Down the Line in Western Riding

Down the Line in Western Riding

Slow your mind for clean lead changes ‘down the line’ in western riding with this drill from AQHA Professional Horseman Leonard Berryhill.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horseman Leonard Berryhill with Larri Jo Starkey

In AQHA’s western riding patterns, riders weave back and forth across the arena with plenty of time to change leads.

But in every pattern, at some point, the rider must go down the line, changing leads more frequently between closely set cones.

For some, it’s terrifying. I’d like to share why it doesn’t have to be.

Slow It Down

According to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations, the distance between cones is 30-50 feet, which is plenty of room if you’re walking, but when you’re on a horse, it comes up quickly.

The patterns in the rulebook show the desired areas for the lead changes, with penalties for riders who change outside of the desired areas.

My goal is always to help amateurs and youth riders slow the course down in their minds so they have the composure to change leads in the center between the cones every time.

I want the rider to think about cadence, timing and looking forward to their next spot.

One of the most important parts of that is making sure people new to the class are on what I like to call solid soldiers – horses with experience – so that the riders can worry about their presentation, not whether or not the horse is going to change leads.

Western riding is judged on the quality of a horse’s gaits and his smooth lead changes, his responsiveness and his manners.

A strong cadence will improve all of those things about a horse.

Leonard Berryhill and Elis A Sleepin

AQHA Professional Horseman Leonard Berryhill showed Elis A Sleepin to the 2011 AQHA junior western riding world championship.


When I’m judging or teaching, I want to see riders thinking about keeping a consistent rhythm, not fast one stride and slow the next.

I like my riders to ask right at the center of the spot, when the horse’s shoulder or the rider’s boot is at the center of the changing area. That way, even if the rider is a little late asking, the horse won’t be in the penalty zone.

Every horse is different, so practice at home with your horse until you know exactly the right “spot” to ask. I like to ask people to imagine a straight line down the middle of the cones, then a diagonal line that extends from one side of a cone to the opposite side of the next cone.

Where the lines intersect, that’s “the spot.”

New to Western Riding?

With beginning western riders, after we have established the ability to change leads on command, we will break the pattern down into parts until the riders have confidence that they can perform the maneuvers.

I start by asking them to lope “the line” without changing leads to get acclimated to it, then I have them prepare for and request a lead change in the designated spot.

In my arena, I like to spread the pattern out so that there there’s plenty of room for this exercise.

From this starting point, we build, doing one change, then two changes, then three and so on.

When these riders learn how and where to position themselves for their lead changes and when to learn to look ahead to where they are going, the pattern begins to slow down in their minds.

Leonard Berryhill demonstrates western riding

Leonard demonstrates that equidistant between the cones is the ideal place to change leads down the line.

The Trot Drill for Western Riding

One drill that i find good for both horse and rider is my “trot drill.” If you’ve seen me at a show, you’ve probably seen me in the warmup arena doing this and wondered “what in the world is he doing?”

Well, this is simply a method to slow the mind. I’ve found that if you have a rider enter a maneuver in preparation for a lead change, instead of changing, break into a strong trot, then move into the changed lead, which should calm horse and rider.

The single most important part is to look up. Don’t look down! When riders look down to see whether they have the correct lead or were at the right place to change, when they look back up, they’re already at the next cone.

Use your peripheral vision. Find the spot and concentrate on it. Keep your eyes up to keep the pattern coming slow and in focus.

This exercise isn’t about simple lead changes. I don’t want a horse or rider to get used to doing simple lead changes, because those will cost 3 points each in the show ring.

This exercise is about finding “the spot,” getting in rhythm with the horse and calming the mind.

About the Source: Leonard Berryhill

AQHA Professional Horseman Leonard Berryhill has trained horses, amateurs and youth for many years in all-around and roping. Leonard, a judge since 1997, has taught roping and western riding at AQHA judges educational workshops and has coached college rodeo. He and his wife, AQHA Professional Horsewoman Leigh Berryhill, live in Talala, Oklahoma, where they have trained multiple world champions. In 2019, Leonard was honored by his peers as the Nutrena Don Burt AQHA Professional Horsemen of the Year.

Leonard Berryhill

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