Place on the Rail

Western pleasure specialist John Dean explains his strategy behind rail position.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

As western pleasure classes get more competitive and the gap between first and last place narrows, rider strategy becomes increasingly important in separating champions from contenders. A rider’s first opportunity for strategic advantage comes before the judging begins, as riders take their places on the rail.

Entries in a western pleasure class perform along the arena wall, circling at a walk, jog and lope both directions around the show pen’s outer edge while the judges watch from the center of the ring. Ideal rail positioning allows a horse and rider to work smoothly, creating a natural and consistent image for the judges, without having their “zone” encroached upon by other entries.

Finding a Place on the Rail

“At most horse shows, you have a choice as to where you can go on the rail at the start of a western pleasure class,” says trainer John Dean. “What I consider when I make that choice is the speed my horse is going to go, especially jogging.”

John suggests you pay attention to other entries in the warm-up arena and take note of faster-moving horses. Once the class is ready to begin, position yourself behind a horse you expect to move faster than yours, eliminating the need to pass and ensuring that you and your horse stay in position along the rail while the judges critique your ride.

“You don’t want to get behind any horse you’ll gain ground on,” John says. “Stay where you lose a little ground on a horse, or at least keep the same pace.”

What Is the Best Way to Pass?

For more tips on western pleasure, get Showing to Win: Western Pleasure.

If you find yourself stuck on the rail behind a slower horse, John says passing isn’t a sin, especially if a rider has to forfeit his horse’s cadence to avoid gaining ground on the slower entry.

“A horse looks better alone and on the rail in a pleasure class,” he says, “but you can’t sacrifice the way your horse moves by trying to cover such little ground.”

When overtaking a slower entry, it’s important to make your move without disrupting the horse you pass. Move off the rail before getting within four feet of the slower horse and pass with two to three feet between your outside stirrup and the inside stirrup of the other rider. A rider shouldn’t get within a four-foot comfort zone of another horse and attempt to maintain a position along the rail.

“I hate to see someone run up on another horse and try to stay there,” John says. “It’s a rude thing to do to another competitor, and it makes your horse look bad, too.”

A typical error John notices among western pleasure riders is the tendency to pass too wide, calling more attention to the pass and increasing the amount of time it takes to overtake another horse.

“So many riders pass too wide, with 10 feet or more between them and the slower horse beside them,” he says. “They can lose a lot of rail position that way. When you pass before a corner, it’s even more important to stay in the correct position and maintain the two to three foot distance between your horse and the horse you are passing. In a full class, passing too wide before a corner can force exhibitors to pass several horses that are moving at the same speed as theirs just because they are out of position.” It’s also a common mistake to not use all the ground that’s available in the corners to circumvent passing.

Learn expert tips for winning western pleasure in Showing to Win: Western Pleasure.

If a faster horse overtakes you, John suggests keeping your pace steady and holding your position as the other horse passes. Be prepared to slow up or move off the rail yourself, though, if the faster horse makes a return to the rail too quickly, cutting you off.

Maintaining Position

Once you’re in position behind the horse of your choice, stay close to the rail, keeping your horse’s shoulder and rump as close as possible to the arena wall without touching it. If the arena floor hasn’t been worked and there’s a rut or trail along the wall, stay in the center of the track. Riding on one side or the other might cause your horse to alter his stride unexpectedly or trip.

The 2011 AQHA Amateur Western Pleasure World Champion talks about her experience at the show.