Showing Western Pleasure: The Basics

Showing Western Pleasure: The Basics

A judge shares tips for how to get started in western pleasure and how to feel like a pro in the show pen.

group of western pleasure exhibitors jog away down the rail (Credit: Journal)

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When showing western pleasure, your horse should be a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to ride – no matter what your skill level. All of your efforts when showing western pleasure should be aimed at making your horse look smooth.

AQHA judge Louis Hufnagel provides the following tips for beginning exhibitors getting started showing western pleasure.

Getting Started in Western Pleasure: Know How Western Pleasure Is Judged

Any time you have a question about how your horse should look in the show ring and how a class is judged, don't depend on fads to tell you – look at the western pleasure rules in the AQHA rulebook.

Western Pleasure Gaits

The western pleasure rules section of the AQHA rulebook covers western pleasure judging, defines each gait and describes what constitutes quality to poor quality, ranging from: excellent, very good, good, correct, poor, very poor and extremely poor.


The walk is a natural, flat-footed, four-beat gait. The horse must move straight and true at the walk. The walk must be alert, with a stride of reasonable length in keeping with the size of the horse.


The jog is a smooth, ground-covering, two-beat diagonal gait. The horse works from one pair of diagonals to the other pair. The jog should be square, balanced and with straight, forward movement of the feet. Horses walking with their back feet and trotting in the front are not considered performing the required gait. When asked to extend the jog, it moves out with the same smooth way of going.


The lope is an easy, rhythmical, three-beat gait. Horses moving to the left should lope on the left lead. Horses moving to the right should lope on the right lead. Horses traveling at a four-beat gait are not considered to be performing at a proper lope. The horse should lope with a natural stride and appear relaxed and smooth. It should be ridden at a speed that is a natural way of going. The head should be carried at an angle, which is natural and suitable to the horse’s conformation at all gaits.

Gil Galyean jogs Woulda Coulda Shoulda into the rail work portion of the 2019 Pleasure Versatility

The AQHA rulebook describes the western pleasure jog as "a smooth, ground-covering, two-beat diagonal gait." (Credit: Journal)

How Western Pleasure Gaits Are Judged

As the AQHA rulebook says, there is an order of priority for evaluating western gaits. Following are the requirements in order of importance.


Concerning correctness, which is the most important element of the hierarchy, judges must assess if the exhibitor has performed each gait correctly as defined during all or the majority of all of the class in order to have a correct or positive evaluation. For western gaits, this includes a four-beat walk, two-beat jog and three-beat lope. The distinctness of the designated cadence for the gait being performed is essential.


Concerning quality, which is the second most important element in the hierarchy, and can only be considered positively if the gait performance has complied with the first element of correctness. When evaluating the pleasing characteristics of a gait, among many considerations, judges must consider overall gracefulness, relaxed expression, topline, softness of movement, consistency and length of stride of the designated gait.

Degree of Difficulty

Concerning degree of difficulty, this is the least important and last element of the hierarchy. This element must only be considered if the requirement for correctness has been met and combination of correctness and quality allow the performance to be considered for placement. Difficulty is greatly influenced by exhibiting a pleasure horse at a pace and speed that allows for correctness and best quality of a gait for that individual. A performance of a walk that is ground covering and free flowing has a high degree of difficulty. A jog or lope that is performed with a slow rhythm without sacrificing correctness or quality has a high degree of difficulty. Slowness that sacrifices correctness or negatively impacts quality shall be considered incorrect and a poor performance at best.

Go to the AQHA rulebook to continue reading.

Western Pleasure Training: Practice Makes Perfect

Many beginning western pleasure exhibitors get scared when their horses go a little too fast, because their balance changes with the rhythm. That's something you need to practice, too: changing rhythms until your whole body is relaxed. It's like any other sport – it takes physical exertion. Your horse won't stay steady in the ring unless you've got him steady at home.

Tips for Showing Western Pleasure

Plan Ahead When Passing

Passing isn't bad – it's better to pass than to crowd – but you can set yourself up better if you get behind a horse that jogs faster than yours so you don't have to make that decision. If you need to pass, do it, but be smart about it. Plan ahead. Don't start thinking about passing when you're 6 inches from the tail of the horse in front of you. What you should do is start moving your horse off your leg toward the center of the ring a couple of horse lengths before you pass the horse in front of you, leaving plenty of room.

Read on for more in-depth western pleasure passing tips.

Be Timely When Gaits Are Called

When a gait is called, you can count, "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two," but by "one-thousand-three," you should be in that gait. Don't poke around on the rail. The one who has the most room is supposed to go first. If you are in a line that's pretty tight and you can lope off when they call lope, you have gained points.

Maintain Your Speed

In a western pleasure class, there are only three speeds: too fast, too slow or just right. According to the rulebook, the just-right speed is cadenced and balanced, not just slow. When you're on the rail, work on keeping a rhythm to effectively show your horse, not someone else's.

Western Pleasure Attire: Look Professional

Work on making your horse look good. If your horse is rough, don't wear a ponytail that swings around like a helicopter. Pin your number down so it's not flopping. If your reins are draped so long that they're swaying and making your horse look rough, they're too long. If the back of your saddle is bouncing, it doesn't look smooth. Everything from your western pleasure attire to your equipment should make your horse look as smooth as possible. Western pleasure is about making the horse look good.

When deciding what to wear for western pleasure, the goal is to look professional and remember that western pleasure is about making the horse look good. (Credit: Journal)