Reschooling the Western Horse
Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.
A well-trained western horse can make a superb English horse; the only problem is that it's hard to find one for $1,000. Western training is not so far from English training, because the basic signals given to any horse are universal. Horses respond naturally to cues that allow their bodies to follow instinctively. Coming from Texas, I had a wide range of western horses from which to choose, all much more reasonably priced than the big warmbloods that were available, and all with better dispositions than the thoroughbreds off the track. They were using horses, tough-minded individuals with good work ethics. They came from many western disciplines: roping, cutting, barrel racing, western pleasure. They weren't always the politically correct choice, especially in the hunter ring that is judged so highly on style and appearance, but they always got the job done.
Roping horses carry a lot of size and power and can make good jumpers. They tend to be one sided, because cowboys usually lope them to the left so they never veer right while roping. They've seen it all before, the rodeo arena, the crowds, the flapping flags, and the cattle. They stand tied side by side by their bridles to the side of the arena for hours, so they're used to other horses and shouldn't kick them. One of my students bought a stout palomino roping horse named Felix for around $1,700. I knew him for thirteen years and watched him go through three career changes. First he was a roping and team penning horse. When my student bought him, we retrained him as a hunter and dressage horse, but his trot was too short and his neck too thick for him to do dressage competitively.
Felix excelled over fences in the hunter ring where his powerful canter stride was exactly twelve feet. I started him in schooling shows in the pre-green division where he won many championships. His owner started showing him in the beginner and novice divisions where she also won. Eventually he made it to the "A" shows and won some ribbons there. I lost track of him for about 10 years until one day he turned up, under the pseudonym "Grandpa," at the barn where I was working. He was so old and so quiet, he was used as a lesson horse to teach beginners to jump, a far cry from his rodeo days.
Cutting horses are athletic, very agile and can be nice dressage horses, but a good one is very, very expensive. You can find young horses bred but not trained for cutting within your price range. Because the mature cutting horse is usually small, between 14 and 15 hands, many riders won't consider them for English. Cutters ride these horses at the lope to condition them, sometimes for hours. They are very fit, and work extremely well off their haunches. They can jump right out from underneath you in an English saddle. Because they are loped so much, they're not particularly comfortable at the trot and need some schooling, but it's always easier to fix a trot than a canter.
Barrel racers are usually Appendix quarter horses and have the height and look of the thoroughbred, as well as a long canter stride, suitable for a hunter or jumper. They can be a bit hot (see Earl in the chapter on "new tricks"). On the other hand, I had a friend with a 16.2 hand prize winning barrel horse. She said she always wanted to see him jump, and I wanted to see him run. So, we trailered him to a barrel race. She walked him around the grounds for 20 minutes and he looked asleep. Then, she took him in the ring and he blazed his way to a third place (by the way, this type of show seems like a lot of work for 16 seconds of fun, but the prize money is good.) Then, we loaded him back in the trailer and took him to my barn. I cantered him over some low jumps and he was a perfect gentleman. He reminded me of a certain type of man: handsome and charming, but very fast.
Western pleasure horses are usually broke to the core and have quiet dispositions. They pick up their leads, they stay soft at all three gaits, and they've been around a lot. Sometimes you can buy a nice pleasure horse at a low price because his trot is too "bouncy" or they can't slow him down enough for western pleasure. Whatever causes the bounce, whether it is a lot of knee action or a long stride from the shoulder, can be excellent for English. Western pleasure horses can be nice lesson horses or all around horses, but they tend to be built downhill, with their withers lower than their croups. They are also trained to go downhill, "pushing peanuts" with their noses. This frame has improved a lot in recent years and the nice level frame with the poll no lower than the withers is perfect for training level dressage.
I've found that these horses, when pushed from behind, are great at going long and low, the uberstreichen necessary to bring their backs up. With their necks and heads low, their backs up and their hocks pushing, they bounce along like little rubber balls. I've seen their trot strides lengthen three or four feet when they are stretched this way regularly. Once their backs are up and they are pushed through, these horses can be great at collection since they are so used to shortening their frames.
