Show Pen Preparedness, Part IV: Western Riding

Carly Kade’s series on western performance events with Christy Snyder Kelly continues! In today’s installment, Christy describes how some winning tactics to put together the western riding pattern.

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In this new series for Horse Nation, I talk with Christy Snyder Kelly, head horse trainer at Hold Your Horses Inc., an organization that has been in the business of training AQHA, APHA, and NSBA horses for three generations. Through the interviews and video sessions, Horse Nation followers will glean insight from someone who has been coaching and training champions for years. The topics are sure to be of interest to enthusiasts of the western horseback riding discipline:

In this fourth segment, let’s talk perfecting western riding and cover show pen best practices for this exciting class!

What makes you an ace at coaching your students in western riding?

Western riding is a class about finesse and technicality. I’ve been able to train and ride several really great western riding horses that had these qualities. This is another class that I really love and is a difficult and advanced class which is a ton of fun to show.

What trends should we be taking notice of pertaining to western riding in the show pen? Fashion? Ways of presenting? Horse wear?

Western riding today is very forward and fluid. The class is judged primarily on the quality of the lead change and how the rider times their changes. A horse that is moving at the correct pace, really makes for a beautiful lead change which is being rewarded in today’s show ring.

There is a lot of commentary going on around the lope in western classes. Can you talk about your view of the lope and how you like to see your horses moving and carrying themselves in western riding, horsemanship and pleasure?

There are many different styles of moving these days. You can ask many judges or trainers and they each will have a different opinion on how they like their horses to move – whether they like a short stride, or a long stride, a little faster mover or a horse that moves a little slower. One common opinion is that the horse needs to move correctly and in a TRUE gait with all beats happening. The ideal western pleasure mover should have a true, natural moving gait, a level topline, and an even stride in the front legs and back legs. The rulebook should stand in this class before personal opinions as there will be varying ones.

In all classes, focus and learn how to show your horse to the best of your ability.

How do you perfect the lead change?

Since lead changes are a very advanced maneuver, you need to start small. If you are just starting to teach a change, you need to reward correct and not worry about how pretty they are at this point. Once you’ve advanced to doing a lead change on a draped rein, you really want to work on timing. You cannot just arbitrarily cue a horse for a change and receive one. You might receive it, but it won’t be as pretty or flowing as if you really set the horse up for the change. An advanced western riding horse should be set up to change a lead as if they were loping off in a western pleasure class (just not as dramatic). You want your horse to round up and move the hip over towards the lead you are changing to and then ask for the change. This is setting your horse up in the best way in order to receive a nicely timed change.

Are simple lead changes acceptable?

Every horse and rider has different skills and training levels, so a simple lead change is acceptable in certain circumstances to school or teach a horse that is new to changing leads. In western riding, pretty much the entire class is judged on the quality of the change, so yes, you must have a flying lead change in order to participate in this class on any level.

In other classes, such as horsemanship, a flying lead change is usually used to determine the skill level of the horse and rider team and separates the competition in large or national level classes. However, more and more state level shows are incorporating flying lead changes into their horsemanship patterns and to show at this level, you’ll need to have one.

If you do not have a flying change, be sure your simple lead change is correct and precise and show off the other advantages you and your horse have over another rider that has a flying lead change. Remember horsemanship (as covered in part three of this series) is judged on each maneuver so a simple lead change with a stellar pattern can beat a flying lead change with a poor pattern. Be as correct and ride the horse you have to the best of your ability.

What’s the secret to nailing a western riding class?

Keeping a nice pace throughout the entire pattern and getting your changes on time are easy ways to succeed in this class. It is crucial to count your strides and know how many strides your horse takes between your changes, whether it is on your cross-overs or your line. Using your walls to either gain speed or slow down a horse that is getting a little too forward is a lifesaver in this class too. Make sure you are staying close to the cones on your line and not weaving in and out.

Would you explain the use of walls a little further?

This is a big help with more novice riders. The fence or arena walls are there to keep you contained and you can use them to your advantage and assist you in your events. If you ride rail to rail and corner to corner you should be able to reach out and touch the side of the fence or arena with your hand. This helps to give your horse some guidance on where to go. Eventually, the rail will become your outside leg and this helps to keep your horse on your legs and riding between them, listening for your cues.

In western riding, as you are coming through your centers to do your changes, some horses can get quick and gain speed through or after the change. If you ride directly to your wall this will give you a point to ride to and then you can gather yourself while you are making your turn. If you don’t ride to your wall, you can easily feel as though you are whipping around the pattern and cannot regain control of your horse.

Would you recommend some best practices for executing this event?

Know your pattern and know where your trouble spots are. Be sure you are comfortable with your steering and your horse is responding to your rein and legs. Do a lot of drills in and out of cones or in circles to fine-tune your steering as there is a lot of that in this class. Know your rulebook and know the penalty scores. This is a tough class and even with a minor mistake, like the tick of a log, you can still place and even win. Keep riding, even if something goes wrong, as you still have many other maneuvers to make up for mistakes.

Can you talk a little more about how you coach your students to ride through a disappointment in the show ring?

Don’t ever stop showing or riding. You may have thought you blew a class, but many times it isn’t as bad as you think and you never know what the judges saw. You also don’t always know how your other competitors did, so always keep riding. Keep in mind that consistent and correct will usually win so keep striving for that and your time will come. Keep perspective and never lose track of how far you’ve come. Most of the time, winning doesn’t constitute winning the class. Usually, it is the wins that you and your horse have accomplished at that show or in that class.

Practice Pen: What warm ups do you recommend ringside and/or at home?

Get comfortable with your pace both at home and at a show. Know the speed you should be at in order to execute a pretty change and learn it, love it and breathe it. If you have a horse that loves to change leads, keep your changes to a minimum so you don’t over practice. Ride the pattern without changes or only do every other change to avoid anticipation on an advanced horse.

Western Riding Video Segment

In the western riding video, we cover the maneuvers you would typically be asked to exhibit in a western class including lead changes, speed control and steering. Christy offers commentary on the basics of lead changes for green and advanced exhibitors and horses.

About Christy Snyder Kelly: Christy trains, teaches, buys and sells, prepares show horses and develops horse and rider teams in Arizona. Anyone interested in learning more about the Hold Your Horses Equestrian Team and Christy’s Angels can visit the Hold Your Horses, Inc. website here:

About Carly Kade: Carly Kade is an author of equestrian fiction. In her free time, Carly enjoys competitively showing her registered Paint Horse, and works on her next novel. In The Reins, Carly’s cowboy romance novel inspired by the equestrian lifestyle has been an Amazon equestrian best seller for more than 10 weeks and is an official 2016 EQUUS Film Festival literary selection. The novel is available now in paperback and eBook. Visit for details. Connect with Carly Kade Creative on Facebook or Twitter @carlykadeauthor.

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