Why I Love Judging Leadline

A horse show judge shares the joys of her favorite class.


Leadline Class


I’ve been to a lot of horse shows over the years, sometimes as an exhibitor, sometimes as a judge, sometimes as a show manager, show secretary, announcer, or spectator. But my first horse show was especially memorable. I was 6 years old, and I was showing in leadline on a bay horse named Rocket to the Stars (although, at nearly 30, Rocket’s personality was a little less rocket and a little more “let’s just walk.”) I was thrilled when I won a giant 2nd place ribbon; my enthusiasm not even slightly dampened by the fact that there was only one other exhibitor in the class.

Today, as a horse show judge, leadline is one of my favorite classes at every show. It’s a delightful, peaceful class that provides a nice interlude between all of the other faster-paced and competitive classes throughout the day of judging. Leadline is like a little oasis of happiness.

The Riders

What’s more fun than judging a class full of happy young riders being led around the ring by equally happy handlers on a splendid summer morning? The children are excited—eager—enthusiastic—so pleased to be participating in a show and for the possibility of winning a ribbon.

Now, granted, the level of confidence and expertise varies widely. Some of the more advanced leadliners are quite skilled at steering their mounts and maintaining proper position. Others are merely “along for the ride,” so to speak, leaving the control of the pony to the handler in a concentrated attempt to simply stay in the saddle.

But all the young riders are a delight, and especially so when I have the chance to chat with them while they’re lined up for placing. “So,” I say to each one. “Can you please tell me: what color is your pony/horse?”

It doesn’t matter what color the pony is—he could be bay, chestnut, palomino, roan, or polka-dotted—because the answer is almost always the same.

“He’s brown.”

Sometimes an older rider will be able to provide the correct answer (“He’s gray,” or “She’s a buckskin”) but for most of the youngest riders, it’s possibly the very first time they’ve pondered such a question. You’ll see them look down curiously and examine the horse beneath them, and then they’ll say, with an air of savvy deduction, “He’s brown.” Or “Well, he’s sort of a brownish-red.” Or, from the child on the bay roan, “I guess he’s purple.”

Of course.

The Horses

Hand in hand with the adorable young riders are the angelic horses and ponies that reliably tote their children around the ring. Only the most trusted equines gain the responsibility of being a leadline mount, and their calm demeanors and trustworthy temperaments build confidence for young riders. These gentle souls come in all shapes and sizes: tiny Shetlands all the way up to Quarter Horses and everything in between.

The Prizes

Oh, the joy when show management alerts me that we won’t be placing the leadline class—we’ll just hand out blue ribbons and prizes to everyone. Hooray! While this does eliminate the competitive aspect of the class (and for some children, it’s a disappointment not to be placed), it does ensure that every rider has a positive experience in the class. And fundamentally, isn’t that what we’re striving for in a leadline class? To give our youngest riders their first taste of the thrill of a horse show and whet their appetite for a lifetime of equestrian pursuits?

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Samantha Johnson is a freelance writer and the author of several books, including The Field Guide to Horses, (Voyageur Press, 2009). She raises Welsh Mountain Ponies in northern Wisconsin and...


  1. I think Ms Johnson “hit the nail on the head” with the description she placed about leadline classes in her article. Leadline horses/ponies are the most dependable equines. Riders come in all ages, shape and capabilities. I think ALL leadline class entries should receive a Blue Ribbon, too. Shame that some fairs (especially ours, Alexandria Fair, Ky) don’t see how hard it is for these kids to go out infront of others. Hats off to you Ms. Johnson.


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