Once thing to watch for in a western pleasure horse is the four beat lope, a problem when the canter is slowed too much for western pleasure. It's not too hard to correct, if you don't mind pushing him from behind at the canter and allowing him to stretch long and low at the same time. Speeding up the canter, the common cure for the four feet lope, only throws the horse on its forehand. It's important to really engage the inside hind leg, since what is happening is that the diagonal pair has broken down, the inside hind leg is not reaching forward far enough to make a lead, and the horse is basically trotting behind.
Another thing to watch for in a western pleasure horse is one that has been ridden in draw reins too much. Draw reins, running from the girth to the bit back to the rider's hands, pull the horse's head in and down. They "set" a horse's head but they do not allow him to move through ihis back or push with his hindquarters. A horse that has been ridden in draw reins too much tends to be overflexed. The horse bends its neck somewhere behind the poll, the poll is no longer the highest part of the neck, and the horse's head is no longer in front of the vertical. He is behind the bit.
A horse behind the bit does not stretch correctly for the bit, and evades contact by curling up. He needs to be ridden strongly forward into even contact. You need to practice changing his frame constantly, riding him long and low then picking him up, over and over, at all three gaits. Never drop the contact with the reins, and never allow him to drop it, even if he curls up. Always make him go forward, in front of your leg rather than behind your leg. He should feel as if he would move forward with the slightest touch. Draw reins are tools, useful only for correcting problems. Every good trainer uses them on occasion. If the horse throws his head, stargazes, or raises his head too much in transitions, the trainer may put them on to make a point. If, when the draw reins are taken off, the horse understands the point and keeps his head down, then the draw reins were used correctly. If the draw reins are taken off and the horse resorts to his old habits, then the draw reins were not used correctly. If the trainer puts them back on over and over, then draw reins become a crutch and not a tool
Reining horses are very uphill, have great canters, and know their flying changes, so they can be great dressage horses. They are not tall or leggy, but they know their basics. Since these horses are never shown at the trot, some trainers neglect it and it may need work, as with cutting horses. When you reach second level dressage, sometimes it's hard to reschool the counter canter since reiners would rather swap leads. (The same is true for hunters and jumpers reschooling in dressage). There are excellent western and hunter/jumper trainers who teach their horse the counter canter as well as the flying change. Since reining horses are trained to spin, it's problematic to teach them to slow down and do turn on the haunches one step at a time without sticking the pivot foot.
Paints and pintos are becoming very popular in the sport horse world. Paints always have some quarter horse blood, but pintos can be any breed with the spotted coloration. There are two different registries. The greater demand for spotted horses brings a higher price tag, but you can get a great deal with a "crop out" paint, especially a gelding. Crop out paints are horses without enough white to meet the paint or pinto registry specifications. Sometimes mares can get into the breeding appendix registry, but a gelding loses his papers.
Remington was a big shiny chestnut gelding with four white stockings, a blaze face, and one white spot on his belly. Both his parents were quarter horses, but Remington was denied papers because of the height of his stockings and that damned spot. Every single one of his owners tried to get some sort of papers so they could show him at the breed shows. The quarter horse people wouldn't look twice--a spot was a spot and that's not allowed. The paint and pinto people came out and measured the spot, but it just wasn't big enough, even when shaved, stretched, and dyed. So, Remington became a 4-H horse where he could clean up in the grade horse division.
I got him for about $1,500, through a deal with my dad. He came with standard western options, power steering, wide chassis, and all that chrome. Though a little downhill, he learned dressage quickly. He earned his board when I leased him to one of my students, but I still had the pleasure of riding and showing him. He won some hunter ribbons, but with his tiny feet, fine boned legs, and massive body, dressage was the way to go. He was built for navicular. Jumping compounds the problem when the horse lands with all his weight on one front foot. Western pleasure can dump too much weight on the forehand as well, causing problems. Dressage is the salvation for many navicular horses, because it shifts the horse's weight back on his hindquarter, actually lightening the amount of weight put on the front feet. My farrier decided prevention was the best cure: he shod Remington with bar shoes and pads. Remington never took a lame step after that. With his rigorous show schedule, it was worth the cost of the shoes. In his first year of dressage showing, Remington was the Houston Dressage Society Second Level champion in the schooling show division. He was pulling good ribbons at "A" shows before I sold him for over four times his purchase price. Remington has a special place in my heart.
Advantages of Buying a Western Horse
Disadvantages of Buying a Western Horse