Short Guide to Reining Horse Competitions & Training


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Reining is arguably the most popular western riding competition of the moment. The event consists of a precise course with spins, circles and stops through which the rider must guide his four-legged companion. All the obstacles must be passed at a lope also known as canter (a three-beat gait performed by horses, slower than the gallop but faster than the trot). The competition originated from moves that cattle horse riders adopted while rounding their animals. Horse reining has been recognized as an official sport by the largest organization for horses, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), in 1949.

The art of hose reining, commonly referred to as the western form of dressage riding is extremely complicated and it requires extensive training. In the following reining horse guide we will discuss the basic elements of a reining event course, movement patterns, training tips as well as neck raining. As a conclusion, we will also share some of the best places where you can find reining horses for sale.

An Introduction to Reining Horse Competitions

mainreining-7806241Almost all breeds of obedient and responsive horses qualify for reining competitions. The relationship between a rider and a horse is extremely important for this type of event, because the two must sync instantaneously with one-another in order to successfully maneuver between obstacles. But it is not only the ability to maneuver between obstacles that matters. Judges will also take into account if the horse is being guided easily, if it resists to perform a pattern and if its movements are graceful. As you can probably already imagine, horses who wing their tail, run sideways, refuse to take an order will be scored poorly for this event.

The national reining horse association (NRHA) has defined the term of horse reining as the judged event meant to showcase a horse’s athletic ability within the confines of a show arena. The handbook also gives a definition to the way that reining horse must be done:

“To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control his every movement. The best reined horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely. Any movement of his own must be considered a lack of control.”

The NRHA is also the most important non-profit association that promotes the reining horse. Their official website holds invaluable information regarding youth programs, events, competitions. Riders can also request membership with the NRHA to benefit from discounts and other bonuses.

Reining Patterns, Movements & Scoring System

There is an average of eight to twelve movements that a horse and rider must execute during the event. Let’s take a closer look at them:

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  • Rollback: the horse must stop after a sliding stop, without hesitation, and perform an 180-degree turn before continuing into a canter. In order to do this, the instructor must order the horse to turn on its hindquarters while also bringing its hocks under.
  • Spins & Turnarounds: similarly to the rollback, the spin or turnaround requires the horse to standstill and spin, this time in a 360 degree angle (or more). The spinning is scored only when it is done inside hind leg – the pivot must remain in the same spot during the entire spin even if the horse picks it up as it turns. Spins receive high scores if they are smooth and correct. Speed is also taken into account: the faster the horse spins, the more points he will get.
  • Back/Back-up: this is one of the most complicated moves in horse reining because it must be done in the split of a second. The horse must back up in a perfectly straight line. He must also wait a bit before the next movement.

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  • Sliding stop: this move requires the horse to first accelerate. From a gallop he must come to a sudden halt by planting his hind legs into the ground and sliding them several feet. In the mean-time, the front feet continue to move. For this move to be scored correctly, the horse must raise his back upward and place the hindquarters well underneath. The movement must end without a change in the horse’s position. (Useful tip: sliding stops and spins are the crowd’s favorite movements).
  • Rundown: this movement was introduced in reining horse competitions because it is required for slide stop and rollback movements. Depending on the pattern, the horse must accelerate to a designated position (near the jury or towards a wall) for at least 6 meters.
  • Flying lead change: it is a form of lead change. Lead changing is horse language for finding another gear. The Flying lead change happens when the horse changes its leading legs at the lope mid-stride, while in the air. To perform this movement correctly the horse mustn’t break gait or change speed. The image below should give you a better idea about this movement

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  • Pause or Hesitate: while this isn’t a movement in the true sense of the word (because it isn’t scored positively), it must be done between patterns to reaffirm the jury about the horse’s discipline. A horse that doesn’t settle between movements is considered ill-mannered and will receive penalties.
  • Circles: as the name states, the horse must perform wide circles at a gallop speed and smaller ones at a lope. For high-scores the circle must be perfectly round. In addition to this, the jury should see a very clear change of pace between smaller and larger circles. For this pattern, a flying lead change movement (described above) is required.

Scoring System

Judges score this type of event according to each movement and pattern. Scoring is done on the basis of zero. An average performance will earn the rider 70 points. A score of around 70 means that the horse and rider performed all the movements correctly but that they did not have excellent execution or extremely complicated movements. Each maneuver can add or subtract ½, 1 or 1 ½ points from the total.

  • Extremely poor execution: minus 1 ½ points
  • Very poor execution: minus 1 point
  • Poor execution: minus ½ points
  • Correct execution of movements with no degree of difficulty: 0 points
  • Good execution: +1/2 points
  • Very good execution: 1 point
  • Excellent execution: +1 ½ points

Many of you may be wondering how the degree of difficulty is assessed. That’s simple. Difficulty level is usually related to agility, precision, finesse and smoothness. In addition to this, the faster the horse performs movements, the higher the degree of difficulty. In other words, a perfectly executed fast spin will always score better than a perfectly executed slow spin.

