Completing four lead changes in a row can be a challenge at first, and takes hours of practice at home to achieve. To improve your ride and increase your Western riding score, you must have a plan to successfully get through the line portion of your pattern, which consists of four lead changes. Level 1 (green/novice) competitors use patterns that require only two lead changes down a line of cones. To increase your score and “plus” each maneuver, no matter your level, you must steer your horse through multiple cones while changing leads at the exact center point between markers with rhythm and cadence, from start to finish. Your horse should wait for your command to change leads, rather than go through the cones and change on his own.
Here I’ll discuss ways to help improve your Western riding performance in the show pen, and also offer advice to build your confidence and increase your maneuver scores by practicing at home.
Maintaining control through a Western riding line starts with you. If your horse is more comfortable with a tighter rein, ride him with a little bit of contact in your hand. Riding with a draped rein increases your degree of difficulty, but if you can’t control your horse’s speed and lead changes on a draped rein, you’ll lose more points than you gain.
From a judge’s view, I want to see you come into the arena with complete control; similar to a horsemanship pattern. You’re going to get a better score from me if your horse willingly stays in the bridle and keeps a level topline and steady rhythm with a tighter rein, versus a draped rein but no control or steering ability through your pattern.
Find Your Middles
Whether you’re new to Western riding or a seasoned competitor, warm up for your ride by trotting through the cones—especially when you’re at a competition. Your pattern changes depending on the size of the arena, so trotting through the series of cones helps you get a feel for where you’re supposed to change leads in relation to the placement of each cone. It also gives you the chance to plan your approach; give yourself plenty of room to get straight.
Have someone watch you trot through the line. Call out to your friend where you’re going to change leads between markers to get a feel for how many strides are between each cone and start to get comfortable with where center is.
After you get a feel for the pattern at a trot, increase the difficulty by loping through it without changing leads. Instead, count your strides and focus on where you’ll need to change between each marker. If you count seven strides between cones, you know you need to change after three or four strides. If you count five strides, lope two or three strides before changing. This exercise helps you find your middles, so you don’t accumulate penalties for changing too early or late in the show pen.
Your approach to the line determines if you’ll be straight through the cones or out of position. I suggest traveling at least three strides with your horse’s body straight before you get to your first cone. This gives you time to get straight and prepare him to change leads. Stay straight when you’re going down the line, and use small, lateral motions to position your horse’s shoulders for each change.
Picture someone running a pole-bending pattern. The horse stays straight, making small movements in his shoulders as he weaves through the poles. Keep that same straightness as you ride down the line, slightly moving your horse laterally to prep for each change.
A straight approach sets you up for success for the entirety of your line. It’s much easier to keep your horse straight through the line if you approach it straight. If you come in tight and hug the cone, you’ll force your horse to bend his body, which puts him out of position. It’s also much harder to get back on a straight path and avoid being weavy for the rest of your line. Finally, it can lead to late changes because you must overcorrect your horse to get his body in the proper position before you change leads.
The same applies to exiting the line. Stay straight for a couple of strides once you pass the last cone to give yourself plenty of room to complete the rest of your pattern. Not only does this help with overall presentation, and show the judge that you have total control over your horse and that you’re not letting him go on auto-pilot, it also places your horse on the correct path for the remainder of your pattern.
Break It Down
Four lead changes in a row can be intimidating if you’re new to this class. It’s easy to accumulates penalties for early or late changes because you haven’t planned far enough in advance. Break down each change into three parts so you focus on the changes individually rather than as a group of four.
The first part is the approach to your change. As you near the approach of your line, give yourself three strides to get straight before you get to the first cone. Keep your eyes up, and pay attention to where you are to make sure you’re not too far from or close to the cone. Count your strides so you can easily find the center of your two markers.
The second part is the actual change itself. Stay straight when you change to ensure that you stay on your original path.
The last part is the exit of your change. Don’t think about the next change too far in advance, or else your horse might anticipate it. Instead, focus on your exit strategy. Keep your stride count going to help maintain a steady rhythm and avoid any surging or slowing down between changes. Once again, make sure you’re looking up to help you stay near the cones (without hitting them) and on your path.
School Your Line
Avoid the penalty box by schooling your horse at home and before you compete at horse shows. Ride two-handed in a bridle your horse is comfortable in. Take a hold of your horse, and put his body in the correct spot as you go down the line without intimidating him. Remember to use your legs when you’re schooling and showing. You can’t rely solely on your hands; you must have connection through your seat and legs at all times and use your hands more as a natural extension.
Speed control. If your horse likes to surge after a change or constantly build speed through the line, take him off of it, and get his attention focused on you rather than the change.
Make a medium-size circle around the cone, and keep circling it until your horse wants to relax his neck and have cadence in his lope. (See photo on page 90.) Once he's relaxed, and you can use your legs without him trying to speed up or change leads, put your horse back on the line. If he wants to continue to build speed after your next change, circle the next cone. You can also change it up by counter cantering around a cone.
This takes your horse’s focus off the line so you can be constructive in your schooling, and teaches your horse to listen to you. Eventually he’ll become more aware of when you’re asking him to change, rather than building speed down the line.
If your horse continues to gain speed, gently stop him when you feel him build. You don’t want the stop to scare him; you just want to stop the forward motion and let him know you don’t want him speeding up. If your horse stops on his front end—or doesn’t stop well—softly back him a few steps, settle, then walk out of the line before you ask for another lope departure.
If you don’t want to completely stop your forward motion—but slow it down—break to a trot the minute you feel your horse surge forward. You can either trot through the cones for the remainder of your line and pick up your lope elsewhere in the arena, or stay on your line and ask for a lope once you feel your horse soften in your hand and relax in his gait.
Yield off your leg. You won’t have a smooth lead change if you can’t get your horse to yield off your leg and move over in preparation for a change. When you put your leg on your horse, he should stay square and straight while moving his body laterally to help position himself in the correct spot to change leads.
If you’re loping on the right lead and want to change to the left, move your horse slightly to the right—keeping his body straight—to help him stand up in his shoulders up and have a smooth transition. If you push your left leg into your horse and he leans on that leg rather than getting over, stop and sidepass to the right (pushing with your left leg; see photo on page 90). Once you feel your horse get off your leg and sidepass without any resistance, let him settle before walking away from the line.
Avoid picking a fight when you ask for a sidepass. You don’t want him to associate this as punishment and turn it into a negative experience. This is simply to show him that he needs to move his body over when you apply leg pressure.
Make him wait. Depending on the association you show under, Western riding has certain patterns used at each show. This pattern repetition can lead to anticipation. Early lead changes result in penalties, so it’s important that he waits for your cue, rather than change when he wants to.
When you’re riding at home leave your cones in your arena during schooling sessions until your horse stops paying attention to where the cones are in relation to where he is. He shouldn't associate cones with lead changes, and you want him to stay relaxed when you’re riding near any.
As you’re warming up at a show, lope through the line without changing any leads. You know your horse likes to change leads in those spots, so don’t over-practice. If you need to practice a couple changes to be fully warmed up before your class, take your horse away from the pattern completely.
Leslie Lange, Greeley, Colorado, owns and operates T&L Quarter Horses with her husband, Tom, and associate trainer Jeff Mellott. She’s an AQHA and NSBA judge, and was the 2015 AQHA’s Most Valuable Professional, and is being inducted into the NSBA Hall of Fame.