo)

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Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal. 


By AQHA Professional Horseman Gil Galyean with Larri Jo Starkey


Western pleasure is about collection. Your horse has to move in a collected motion, and collection is rewarded.

Collection is about slower speed with a bigger stride. There was an era when exhibitors wanted to slow the horses down, but instead of teaching them to go slow with a full stride, the horses were taught to go slower through shortening their stride. The horses developed a choppier stride, and that’s not what we’re looking for in western pleasure.

The truly great horses, which there aren’t a lot of them, go slow but take a big, full, pretty stride.

One of my great horses was Cool Krymsun Lady, a 16-hand mare who finished her stride. That’s what I feel like judges look for – a horse that has flow and consistency. It doesn’t look rough to ride, and it completes its stride front and back.

On our 2-year-olds, we’re trying to develop that character­istic. Our focus is not on going slow. Our focus is on collec­tion and taking a full step.

Here’s how I do it.

Getting Started

Each 2-year-old in my training program gets ridden four or five times a week for 30 to 45 minutes at a time.

I don’t want the horse to be too tired to learn, but I also don’t want the horse to be too fresh to learn. We don’t do a lot of longeing, but we do use a walker occasionally.

If something isn’t going well, I quit and might try again later in the day. We want to remember that these 2-year-olds are still babies. We’re asking the horse to learn to lift its back, carry itself and move up into the air a little bit, all with a rider aboard. It takes repetition for a young horse to learn, and patience is the single most important part of riding young horses.

This calm start is important whether the horse’s intended destination is western pleasure, the cutting pen, reining pen or just trail riding: We want our horses to steer and go forward.

As trainers and as riders, we want control of the horse’s body, and we want to be able to ask for it without the horse giving us a fight every time. We’re all looking for that willing obedience.

I don’t keep a log book of what I’ve done with a horse each day – though I know some people have had success doing that. When I get on a horse, he will tell me what he knows and show me where I need to teach him more.

Early Training

To me, it takes at least seven or eight months to train a pleasure horse – if they’re really easy.

After three or four months of training, I want a 2-year-old to accept a rider’s legs and not be scared of them. I want the horse to be starting its transitions, meaning it don’t need several trot steps before it lopes off or several walk steps before it trots off.

We’re still developing the stride, especially in the lope. We’re not pulling the horse down into the ground. We want that full range of motion. We are not even thinking about going slowly yet.

At this point, I can start to feel the horse developing its collection. The horse is starting to learn to push up in the air and take a full step with its legs. That’s the difference in horses that win and those that just place. We want them to finish the swing of the stride.

The horse is going to start to lift its body and form a shape, without pushing back against the rider’s legs. The horse will naturally get slower, and that’s how rate and con­sistency are developed.

At this point, I’m still riding the horse in a snaffle. I’m hold­ing with my hands, pushing with my legs and doing some easy rollbacks to develop strength and elevation. As a young horse learns to lift its body while carrying a rider, the horse’s neck will start dropping a bit. I don’t want the neck to drop too much, but a bit of drop is a natural part of the process.

We’re starting to teach the horse to yield his hip to leg pressure, so we can start shaping its body in a slight arc for a lope departure.

I will be walking along, loose-legged, thinking about lop­ing off on the left lead. I’ll go to the right leg and push the horse into a departure shape without letting it lope off. If the horse does start to lope off, I’ll go to my hands or voice to stop, then back up the horse a couple of steps and sit quietly where we are.

I want a horse to wait on my voice – no anticipating. I want a slight tip of the head to the left, but I want the horse to wait until I ask, before it takes that lope departure.

I’m teaching the horse the patience that will serve it in the long term in the show pen.

I like to ride young horses barefoot as long as possible. We don’t want contracted feet. We want those feet to spread and grow and get strong. If a horse is handling the riding bare­footed OK, that lets me know the horse will be OK for fall and beyond. If I’m having lameness issues in February and March, I don’t want to encourage the owner to keep the horse in training

Later Training

After five or six months of training, we’re still riding two-handed. The horse will be in a short-shanked correction bit, most likely.

I expect the horse to be backing good, moving its feet, roll­ing on its hocks. The horse will be starting to carry itself on a loose rein.

I’m able to let the horse go on a loose rein and let it carry itself for a bit. I don’t play games or punish the horse for los­ing that self-carriage. When it happens, I pull the horse back together. At this point, I start to see the horse resembling what will be its show speed, and its topline carriage will start falling into place. The transitions are coming together – the walk-off, the trot-off and the lope-off.

Also at this point, the horse knows its leads and is develop­ing hang time.

By seven or eight months of training, the horse should be collected and lifted on its own. I’m working with the horse on balance and cleaning up smaller issues, like making sure the horse moves its feet and backs up easily.

The horse needs to have enough self-carriage that I can put my hand down and the horse doesn’t rely on me to hold him in place.

By September, the horse should be traveling at a consistent pace at all three gaits and carrying the rider in a comfortable manner – that’s almost the definition of the class.

Don’t Push

After five or six months of training, I start to see which horses are going to be strong enough to be competitive and which ones need a break.

There’s no shame in a horse being a slow developer. I’m not shy about telling my horse owners that we need to wait on a horse. We’ll try again the next year to see whether the horse will make a good 3-year-old or even a 4-year-old. There’s no sense in pushing a horse too hard. If we let them develop at their own pace, we can create horses that will last a lifetime.

Developing a young horse for western pleasure isn’t easy. It takes experience and rhythm to know when to hold a horse and when to push. It takes consistent riding – our horses get weekends off or if we have to go to a show – oth­erwise, they get ridden. I also like to give my young horses a lot of turnout time.

It’s a unique class because we have to work so hard to make it look easy.


AQHA Professional Horseman GIL GALYEAN trains horses, youths and amateurs for western pleasure and cutting from his facility in Purcell, Oklahoma. Gil, a member of the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission, has trained horses for more than 20 years, including AQHA world champion Cool Krymsun Lady. Gil is the 2019 Don Burt AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. He’s online at