A western pleasure horse capable of winning blue ribbons is often referred to as being push-button, meaning it responds to its rider's cues immediately and willingly. It takes a lot of time and patience, and most of all practice, to get a horse to perform this perfectly in a show ring. Although there are some slight variations in the way a western pleasure horse is shown from breed group to breed group and sometimes from region to region, judges will always be looking for a horse that they consider to be a pleasure to ride, that responds well to its rider, and appears to enjoy what it is doing.
Work on leg aids with your horse. Teach him that if you use pressure from your leg on one side or the other, he is to move away from that pressure. At first, you will have to work your horse with close contact on the rein, so the horse does not think he must break into a trot or canter when he feels the leg pressure. As the horse learns his light pressure aids, you will be able to slowly loosen up the reins.
Leg aids are important to the success of a western pleasure horse's career, as a ribbon-winning horse will usually be shown on a loose rein and riding cues given to the horse are often by means of light leg pressure.
Work on your horse's walk. Some horses will shuffle along, barely moving. Others may speed up and slow down and then speed up again for no reason. A top western pleasure horse should move at a nice even, moderate pace. If your horse tends to walk too slowly, encourage it with slight leg pressure on the opposite side that your horse's leg goes forward, and keep alternating with each stride. The little pressure will make your horse step out more. At first, you will have to use light pressure with your reins to keep him from breaking into a trot or canter, but after awhile, he will associate the light side to side pressure with walking out.
Teach your horse to maintain a nice, slow jog. Again, you will have to start your training with contact on the rein as you ask your horse to move into a jog. If your horse is still green, he will try to go too fast or slow down to a walk. Use slight pressure with your legs when he slows down to move him forward, but also light contact to keep him from speeding into a trot. It will take many hours of practice before your horse will be able to maintain the nice even, slow jog that show judges look for.
Once your horse is able to jog around the ring at a consistent slow pace, you will have to work on him doing so on a looser rein. Judges want to see a horse perform without constant reminders from its rider about maintaining the pace.
Train your horse to canter or lope at a nice, moderate pace. This will take time as most horses without basic pleasure training will go too fast at first. As you try to slow your horse down, it will try to come down to a jog, so keep leg pressure on him. Again, with practice, your horse will learn that you desire a slow lope. As he gets better at this, loosen up the contact you have on your reins, so that it does not appear that you are constantly having to pull him to go slower.
Work on your horse's headset. Go to local shows or to the breed shows that you wish to compete at since desired headsets can vary from breed to breed and region to region. For instance, in California at some open shows--shows where different breeds compete--horses are supposed to have their heads tucked in with contact on the rein. In quarter horse and paint horse shows, the horse is encouraged to hold his neck level with his body and the head vertical to the neck and to work off a loose rein.
Teach your horse how to back up on a loose rein. Again, you will have to start with pressure on the rein until your horse learns the cues you will use to ask him to back up. After much practice, your horse will anticipate by light pressure on the reins and a slight shift of your weight in the saddle that you want him to back. Judges do not want to see a rider have to haul hard on the reins to make his horse back up.
Take lessons from a trainer to help you perfect your horse's performance. Since a rider is on his horse's back, he cannot always tell how his horse will appear to a judge. A trainer can help the rider by letting him know how to make his horse's performance be more show-worthy. Additionally, a trainer can recommend training aids and methods for a horse if a rider is having trouble with its training.
Practice. It takes hours of practice to get a horse to perform consistently and with only light cues from its riders. Make sure to practice with other horses as well. Some horses when loping or trotting with others will want to race and go faster than they're supposed to, so it's important to give your horse the experience of performing with other horses in the ring with him.