Speed. Sliding Stops. Spins. A world-class reining horse makes it all look effortless, and for them, it really is. Reining is a sport that began with the ranch horses in the American West and has catapulted itself to worldwide popularity. The World Equestrian Games added the discipline in 2002 and riders from across the globe, including the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany are contesting for medals. Reining is also a sport that anyone can enjoy, from a backyard pleasure rider to a serious competitor.
Working cattle is a tough job. First, they are herd animals that don’t necessarily want to go where their handlers want them to go. Second, cattle move quickly and can turn on a dime. Large groups require more work; they can get strung out. It takes a good horse to work cattle.
Cowboys in the American West trained their horses to work their cattle. They needed horses that were quick, agile, alert, and responsive. Good cattle horses develop “cow sense” they know their job and understand the cattle well enough that they begin to intuit what they might do or where they may go.
History of Reining
The sport of reining evolved as the horses were working cattle, and cowboys wanted to either test their horses or showcase their skills to their fellow riders and ranch hands. We can assume that informal demonstrations and competitions were frequent. Then, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) held its first futurity in 1966 at the American Quarter Horse Congress. The sport has flourished since then.
The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) formally recognized reining as a discipline in 2000 and it was added to the World Equestrian Games in 2002. This cemented its place on an international level, instead of just a discipline within the United States.
Many riders helped build the sport and aided in its popularity explosion. For example, Shawn Flarida is one of those riders – he was the first to reach $6 million in earnings. The NRHA inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2011. Numerous wins have helped him on the journey. He has several gold medals at the World Equestrian Games and has inspired countless horse people to try the sport.
Where You Ride
Reining developed out on the open range, in cattle holding pens, and in other locations around the ranch. If you’re working cattle, you can consider that reining. However, the judged sport of reining at horse shows and events is a bit different now.
Reining competitions take place in the show pen or arena. There are 13 approved patterns that the horse and rider can perform. Riders compete individually, and it’s a spectator sport too. Large crowds of spectators attend the competitions. They are encouraged to cheer and support horses and riders that are performing well. This includes speed, an incredibly long sliding stop or another outstanding maneuver.
Prize money at some of the over 700 United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) competitions, and at international competitions, has helped the sport see a 40% increase in participation in a 10-year period. It’s not uncommon to see competitions advertise purses of $100,000 or more for a single class or $1 million across all their classes, depending on the level of competition.
Riders must have good equitation and horse skills to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Prize money makes the competitions increasingly harder and more competitive. There’s also the recognition that comes with competing on the national and international stage.
The judge never takes their eyes off the horse and rider, and a scribe records all the scores for them. The base score is 70 (and this is also the average score). Points are added or deducted based on how well each maneuver is performed. Scores are tabulated and announced as each rider leaves the show pen. Combinations know where they stand in the overall results, and this adds another level of excitement to the sport.
Speed is one way that riders can increase the points they earn. A rider just starting out may have a slower reining pattern, and then increase their speed as their own and the horse’s skill increases.
A Good Horse
One of the best parts about reining is that any breed of horse can (and do) participate and compete in the sport. Naturally, there are a lot of Quarter Horses in reining competitions. The sport debuted at the Quarter Horse Congress and is still a large part of the breed. However, all breeds are welcoming the sport and hosting competitions, in addition to the NRHA open breed competitions.
Horses competing in reining are athletic, level-headed, quick, and responsive. The rollbacks, sliding stops, and 360-degree spins require strong hindquarters that can withstand a lot of pressure. Therefore, specialized trainers work with horses and riders to develop their reining skills. Riders use western tack in the show ring and must follow all USEF and NRHA rules in approved competitions.
Reining continues to grow in popularity. The United States has dominated the sport on the international stage, but a rider from the Netherlands won the individual gold at the World Equestrian Games in 2018 and several countries have strong programs developing.
Competitions can draw thousands of spectators, including over 125,000 at NRHA’s annual million-dollar event (pre-pandemic). The organization also boasts over 15,000 members and growing. Reining is a fun sport and a few quick sliding stops help the discipline slide into the hearts of equestrians and stay there.