Imagine going top speed on a horse running circles and run-downs at the edge of an arena. Dirt is flying everywhere, you get an adrenaline rush from the thrill of the ride, and your horse is moving at a high rate of speed at 3.9 meters per second. This style of western riding is called reining, where the rider must skillfully execute their horse through a pattern with a high amount of difficulty. A panel of judges, which will be discussed later also, scores the pattern that they complete. Reining is a unique discipline, because the trainer and rider are one in the same. There must be a high level of communication between the horse and rider. In other disciplines, the trainer and rider are usually two different people. There are many hours of dedication and practice in which a trainer will prepare horses for reining competition.
Reining is an equine performance event that requires a horse and rider to effectively work together to complete an individual pattern. Reining evolved from the ranch horse, one who is quick on their feet and is guided using a light rein. Cowhands would take their horses and challenge each other to see whose horse could stop the hardest, slide the farthest, and turn the quickest. It is an event that is included in local open shows, registered breed shows, national shows, National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) shows, and for younger horses, the NRHA Futurity. These shows happen indoor, all year around. Reining is judged on three items: functional correctness, maneuvers, and attitude. The pattern involves several fast-paced maneuvers including galloping small and large circles, flying lead changes, quick spins around the forelimbs, and accelerating speeds that follow a sliding stop. Each reining pattern takes about 2.5-3 min to complete. Reining is judged according to a scoring system which was established by the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA).
At the start of the pattern, the horse and rider begin at an average score of 70. For each maneuver, about seven to eight per pattern, they can get plus or minus points and penalty points. Horse and riders can also receive a no score for several disqualifications. It is best to refer to the AQHA Official Handbook to see all of the rules and regulations. At many reining shows, you will hear the crowd whoop and holler for horses with longer stops and the fastest spins. However, to win the reining competition, a judge will always keep in mind, “The best reined horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely. Any movement on his own must be considered lack of control. Credit will be given for smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness, and authority in performing the various maneuvers while using controlled speed” (AQHA 160). The best ride is one that looks effortless but includes difficulty in the pattern and undergoes elements with style.
Most reining horses begin their training at 18-24 months of age. They start to compete at 3 years of age where futurities are for horses 3-4 years of age. Many working horses are not selected to compete during training due to not being good enough for a futurity or due to injury. It is very demanding, both mentally and physically, for these horses to train at a young age. Their musculoskeletal system must be working at intense rates, due to the young age at which reining horses begin training. Due to the high injury rate of this discipline, practices are limited to 30 minutes a day, 6 times per week. It is important for a trainer to be knowledgeable about how much to work their horses to prevent injury. The training program includes fundamentals to maintain a sound horse during training and while it competes. The schedule is designed to trigger the aerobic and anaerobic pathways that will mimic the anaerobic pathway used during the reining competition. While a trainer develops the program suitable for each horse, they work specifically on fundamentals to build up to maneuvers used in the reining pattern.
A trainer’s goal for these horses is to get control of the front end of the horse. The term “freed up” allows weight to be shifted to the hind end of the horse, so they can begin working on the sliding stops. Trainers begin moving their horses through maneuvers, such as cross overs, that eventually will increase range of motion. Another exercise that trainers do is backing and laterally flexing circles, which helps coordinate their muscles and to resist fatigue. As the horse matures, trainers will undergo “square” exercises to make for a longer and better slide.
Personally, I would evaluate this training program as a good training program. I believe that starting the horses after they are about two years old is a good way to prevent lifelong injuries, as most horse’s bones are not all the way developed at such a young age. Allowing the horses to only work short amounts of time every day of the week will help build up their strength necessary to be able to compete in competitions. Working on certain exercises, that build up to each maneuver of the reining pattern will also help train horses to eventually compete at a higher level of competition and be successful.
As mentioned earlier, it is important for a trainer to understand their horse’s limits to prevent injuries while their horse is still maturing. However, there are other techniques to have the most competitive and sound reining horse in your barn. Selecting a yearling that provides the best confirmation and soundness, along with having good reining bloodlines will benefit you in the future. Knowing the correct amount to feed your horse and not allowing it to carry extra body fat will help as well. Making sure your horse your horse is properly trimmed, will help prevent long toe - low heel conformation. It is also important to have a soft riding surface to allow the horse to change directions quick and speedy without slipping. Trainers need to keep in mind to make deep sand practices short, due to more strain on the horse. Keeping all of these helpful things in mind will help you be successful.
Reining is a discipline that requires a lot of effort and work put into training the horse at a young age. By selecting a horse that has good confirmation and bloodlines, you can help prevent unsoundness in the future. Training programs are developed to help prepare horses for competition, keeping in mind that these immature horses do not have fully developed bones and muscles. Keeping practices limited to a short amount of time several times a week will help to put less strain on the horse. As the horse matures and is able to compete, the horse and rider work together as a team to show at competitions while completing the pattern with style and a high degree of difficulty. Success happens when the pattern is finished with limited penalties and the horse earns credit from smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness, and authority.
- Official Handbook of Rules & Regulations. AQHA, 2018.
- “Reining 101.” AQHA, www.aqha.com/daily/showing/2016/showing-archive/reining-101/.
- “Training Working Horses.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 19 June 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780721600758000356 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..
- “Veterinary Aspects of Training and Competing Western Performance Horses.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 6 Dec. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780702047718000545#s0050.
By Mary von Rentzell and Peggy Auwerda