Equestrian Discipline: Pure Pleasure

His job is fun. The pleasure horse doesn't work hard or fast, like competitors in jumping, reining, or racing. But when he treks up the trail or circles the show ring, he's supplying his rider with an essential ingredient--the feel of a good horse.


The feel of a good horse is an essential ingredient in pleasure riding.


Horses today partner with people for leisure, rather than a means of transport. The pleasure horse carries his rider reliably, at the speed and distance asked.

Too Much Fun!

Equine specialists attract attention, yet most horses in the United States still are all-around performers. Of the equine population of almost seven million, 70% are kept for showing and recreation, according to a 1996 report from the American Horse Council.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service also surveyed horse owners in 1996. The counties polled reported that 22% of horses were used in Western rail classes, and 13% were for leisure riding only. Owners cited primary reasons for owning horses as improved quality of life and relaxation.

Pleasure horses are everywhere, and their job descriptions also cover a wide territory. A backyard horse might work only on weekends, to carry his stressed-out owner on casual rides around the neighborhood. The pony owned by a family might spend after school hours loping circuits for a crew of enthusiastic young fans.

This fun-seeker can traverse a beach, canyon, national park, or farmland. On the trail, horses transport riders on trips that include daytime excursions and overnight camp outs. A trail horse's itinerary could be a short stroll in the suburbs, or a week-long pack trip into the wilderness.

On the inside of the fence, pleasure classes have been mainstays in horse shows for decades. Outfitted in Western, saddle seat, or hunter tack, horses walk, trot, and canter. The rail class becomes more complex with higher stakes, such as association points and prize money. Serious amateurs and profit-driven professionals pressure their horses for perfect roundsp. National championships and pleasure futurities crank up the demands even more, with involvement escalating from amusement into a serious venture.

Shows also feature trail classes, where the pleasure horse demonstrates clever footwork through obstacles. Although based on the skills of the careful horse, the artificial challenges can't truly resemble what's out in the real world. (A show ring champion might be terrified when asked to traverse rocks, bridges, or rushing water on a real trail ride!)

Selection For Recreation

The typical pleasure horse is more of a companion animal than a finely tuned athlete. To deliver pleasure, he has to be affable and safe to ride. Attitude is most important. He should be a willing partner, obedient to the rider's requests, but not dull or overly lazy.

Whether he's hacking along a bridle path or on display in the show ring, a pleasure horse delivers a comfortable ride. His gaits are regular in their rhythm and cadence. He moves at a brisk walk, covering ground so the rider feels forward motion. He reaches forward and lands flat-footed.

The riding style influences the horse's motion at the faster gaits. Tacked in saddle seat or hunt seat, the horse goes in a balanced, free-moving trot. When he accelerates into a canter, he's smooth and unhurried.

For Western horses, the jog and lope replace trot and canter. Both gaits should appear unconstrained, giving the impression of an easy-to-ride horse. The current trend is for very slow gaits, with the horse walking and jogging in slow, measured steps. He also lopes at a speed barely faster than the jog.

Marvin Bowman, DVM, Bosque Farms, N.M., rides homebred champion pleasure horses. He said, "What a person can enjoy is a horse that travels level and flat, at a controlled gait. The horse has his back end under him, and moves in a balanced stride."

At each gait, the horse willingly shortens and lengthens, and he moves at different speeds as directed. The strong trot shows a longer, more powerful stride. The extended canter (hand gallop) or lope also shows a distinct difference from a normal canter.

A trail horse might do most of his work at the walk, picking his way up and down hills and mountain slopes. When he's walking along a narrow trail, he must be sure-footed. Any horse which trips or falls endangers his rider, but stumbling on the edge of a cliff can lead to fatal results.

In or out of the show ring, the pleasure horse performs consistently. He displays manners by responding reliably. He doesn't think about running away or bucking, and neither the horse nor rider has to suffer undue stress.

A good riding horse has learned to be unflappable. He doesn't break gait if he's boxed in by another horse ahead, or crowded by one beside him. On the trail, he sensibly ignores distractions.

"The horse needs exposure to trails," explained Peg Greiwe, executive secretary of the Back Country Horsemen of America. "He learns how to drink out of a stream, or to cross a stream. If he sees a llama on the trail, he won't blow up."

The trail horse also adjusts to life in the wild. He accepts a campsite as his temporary home. On overnight rides, he might be hobbled to graze, or staked out near camp. At night, he's tied to a high line, where he can lie down or doze on his feet.

The smart horse is able to think through situations and avoid dangers on the trail. This horse might flop in the show ring, as he'll quickly become bored with the endless circuits along the rail.

Trail riders relish the horse that bonds with his rider. Greiwe recalled her horse's response to a surprise on a mountain trail: "The trail went out from under my horse, and he went down. But he took care of me when he went down, landing carefully so I wasn't hurt. He stops when there are wrecks around us. He can turn on a dime and move out of the way of a wreck."

Built To Please

The look of the pleasure horse should indicate easy agreement. The horse's expression reflects a congenial temperament. His eyes and ears demonstrate his steady nature and a desire to please. A large, soft eye generally implies a gentle disposition.

A tractable horse begins in a quiet, responsive mouth. The horse should have "cushion," or feel pliable when the rider applies any rein pressure. This requires a well-made mouth, with teeth in good condition.

The rider shouldn't have to rein the horse unduly, or overdo the signals to control the horse. Greiwe pointed out that on mountain rides, horsemen usually ride with a curb bit or mechanical hackamore. "You need 'stop' when you're on a trail. My horse is relaxed, as I ride with the hackamore and no contact unless I need to check him. We're both out there to relax."

