What to Look For, Part 2

What were the judges at the 2009 AQHA Judges Conference taught to look for?

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

This is the second in a two-part series. Want to review part 1?

Every December, more than 200 judges gather for the annual AQHA Judges Conference, an event they’re required to attend once in a two-year period to maintain their eligibility, according to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.

Think of it as continuing education for AQHA’s judges. Learn what judges were taught to look for in a winning western pleasure run.

Western Pleasure
David Dellin, Purcell, Oklahoma
Top-100 National Snaffle Bit Association money-earning rider

A couple years ago, the top western pleasure riders in AQHA and NSBA met, and there were five things that came out of that meeting that we focused on as positive characteristics in pleasure horses – and they link to what is listed in our rulebook.

What we presented was based on that and is really also in AQHA’s DVD “Showing to Win: Western Pleasure” ($19.95, plus shipping, for AQHA members at

To judge western pleasure correctly, you have to keep your priorities straight, and that’s what we focus on. Sometimes judges will get “off” on how they value certain characteristics, and when that happens, you have people upset.

First and foremost, rhythm and cadence should be the highest priorities in a judge’s mind to look for in a western pleasure horse. Rhythm is the speed of the horse’s footfalls as they hit the ground, and cadence is the accuracy of those footfalls.

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That’s the biggest thing exhibitors need to focus on. When that horse jogs down the rail, it can’t be so slow and uncollected that the jog is not a distinct two-beat gait. As that horse is walking down the rail, it must have a four-beat gait; there can’t be a pause in the stride where the horse stops or hesitates or has a loss of forward momentum.

At the lope, it’s the same thing. When you present your horse, he must be accurate in his stride.

Expression and manners are second in priority. We want to see a horse look happy. It says right in our rulebook that we don’t want a horse to be “dull, sullen or lethargic.” We want a horse to be bright in his expression, use his ears, look alert and be bright as he travels around the pen. When he takes a gait, we don’t want to see him look irritable about it, but be comfortable and happy in his job.

Third is consistency. We want a horse to stay the same all the way around the pen. We like to see a horse that can take off at a certain rhythm and cadence and maintain that rhythm and cadence all the way around the arena during that gait, and in both directions.

Next is a level topline. When a horse’s neck is up and level, that’s only part of the picture: He also needs to be elevated in the shoulders and in the back, and that’s harder for people to see, especially sitting in the stands.

If you drew an imaginary line from a horse’s poll all the way back to his hip, it should be level. When that topline is level, that horse is balanced and collected in his way of going.

It’s important in a horse going around the rail because it will carry over into all the other events that these horses do.

And that is fundamental for western pleasure as the foundation class for every other western event out there.

If you get a horse that’s pulling himself around on the front end, and you try to take him over a Tim Kimura trail course, he’s going to hit every pole in there. But if you have a horse that’s balanced in his way of going – he can even be low-necked in the course, addressing the poles – but if he’s elevated in his shoulders and back and hip, he’ll be able to move through that pattern cleanly.

People have to look at topline as more than how the neck looks. It’s the whole picture, from the poll to the top of the hip; that’s what we’re shooting for in a balanced horse moving down the rail.

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Last is length of stride: All we are looking for is a length of stride in keeping with a horse’s conformation. You don’t expect a 14-hand horse to cover as much ground loping down the rail as you would a 17-hand horse. If a big, pretty-moving pleasure horse has to move off the rail to maintain his cadence and rhythm, you don’t want to penalize that horse for being off the rail. We don’t want to restrict a horse’s natural way of going.

Judges are taught to judge on the positive. I try to find the most complete horse, the horse that does the five positive characteristics to the highest degree, in the right priority.

A lot of times, people get wrapped up in a tree. You’ll hear something like, “I can’t believe they let that horse win because his neck was two inches below level when he was jogging to the left.” But that’s a tree in the forest. He might have had the best rhythm and cadence at the walk, jog and lope.

He might have had really good expression and was completely consistent all the way around the pen. Yes, he’s got a negative in the topline going one direction, but the rest of the time, his topline was good.

You have to look at the forest, each horse, as an overall picture. If you get caught up in one tree, then it’s easy to begin judging on the negative.

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