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By Hardy Oelke

Reining may well be the western riding event most popular with western riders, even those who don't show in reining themselves. The reason is probably that the reining horse's skills is what's essential to a western horse - to work on a loose rein and off the hindquarters. Reining is arguably the event which has made the most progress over the last few decades. The sport is not only becoming ever more popular all over the continent, even the world, but today's reining has evolved to a highly refined western dressage class that is a far cry from what reining looked like 20 years ago.

There was a time when the reined horse of the vaquero along the Pacific Coast was the ultimate in North America. From it, the show event "reined cow horse", or "working cowhorse" as it is called at breed shows, developed. But that's a far cry from the true reined horse tradition on the west coast. Reining, too, was developed from the maneuvers a working cow horse has to perform, and is similar to the reined work, or "dry work", in the reined cow horse event. However, it is much more refined.

Reining as we know it today is a contradiction: a western event of "eastern extraction". The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) was founded in Ohio, and the Midwest and East was its stronghold for many years (it's headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma now).

Reining has come a long way: At the 1999 NRHA futurity, more than $700,000 in prize money were awarded. And reining is the first western equestrian event to be F.E.I.-approved - a prerequisite to becoming an Olympic event!

This is a stop in good form, but with a rather tight rein. However, the horse is round, using his back, stopping deep. The head is down, the mouth closed - a good sign that there is no undue pull on the reins


Much of reining's success is due to the judging system NRHA has developed and implemented. It is one of the best judging systems in the equestrian world and enables NRHA judges to assess each ride objectively. A ride is broken down in individual maneuvers, which are all given a maneuver score between plus 1 1/2 and minus 1 1/2, a 0 marking a maneuver of average quality. These maneuver scores are given independently from any penalty points which might also apply. Penalty points are not to be given at the discretion of the judge, but the rules clearly specify when and what penalty is to be given. All a judge has to decide is whether a penalty has occurred. At the end of the ride, points are added, and penalty points are deducted, to determine the total score.

Riders are expected to execute the patterns exactly the way they are drawn. Precision comes first. Only if you have precision does it make sense to add speed - a higher degree of difficulty. The higher degree of difficulty is to be rewarded only if the precision, correctness, and overall balance were maintained.

The basis for geographically correctly ridden patterns, and proper judging, are markers which are placed alongside the walls or fences - center markers and end markers.


Reining is ridden in a prescribed way - NRHA has 9 official patterns. All these patterns consist of the same maneuvers, but ask for them in different orders. A rider who is not riding the maneuvers in the prescribed order, forgets a maneuver, or adds a maneuver, is "out of pattern", or "off pattern" and will automatically get a score of 0 (zero).

In order to understand reining and do well in reining, it is important to know what belongs to a given maneuver and how it is judged.

The different maneuvers called for in any reining pattern are:
- circles and lead change
- stop and roll-back
- stop and back-up
- stop
- spin

There are hesitates attached to certain maneuvers. Hesitates are not independent maneuvers which receive a score, they are part of the preceding maneuver, and if the rider doesn't execute them, the judge may let that affect his score for the maneuver.


A reining pattern is run in a lope, or gallop, so the circles have to be performed at that gait. They are also required in different sizes and speeds - the large ones definitely faster than the small ones.

All patterns ask for the same amount of circles left and right, and they all ask for flying lead changes from left to right and vice versa. Some patterns ask for two sets of circles without lead changes and the lead changes then have to be executed in a separate figure eight.

It is important to note that whenever lead changes are required, they make up, together with the preceding set of circles, one maneuver. So if, for instance, the circles were nice but the lead change rather rough, the score for that maneuver might drop from zero to minus 1/2, or even minus 1, depending of how bad the change was.

Circles need to be exactly that: circles. Not ovals, nor irregular loops. The judges watch for circles that are really even and round, show the same size in the large ones and are definitely smaller and slower in the small ones, and are geographically correct.

Geographically incorrect circles are the most common way to mess up a reining performance. All circles must touch the center of the arena. The small ones aren't run in the center of the large ones, they, too, begin and end in the center of the pen.

Lead changes must take place in the middle of the arena.

Circles start in the middle of the arena, and the lead departure is the first thing to master. The horse must lope off in the correct lead from either a standstill or a walk.

Speed control plays a major role in the circles. The transition from large, fast circles to a small, slow one should take place in the center of the pen and, ideally, without any obvious signals from the rider. If a horse ran some large, fast circles and got pumped up and didn't want to slow down, and the rider had to take a hold of him to MAKE him go slow, that usually results in a picture the judge doesn't appreciate at all.

The flying lead changes, like everything else, need to be fluid, smooth, on the spot, and executed without any visible effort on the part of the rider.

Any time a horse breaks gait, i. e. doesn't maintain the lope but drops to a trot, or walk, 2 penalty points are incurred.

The circles aren't awarded a lot in the way of points, and present a huge risk as far as penalty points go. However, nice, clean, round, geographically correct circles are essential - they are the red thread that runs through the whole pattern. If the other maneuvers are good but your circles are sorry, the whole ride won't look like much. On the other hand, a pattern with only so-so other maneuvers but nice, clean circles will still look respectable.


