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What to Look for in the Perfect Western Pleasure Horse with Casey Willis and Jay Starnes


In this series, we talk to judges and industry experts about what type of horses excel in particular classes. We sat down with Multiple AQHA World and Congress Western Pleasure Champions Casey Willis of Masterson Farms and and Jay Starnes of Starnes Quarter Horses to discuss what makes a perfect western pleasure horse.

Western pleasure – a class where the best of the best movers congregate. According to the AQHA 2020 Rulebook, a western pleasure horse should have a “free-flowing stride of reasonable length in keeping with his conformation,” while covering “a reasonable amount of ground with little effort.” Willis and Starnes helped explain this description in more detail.

Conformation is big

Because the class is all about movement, conformation is a significant factor. If they don’t have ideal conformation, you can’t expect them to move correctly.

“You want one whose hocks sit a little more underneath them,” Willis said. “You want them short-pasterned, good over the topline, good over the withers. But, conformation sometimes doesn’t mean anything. You can have a great horse who has terrible conformation.”

So, while conformation does play into the placings, it doesn’t always define them.

Movement comes next

Again, western pleasure is all about showing off your horse’s movement. But what exactly are the judges looking for these days?

“One that drives from behind really well, but has a nice, straight front leg, and it just looks easy for it,” Starnes said (pictured right). “A pretty mover for me is one that’s even front to back.”

In the pleasure pen, there is a big emphasis on natural, smooth movement. Your horse should be pleasing to look at, at any gait.

“You want it to be pleasing to the eye,” Willis added. “You want to look at it and say, “That’s a nice horse.'”

Personality plays into it

Even though western pleasure doesn’t get its difficulty from maneuvers or patterns, the horse should still be a hard worker. Honestly, this applies to any class you hope to succeed in. It makes it a whole lot easier to accomplish things and improve if your partner is willing to learn.

“The ones that are willing are the ones that are best for me,” Starnes said. “If they’re willing to do their job, you can teach them to do about anything. They’ve got to be good movers, but also good-minded so people can ride them. They can’t be hard to deal with.”

Usually, you can figure out what type of mindset a horse will have when they’re younger, especially when they’re beginning to get broke out.

“Once we get going with them and start riding them a lot and asking for things, we figure out which ones are willing to do their job,” Starnes explained. “It just makes it easy, them wanting to do it.”

They should get along with other horses

You and your horse will be dealing with a lot of traffic in the pleasure pen.

“The perfect pleasure run is when you’ve got a nice big rail spot, and you don’t have to do any maneuvering around or anything, but that doesn’t always happen,” Starnes said.

Because of that factor of uncertainty, your horse should be well-prepared for anything. There can be upwards of 20 horses in the pen at a time, so your horse shouldn’t hate being close to other horses.

“You want to be able to ride around other horses,” Willis said (pictured right). “You don’t want one that’s ill; you need it to be a pleasing horse.”

Look Your Best

Another significant factor of western pleasure is looks. Your horse should be well-groomed, and you should look neat as well. If you feel confident, your horse will too.

“A lot of it is presentation,” Willis said. “It’s a horse show, so it’s not just the horse, it’s also the individual. You have to show that thing and look like you’re enjoying it, versus it looking like a struggle.”

Overall, even if your horse doesn’t have the best conformation, or isn’t the best mover, you can still excel in western pleasure.

“When everything is just right, and your horse is listening to you every step of the way, then it’s easy to portray whatever you want to the judge, when everything is right there where it needs to be,” Starnes said.

It’s good to keep conformation, movement, and personality in mind while looking for a western pleasure horse or trying to improve with your own. But it is a very subjective class compared to others, so don’t think that placings always define you.

“Honestly, depending on the level that you’re at, first and third can be the same horse on that given day,” Willis said.

Going into the western pleasure pen with an optimistic mindset is always helpful, because of the subjective factor of it. So, get in there, show your horse, and have fun.


About the Author – Olivia Bradish has been an equestrian for 13 years. She attends the University of Michigan, studying Political Science and English, as well as working for The Michigan Daily. Olivia shows the all-around events with her horse, CSR Roan Bar Penny, who is known around the barn as London. They enjoy showmanship, horsemanship, and trail the most. Olivia also enjoys teaching and helping the younger kids at her barn. She plans to continue showing and teaching throughout her college years.

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