Performance Fundamentals: Pleasure Classes by, Pat Parelli
Most competitions that we participate in have practical roots. These roots are important. Within the history of every competition lie the original intent, goal and principles that kept the horse and human in mind. In the case of pleasure classes or rail classes, the idea was to develop a horse that would be a pleasure to ride, a horse that you could take out for a leisurely ride across the countryside. In order to be best suited for this purpose a horse would need to have a fast walk and smooth gaits and be nice-looking, like a town car.
My experience in pleasure classes comes from Troy Henry, my mentor, with whom I stayed for five years until his passing. Mr. Henry was famous for his ability to select horse and rider partnerships that would create a winning combination. He was also a firm believer in cross-training. According to Mr. Henry, every good performance horse, regardless of specialty, should know and do three things: rail classes, trail classes and reining classes. Most people had pleasure horses that could only do the rail; people couldn’t ride them out into the middle of the arena to save their lives! Mr. Henry’s horses excelled at pleasure classes, but they could also do a fairly good job at reining and trail. Consequently, all of his reining horses could do pleasure and trail classes, all of his pleasure horses could do reining and trail classes, and so on. They were performance horses. This cross-training kept his horses exuberant and excellent in their craft; it is why they lasted so long. The final lesson I took from Mr. Henry was that if you put the relationship and the foundation first and then specialize in an area of a horse’s particular talent, you’ll have a horse who is confident and balanced and good at what he loves to do””provided that we don’t knock it out of him through over-specialization or too much pressure.
So as we look at pleasure riding, we need to remember to keep it simple. Successfully competing in a pleasure class boils down to one thing: every judge can spot a horse that acts like a partner. A horse that acts like a partner maintains gait, maintains direction and looks where he is going. The first responsibility is to maintain gait, and this is where a lot of people get into trouble by micromanaging their horses. What I mean by “maintain gait” is that a horse understands that it is his responsibility to stay in the gait you asked for and not go slower or faster. You’re not holding the horse back or urging him to keep him going, and it’s something you teach him by asking for it and leaving him alone, and only gently correcting him when he changes gait. It doesn’t take long for the horse to understand the concept.
The second responsibility is to maintain direction. Well, what is the direction? The direction in pleasure classes is defined as you follow the rail. When a horse accepts this responsibility as his own, he’ll follow the rail regardless of whether or not the arena is a square, a rectangle, a circle, or an oval. A good judge will be able to see this. Judges will see the subtle differences between a horse that is being ridden with legs and reins to keep him on the rail and a horse that puts in 80% of the effort just by taking the responsibility of maintaining direction within the gait. This is where the third responsibility, looking where you are going, begins to reveal itself. For example, once your horse has accepted this responsibility, you will find that when he encounters another horse in the class he will self-regulate by backing off or looking to you for direction. By accepting this final responsibility your horse will look out for horses, for obstacles, for uneven ground, for everything.
The human’s part of the partnership is to have sport-specific focus””to know what it takes to get the job done but not let it get out of balance. Usually it is the super-focused human who lucks into a horse that is supremely natural in the sport who becomes the champion and therefore the model for others. As a result, many horses are tormented into trying to emulate that, and when they break down because they can’t do it they are passed off as “dinks”. It is my observation that to err is human, but to blame the horse is even more human. And to take the credit for success is the most human of all! So whenever I think about sports or performance, I try to get back to the base and to its roots. If not, our need to specialize our horses will get caught up in the fad and fashion of today without thinking of the horse that will be needed tomorrow. The final thing to remember is to keep it natural. If you keep it natural by putting the relationship first and putting the foundation before specialization, you might end up being the next world champion . . . naturally!
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