The sliding stops are the reining horse's trademark and more often than not win a reining competition. This is a very spectacular maneuver, with the horse running fast, then gliding to a halt on his rear legs while the front legs stay loose and keep balance by pedaling until he comes to a standstill.
If the dirt is soft enough, it's easier for the horse to push with his back and rear legs and stay in the ground, and the rider can dare to stop him on a slack rein. Note how relaxed the horse is during this stop

As with every other aspect in reining, correctness, finesse, balance, harmony, and willingness are the key words. A horse that is sent down that run-down wide open and slides 40 feet is not going to be plussed by a knowledgeable NRHA judge if his head was high, his mouth open, and his front legs stiff during the stop. What the uninitiated spectator thinks was a plus 1 might actually have been a minus maneuver!

Another thing which is often overlooked is what all belongs to the stop maneuver. A stop is never judged by itself. As soon as the maneuver prior to the stop is completed, that's when the judging of the stop maneuver starts. The approach and the run down are all part of the stop maneuver.

A stop is usually followed by either a rollback or a back-up, which are part of that maneuver. There is a lot that can be missed, and there is always the risk of penalties. In case of a rollback, the horse must come out of it in a lope. A trotting stride or two before picking up the lope result in a 1/2 penalty point, beyond two strides, 2 penalty points.

The first-rate sliding stop is a stop on the hind legs from a fast gallop. The hind legs remain in the ground and the horse is sliding on his rear shoes. The horse stays relaxed, his back is rounded, his neck, shoulders, and front legs are loose, his nose points downward, his mouth remains closed, and the reins barely have contact with the horse's mouth - or hang loosely. If the horse's front end stays relaxed, he will use his front legs in a trotting movement to balance himself.

To make contact with the horse's mouth is absolutely okay, as long as that mouth stays closed, and the horse relaxed and in proper form. As soon as there is pull on the reins, most horses will throw their heads up, and/or open their mouths, and their hind legs will tend to spread out instead of drawing two parallel tracks in the dirt. The whole picture will not be one of smoothness and balance, but will appear stiff and bouncy.

The rollback should be snappy, right over his stopping tracks, and with the horse jumping out of it in a lope. The horse whirls around over his hocks and on his inside hind leg, touching the ground with his front legs again only after he has completed the 180-degree turn.

horse Spins, or turn-arounds, are required in both directions. A spin is a 360-degree turn on the hind legs. The horse's rear remains stationary while the front legs step around this pivot point. The faster the horse is stepping, the higher the degree of difficulty. This way of executing the spin results in a flat, smooth, fluid, even, cadenced motion. The horse ideally stays flat, with his head down, his back up, and his outside front leg crossing over in front of the inside front leg.

Photo left:In a good spin, the horse will cross over in front and step around his rear end. The horse should move freely and with cadence. Note how loose the reins are. As a general rule, the more you need to use your reins for this, the less pretty this maneuver will become

As soon as the horse quits stepping with his front legs and starts to hop or jump around, the spin becomes a minus maneuver. This usually occurs when a horse is asked to go faster than what he can handle. If the rear end doesn't remain stationary but wanders off, that also results in a minus maneuver. The horse is then actually turning around his middle instead around his rear end, it is "swapping ends".
Penalties can be picked up in the spins by over- or under spinning. The spins are required in NRHA patterns in two different ways: In some, the horse is positioned parallel to the long wall of the arena, in others it is facing the center marker where the judge is sitting. The name of the game here is shutting the horse off precisely after the last revolution of 360 degrees.


Another important penalty rule must be mentioned: Whenever a horse backs up 2 full strides or more where a back-up is not specified, that is an inclusion of a not-called-for maneuver and the ride will automatically be off pattern and scored a 0.

All contestants, when entering the arena, have 70 points. The judge(s) will award plus points where appropriate, or give penalty points according to the rule book. If most maneuvers were sub-standard or some stiff penalties were incurred, the ride will end up with a score considerably below 70. There is a maximum of 8 maneuvers in a reining pattern and a theoretical chance to mark a plus 1 1/2 in every maneuver - with no penalties incurred, a rider could theoretically mark a score of 82 (8 x 1,5 + 70). This will never happen, though, as there is no such thing as a perfect horse, or a perfect ride.

However, the first goal for a reining rider is always "to stay out of the penalty box". If he or she leaves the arena and still has the 70 he or she entered with, and maybe plussed half a point here and half a point there, that usually means a ribbon, and maybe a paycheck as well.

After the ride, the contestant has to walk to the judge and drop the bridle for inspection. The judge will also check the whole horse out for possible illegal equipment, or devices, and whether there is blood anywhere on the horse. If there is visible blood, for instance caused by a spur, the rider will be disqualified and get a "no score".

Throughout the pattern, the reining horse is expected to guide willingly on a loose rein. The less obvious the contestant's cues are, the less resistance a horse shows, the better the performance, and the higher the score. It's the combination of controlled speed and action, precision, and invisible cues that 's so exciting to watch and wins reinings.

Reining is not a sport for rough and tough cowboys. It's finesse, precision, discipline, and beauty.

This article and the accompanying illustrations are courtesy of Hardy Oelke, a highly renowned trainer of Western horses and riders. Please choose this link to learn more.
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