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The Western Performance Horse: How to Select the Right One for the Job

Jerry B. Black, DVM, AAEP Member

Today’s western performance horse is an exceptional athlete. Whether your passion is cutting or reining, team roping or steer wrestling, barrel racing or western pleasure, there’s an American Quarter Horse out there that can do the job for you. However, it is crucial that you and your veterinarian understand the different demands of each of these sports so that the right horse is selected for the job.

For example, there are significant differences in conformation and body type depending on the performance discipline. Cutting horses who are bred for agility tend to be smaller and not as heavily muscled as the rodeo and roping horses who must add power and strength to the equation. Barrel racing horses must have speed and agility to successfully perform, while western pleasure show horses must have a less angular body type to perform at very slow gaits with little lower limb action. A closer look at each of these disciplines will help you make an informed decision regarding the selection of these equine athletes.

Cutting and reining horses


The cutting and reining horse is subjected to training-related stresses early in its career due to major competitions like futurities that begin with the three-year-old. This group of horses begins their training early as two-year-olds and competes in their first futurities in the summer or fall at three years of age.

The average cutting horse will spend 60-90 days in basic training and proceed to training on cattle immediately after that. They are trained consistently on cattle until the futurities begin the following year. Steady training usually continues throughout their aged event years, which ends at the age of six, after which most become amateur or “non-pro” horses competing at the weekend shows or are bred. This is the time when many are examined for purchase by the novice rider and specific knowledge of the breeding and workload of cutting and reining horses becomes important.


Cutting and reining horses are often closely bred down single genetic lines to capitalize upon their innate ability to “read a cow” and to perform specific athletic maneuvers such as a hard, deep stop. Although line-breeding may capitalize on many desirable traits, it tends to also increase the occurrence of undesirable traits, such as developmental orthopedic disease (osteochondrosis).

When selecting a young futurity prospect, particular attention should be paid to those areas in which osteochondrosis is common, such as the hocks and stifles. This is usually accomplished with x-rays. Further consideration should be given to horses that lack the musculoskeletal development necessary to compete at the intended level for years to come. It is not uncommon for this type of horse to be small and fine-boned, which may affect its ability to train and compete over an extended period of time.

By the time cutting and reining horses become available to amateurs, many have already trained and competed heavily for over five years and had significant stress placed upon them due to this high level of activity. Major areas of concern due to the nature of these sports are inflammation and degenerative joint disease (arthritis) of the hocks and stifles. In the forelimbs, trauma to the suspensory apparatus as well as common conditions of the lower part of the limb (such as navicular syndrome) should be closely considered by a prospective purchaser.

Team roping and steer wrestling horses


This group of horses represents one of the fastest growing events in western performance horses. With the advent of the United States Team Roping Association and the current popularity of rodeo events in general, the traditional quarter horse-type athlete is very popular.

These are larger and more heavily muscled horses that must combine strength, speed and agility. They have a significant repetitive workload, especially during practice sessions. It is not unusual for an entry-level team roper to make 25 or more practice runs in a single session. Good steer wrestling horses may mount several competitors during the rodeo, with the owner of the horse receiving a percentage of the other contestant’s winnings.


Many older competition roping and rodeo horses that may have lost some speed or have some degree of unsoundness are sold to the more novice riders. These horses can be ideal for that new person in the sport to learn a particular discipline by having that seasoned horse help teach them. Again, it is important that the prospective purchaser understand the genetics of this group of horses and the physical demands placed upon them.

The larger quarter horse has traditionally had a relatively high occurrence of navicular disease due to foot size, straight pastern angle, and large muscle mass. Significant strides have been made in breeding the more modern type quarter horse with better overall conformation, but attention must be paid to the principles of lower limb conformation and balance.

Team roping horses have added stress placed on the lower forelimbs (especially the left) while turning the steer or positioning the horse to rope the heels. This leads to a relatively high occurrence of degenerative arthritis of the joints in the lower limb. Another area of major concern is the lower hock joints. Bone spavin is common due to body type and the stress of performance. Close attention should be paid to the hindlimb suspensory apparatus as well.

Barrel racing and gymkana horses


Barrel racing requires speed and agility over a short course. Highly competitive horses that are ready to perform and win are difficult to find and often are purchased at a premium price. Prospective owners want long careers for this type of horse, but this is often difficult to attain due to the stresses of concussion and speed while turning sharply around barrels. Usually, the arena footing is less than ideal and proper warm-up areas may be nonexistent. Top level barrel racing horses, like many competitive rodeo-type horses, may spend an entire year on the road with little or no rest periods. Gymkana horses typically receive the same type of performance stresses and injuries but are usually not campaigned as hard.


Typical conformation is of the “sprint horse” type with many of these horses coming from quarter horse race tracks. If possible, you will want to provide your veterinarian with an accurate history of past performance careers as part of the pre-purchase evaluation of the barrel horse. Horses that have been raced should be evaluated for prior racing injuries involving areas such as the knees, suspensory apparatus or front fetlocks (ankles). Foot size, conformation and balance are important due to the concussion placed on these athletes. Hocks should be evaluated for inflammation of the lower joints since significant stress is placed on the hindlimbs while propelling the horse around the barrel at a high rate of speed. Rear fetlocks are often traumatized for the same reasons mentioned above.

Western pleasure and trail show horses


Quarter horses are being specifically bred for this event with different body types and conformation than other breed disciplines. The modern western pleasure horse tends to be taller, have less muscle mass in the shoulders and hip regions, and tends to have steeper angles to the shoulder and pastern than the typical quarter horse-type. Foals often are fast-growing and, without careful attention to nutrition and exercise, can have a relatively high occurrence of developmental orthopedic disease. Training begins young with some competition as two-year-olds and includes the development of significantly slow gaits in the jog and lope.


Due to conformation, the lower forelimbs of the western pleasure horse should be carefully evaluated. Chronic lower back pain is not uncommon due to the excessively slow gaits while being ridden. As mentioned earlier, hocks and stifles should be carefully evaluated in young show prospects for developmental orthopedic disease including early arthritis of the lower hock joints.


Western performance horses have a broad range of conformation types and athletic abilities that must be considered when selecting a mount for a specific discipline. Understanding what makes one type of quarter horse better than another for a particular kind of competition is the first step towards making an informed purchase. Step number two is understanding the most common soundness problems to which western competition horses are prone.

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