Alan Dorton, DVM, Versailles, Ky., noted that conformation isn't an important factor with most pleasure horses. "They can live comfortably with a lot of faults. You can see conformation problems in the horse that never reaches the stress that would hold him back. Usually a fault won't bother them, or it's not as severe as in another discipline, because there's much less stress on the joint."

The rider benefits from sitting a horse with loose and elastic performance. This mount is likely to move with a fluid stride that's comfortable to ride. He flows straight forward at each gait, without interfering.

The pleasure horse shows a natural form while moving. He might be built in a rectangular frame, or a square frame. In the rectangular horse, the body length exceeds the height. This type, such as a Thoroughbred, often carries his head and neck lower, from the withers. A Western horse will naturally carry his head level with his back.

The horse of a square shape has longer legs in comparison to body length. A horse such as the Morgan is likely to raise his neck and shows more of a "hinge" at the poll and throatlatch.

The body type influences the gaits, with the rectangular horse moving with a lower, flatter stride. The square-shaped animal might show a higher stride, trotting square and more boldly.

Whatever the body shape, the riding horse needs good withers to hold the saddle in place. The saddle shouldn't slip forward or back, or roll from side to side.

The rider needs to match the saddle to the back. Dorton noted, "I see problems with saddle fit, which leads to a lot of back problems. Usually it's related to the owner who buys a saddle that does fit the horse when the horse is relatively young. As the horse matures, he outgrows the saddle and develops back problems."

Bowman described what he likes to see in a Western pleasure contender: "I like a level topline, a strong loin and croup, a nice, short cannon bone, and stout, low-set hocks. These contribute to the horse being able to be more athletic."

Any pleasure horse must be able to reach under himself with the hind legs. He might not display the athleticism of the dressage or reining horse, but he can still engage the hindquarters for a free-moving stride.

The horse built with withers slightly higher than croup can move in natural balance. He can extend or collect, without falling on the forehand or getting strung out behind. He stops straight, with all four feet under him, and he's able to stand comfortably at the halt. He's able to shift his weight to the hindquarters to back up without resistance or discomfort.

To perform the artificially slow gaits of Western pleasure, the horse must be a balanced athlete. Bowman said, "It's very difficult for the horse to carry a true gait at that slow pace. There are some horses that are so athletic that they can do the slow lope beautifully. They have the back strength and the ability to lift in the stride. The shoulders and ribcage lift. The horse has to be gathered, so he has to drive his back end underneath himself."

On the trail or in the ring, the horse also maneuvers through lateral flexion. He's able to sidepass with ease, to sidle up to a gate, or go around an obstacle in his path.


Because he moves at a reasonable speed, the pleasure horse undergoes less strain and concussion than horses in high-speed disciplines. He stays sound in back and limbs for light work.

Many pleasure horses are in their second, or even third, career. A horse might start out on the track, then be "retired" as a riding horse. Some Thoroughbreds go from the track to the hunter or jumper ring, and later become pleasure mounts.

Pleasure horses do encounter the same lameness problems as do all performance horses, such as navicular disease and laminitis. The concussion of hard or uneven ground pounds rider and horse.

Dorton sees effects of hard riding. "We see horses with back and hock problems, and degenerative joint disease. With horses that go up and down a lot of hills, they encounter bad footing in places."

About the horse who's changed careers, Dorton added, "They do carry over problems. We deal with a lot of problems that a horse developed in his previous career, which slows him down later. Most common is the degenerative joint disease in ankles and hocks. If the horse raced, it's ankles. If he was in dressage or a hunter-jumper, it's hocks."

Show pleasure horses undergo unique stresses through training. Judges look for horses which maintain each gait steadily, so some trainers overwork horses to tire them out. The tired horse can be more likely to hurt himself.

In Western Pleasure, the slowest-moving horses often place high, but soreness can result. "The lope that we ask for on our 2-year-old snaffle bit horses is a stressful gait," said Bowman. "The back and the hip are where I see the main problems. The rider asks the horse to arch the back and lift in the hind end while driving off the back end. You need a very strong-backed horse.

"I see soreness in the joints, usually over the loins and the iliosacral union area, the gluteal muscles. When the horse is sore, he can't gather his body or arch the back."

He noted that the strain of shortening the lope makes it difficult for the horse to show a relaxed, free-moving gait. Pain results in the horse changing his footfalls, resulting in the four-beat lope, or a horse walking in front and trotting behind. The effect of the falsely slow gait also limits the careers of young horses.

Bowman added, "Pleasure is an event that is very basic in our training programs, and it can be a very interesting class. I would like to say to trainers, 'Please, let's go back to a little more natural gait, with the head elevated up a little more.' We can do that and have a gait that is much easier on our stock."

Horses also suffer from the undue extremes of the "weekend warrior." Dorton noted, "Tying-up is a big problem, especially on trail rides in the summer. The rider can pull the horse out of a field, when it hasn't been ridden in six weeks, and go on a weekend trail ride. Monday morning the horse can hardly move."

Pleasure and trail horses can become injured, either from rider error or the horse's own propensity for getting hurt. Horses can get bogged down in marshy ground or become trapped in rocks. Even on an apparently safe path, the horse can go lame from picking up stones or sustaining lacerations.

More than any other equine performer, the pleasure horse satisfies a person's wish to escape. In contrast to the demands of machines, the responses of a good horse can revitalize his rider's body and spirit.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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