Scoring begins at 70. Horses with a score lower than this have performed poorly, and those with a score better than 70 receive additional points based on execution and difficulty. Although the scoring systems show a maximum of 1 ½ points subtracted for mistakes, penalties can even take 5 points for a serious infraction. As a matter of fact, some competitions are scored with 0 if the animal is misbehaving.

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Reining Equipment & Rider Attire

Riding attire is rather strict for this type of competition. Riders who do not respect requirements will receive penalties. To start with, the rider should have a western saddle and a western-style bridles (with no cavesson or noseband). Whips are not allowed on the track, but spurs are permitted. These things aside, riders must also wear long-sleeved shirts, cowboy boots and jeans. There are very small differences in competition apparel for women and men. The major difference is the fact that colors and accessories are influenced by fashion trends from Western Pleasure for women.

As far as the horse is concerned, he is allowed to be equipped with splint boots on the cannons of his front legs. Alternatively, they can have skid boots on their hind legs to protect fetlocks, pasterns and other sensitive areas from injuries. Some riders add bell boots on their horse’s leg to protect the hoof. Another form of protection would be the polo wrap which can give support to ligaments and tendons.

A very important thing to consider is the fat that horses for reining competitions must wear special horseshoes that are called slide plates. These shoes have wider bar steel and they also protect the nail heads. They are particularly useful for sliding stop movements, because they generate less friction with the ground.

Horse reins are some of the most important elements of horse tack for this competition. Their main use is for riding. It makes it easier for the rider to give subtle commands such as slowing, halting or turning to the horse.

One more thing to consider is the curb bit, which is used for riding horses through lever action. Riders who opt for a curb bit will give commands with only one hand. For this purpose, participants in reining competitions must learn how to neck rein.

Neck Reining Guide

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Neck reining isn’t necessarily considered a very difficult skill, but you will have to train a bit before you can master it. The most important thing is to make sure that both rider and horse understand the foundation of neck reining. HorseChannel has shared an extensive guide for neck reining.

“Simply put, neck reining is guiding your horse with your outside aids,” explains Wennberg. “It’s using an indirect type of rein and an outside leg so that your outside aids control the outside of the horse and make the horse go in the opposite direction. You need neck reining for guiding in circles, guiding in squares and guiding through a lead change. You’re pushing the horse laterally from one direction to the next. It’s a wonderful thing to teach and train, and it’s pretty simple to the horse Carla Wennenber, coach of the 2013 Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Reserve National Champion Western Team

The hardest part about neck reining is teaching the horse how he must react to being pushed and pulled. To do this, the rider must set up four cones that represent the four corners of his “square”. This will make it easier to visualize how the horse must be maneuvered. Another important aspect is looking in the direction in which the horse will turn. This will make it easier for the horse to understand a command.

If body position was important for normal riding, it can be considered extremely important for neck reining. Your position on the saddle, if incorrect, will make neck reining completely ineffective. The upper body should always remain balanced through the seat. Keep your back straight and the neck balanced.

“That area of 4 to 5 inches is your area to guide from. If you ride left-handed, your left hand will be up and to the left of the horn. If you ride right-handed, your right hand will be up and to the right of the horn. Your free hand is held in a bend in order to balance your rein hand, and your rein hand will be slightly above the free hand.”

Besides lacking one hand, there is another major difference between neck reining and normal reining: you will be losing the more direct contact of normal reining. To make the transition smoother you should opt for a softer rein that will not injure the horse’s mouth. Lastly, the rider and horse shouldn’t spend all their time in the Show pen. It’s always a good idea to ride in the great outdoors when you start feeling more comfortable with this new type of riding. Riding in an open field teaches both rider and horse to control movements better and remain calm.

Reining Horses for Sale

There are plenty of horse websites that promote reining horses for sale. You don’t necessarily have to train your reining horse from the beginning. As a matter of fact, it is a good idea to start working with a horse who already understands basic dressage commands. There are several exceptional websites where you can find docile and skilled reining horses.

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One of these websites is reininghorsesforsale.com. The sales concept is simple: sellers can create ads for 25 dollars in the first three months to appear in directory listings. Horse ads include information such as geldings, stallions, price, region, age and level of training. You can even find reined cow horses for sale on this website.

Another online marketplace for reining horses is slidingk.com. This particular team has been in the industry for over 20 years. The website’s horses for sale are categorized according to age. Each ad contains registration information, date of birth, color, sex, sire, dam and price range. EquineNow is another website where you can find excellent reining horses. Here you can find horses from states such as Ohio, Colorado, Oklahoma, Michigan, Washington or California from some of the best breeders. For example, you can search for reining horses for sale in Texas by filtering through search options.

This concludes our guide to reining horse competitions. There are many more things to say, especially about training. However, we believe that the best way to train with a horse is by going out in the field and practicing. Expert breeders have written a lot about horse reining training, and the National Reining Horse Association also has guides on the subject.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 

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