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Leadline – your child’s introduction to showing

by Louisa Amirault

seanOnce upon a time, a leadline class was a parade of tiny tots being led around on horses and ponies during a horse show’s intermission or lunch break. Some of these little riders were quite familiar were horses and some were not. Everyone got a blue ribbon and a taste of what it was like to ride in a horse show with the big kids.


Today, you can still find those types of leadline classes, but for the most part, leadline has become a competitive sport. Classes are pinned, judges are looking for real skills and some parents are downright horrified.


So as a parent, you must first decide what you want your youngsters to get out of leadline class. Do you want it to be a fun pony ride and photo opportunity that elevates their comfort level riding in the ring, or do you want it to be an introduction to competition and sportsmanship? Is your child going to be crushed if they come in last, or will it motive her to pay more attention in her riding lessons? Is he even old enough to understand how a class is placed? If your little girl wins first place, will she cry because she didn’t get the pink ribbon? Only you can answer these questions and decide what your child is ready for.  


Before entering your child in a leadline class, find out beforehand what kind of leadline class it is. For example, some shows have actual leadline divisions. These are not classes where everyone gets a blue. Most likely, the class will be pinned first through last, but everyone will get a ribbon. They may even have a “tie” for the lowest places so that no one is actually last. Leadline divisions are common at breed shows and other rated shows. Children are typically ages 3-8. Some 4-H shows even have leadline divisions for new riders 8 and up who aren’t quite ready to ride on their own in a show situation. So read the class descriptions and ask around to make sure you are entering your child in the kind of class you want.


Competitive Leadline – what is expected?


Though expectations for leadline can vary, judges are usually looking for riders to have a confident seat with heels down, shoulders back, quiet hands and to display some knowledge of how to steer their mounts. A big smile can’t hurt either!  Most judges will expect more from older riders who are better able to control their bodies than they would the preschooler who's feet don't reach the bottom of the saddle flap.


Your child’s mount should be fully tacked, and your child will hold the reins. As the handler, you will have a lead rope attached to the bridle. Your child MUST be wearing a helmet and boots with a heel for safety. This goes for all leadline classes, not just the competitive ones. Appropriate riding attire is required at the rated shows, but in most shows, a clean, neat appearance is good enough. Rated shows will usually request that the handler also be dressed in appropriate riding attire.



In some cases, the judge may talk to the child and ask them questions about their mount, their age or how long they’ve been riding. This is rarely part of the judging but a way to interact with the children and make them feel more at ease.


Your average leadline class will have you walking your child around the ring. All competitors may be asked to trot at once or you’ll be asked to trot one at a time. The child should help in asking the horse or pony for a trot. Then you are all asked to line up. Pretty simple stuff for the handler.


In English classes, children should know how to change their diagonal. New and very young riders will not be able to understand diagonals or recognize when they are on the wrong one, but you can teach them to sit a beat to fix it. Depending on the ages of the riders in the class, the judge may not even count diagonals. In the some competitive rated shows, correct diagonals will be imperative to win. You just never know. But let’s be honest, most of those correct diagonals are luck or a result of the handler telling them to change it.


In some cases, judges have been known to have children drop their reins and pick them up again, display a 2 point position (for hunt seat) and even back their horses with the help of the handler. Practicing these things at home or in lessons can be fun, and your child will feel great if they ever get to use these skills in a show.


Decisions, decisions


Some of you won’t have any hesitation letting your child compete, but others will struggle with it. Heck, I struggled with it right up until my daughter's first blue ribbon. The announcer had actually placed the class backwards, so she initially thought she was in last place. She knew the place value of all the ribbons, the points they represented, and that she had ridden her best. I watched her face carefully, but she just shrugged and smiled. In that minute between thinking she was in last place and finding out she was in first, I saw her strong character, and I saw that showing was about more than winning for her. Phew. “I’m not the worst mother in the world for letting her show,” I thought to myself.


I do feel that leadline was a great experience for my child, though I understand opposing points of view. Sportsmanship should be learned early, but showing should be a positive experience for a young child. Like with any sport, there are lessons to be learned, and parents should decide when it is time to learn those lessons. If you are unsure, ask your child’s instructor for his or her thoughts, and definitely talk to your child about it.


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