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Keep Those Shoulders Up: Mastering Self-Carriage

Understanding the concept of self-carriage and how to maintain it will help you instill balance and consistency in your horse--both of which are essential in Western pleasure classes.

Our Pro
Team Horse & Rider member Robin Gollehon has been involved with horses most of her life, producing more than 75 Appaloosa Horse Club world and national champions in Western pleasure, hunter under saddle and yearling longe line. A member of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Professional Horseman's Association, Robin tied to win the Quarter Horse Congress in 2005 and has been at the top at all major 2005 National Snaffle Bit Association Futurities. Robin and her husband and business partner, Roger, own and operate Gollehon Show Horses in Trafalgar, Ind.

Our Student
Sharon Sweet of Columbus, Ind., currently shows her 7-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Modern Affair ("Sweetie") in Western pleasure. As she improves her skills, Sharon is making the jump from the open show circuit to AQHA shows where she'll compete in novice amateur and amateur select Western pleasure. Sharon wants to improve her horse's consistency while maintaining the authentic rhythm of her horse's gaits.

Lesson Plan
Lesson's objective: To gain a greater understanding of what self-carriage looks and feels like, and how to obtain and maintain it--thus improving your skills in Western pleasure and other performance events.

Self-carriage defined: A horse's ability to properly carry himself, similar to good posture in people. He's responsible for his own carriage and doesn't rely on his rider to hold him in the proper position. He should be holding his shoulders up while keeping his back round, and he's maintaining collection.


Why you need this: While Western pleasure is often considered an easy class to participate in, it's one of the hardest to win. Almost any rider can learn to walk, jog and lope, but doing it at the level of skill necessary to win is no easy feat. Western pleasure is difficult not only because it must be done on a very loose rein, but it's also performed at an extremely slow speed. To be successful in pleasure, it's imperative that your horse can hold himself in a balanced frame while performing at the walk, jog and lope. This lesson will emphasize how every detail in your riding and your horse's execution of the three gaits must be perfected and fine-tuned to produce a winning performance.

How you'll achieve this: This lesson is divided into two steps. The first is to achieve collection by holding your horse's face and applying pressure with your legs, which will encourage him to lift in front, round his back and drive from his hindquarters. The second step is to create enough "stay" so he can perform on a loose rein.

Why this works: Your horse is an athlete. If you teach him to position his body to work at his optimum level, you'll bring out his best performance.

What you'll need for this lesson:

  • A fenced arena with soft, level footing is best, but if that's not an option, you can work in an open area as long as your horse is broke and quiet.
  • Your schooling tack (including the appropriate bit for your horse's level of training).
  • Spurs with rowels determined by your horse's sensitivity.

Skills your horse must have: Although this lesson is for more advanced horses, it's important to set self-carriage goals for your horse at the beginning and throughout his training. But before working on self-carriage, he needs to willingly respond to your legs and give in his face.

Caveat: If you don't feel confident in your horse's (or your) capabilities, seek the help of a qualified professional. Keep in mind that this is a medium to advanced lesson, so if your horse doesn't adequately respond to your basic cues, you're not ready to work on self-carriage and collection.

Before You Begin
In order to progress as a rider, you must develop "feel" in your hands, legs and seat, and you need to grasp the basic causes and effects of your cues. When learning a new skill many novice riders assume the horse is always right and they are wrong, and without knowing how to correct the problem, these riders do nothing. However, not acting is as detrimental as doing the wrong thing. While it's important to reward your horse for doing the right thing, it's just as important to correct him when he's wrong. The more consistent you are with your cues and corrections, the quicker your horse will catch on, and that's when it's useful to have a professional help you understand that "feel."

Keep in mind, when you're attempting to correct one thing in your horse, you may have to begin with another. For example, if your horse carries his neck up it may be because his back is too low, and you'll need to ask him to lift his belly to bring his neck down. If he carries his shoulders too low, you'll correct him by first asking him to lift his neck--then you can ask him to put his neck back down after he's fixed his shoulders.

Posted in Western Pleasure | 1 Comment

One Response to “Keep Those Shoulders Up: Mastering Self-Carriage”

  1. shughes1000 says:

    Why do judges place the horses that carry their head almost to the ground higher than the horses with a level top line? I see this everywhere from breed shows to open shows. It is very frustrating when your horse is carrying himself and the judges place the “peanut rowers” over you.

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