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Getting Started In Reining

Reiner's Guide

Tips Top

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Horse & Rider is dedicated to bringing you information, tips, and strategies you can use and apply to your horse life. For this reining guide, we tapped Team Horse & Rider members Bob Avila, Al Dunning, and Stacy Westfall. Read on for their great reining tips, along with information from the NRHA, and a list of resources to help you along the way. Whether you're a new rider trying to decide which discipline is for you, or you're a horse show veteran looking for new challenges, reining can sharpen your horsemanship skills, build your confidence, and strengthen your relationship with your horse. And it can freshen your horse's outlook by giving him a new job, too.

Getting Started in Reining

First Steps

If you're thinking about moving into the reining arena, here are a few must-do steps for a strong start: 1. Work with a trainer--at least in the beginning. Reining is a highly skilled riding discipline. It's very difficult to train yourself--and be successful-- without a pro's help. With guidance from a competent trainer, you'll learn and finesse basic reining skills, and then be on your way to competing. 2. Look for a reining affiliate in your area. Go to the National Reining Horse Association's Web site ( There, you can find NRHA affiliates in or around your area. The NRHA established their affiliate championship program to develop reining clubs at the grassroots level, which is a great way to get riders, such as yourself, involved in the sport. 3. Watch some reining classes. (Check for a list of events in your area.) There are varying skill levels in reining, just as there are in other riding competitions. While it can be inspiring and educational to watch more advanced reiners, I suggest you observe the lower-end classes first. These are called "green reining" classes (and by "green" I'm referring to the rider, not the horse); rookie classes are the next step up. By observing the green classes you'll get an idea of what you'll be doing when you start showing. If you first (or only) watch the high-level classes, you'll likely be overwhelmed by those riders' levels of expertise. It'd be like wanting to take up running, and starting training by watching an Olympic race. 4. Be prepared to start at the bottom, and work your way up. The green-class patterns are often modified, compared to those of the high-level reiners. For example, in some associations, instead of having to do four spins, the green patterns call for two spins; riders can execute simple lead changes on circles instead of flying changes; instead of a sliding stop, riders can halt on rundowns. This helps newbie reiners progress gradually, solidifying their skills and building their confidence. Always check your local club's or association's rules.

Find the Best Trainer--For You

Finding a trainer who fits with your philosophies, interests, and goals can get you off to the right start. Do your homework, and use some of the following tips for selecting a reining trainer. Make a list of possible trainers using some of these strategies: · Ask other trainers you know for recommendations.

Find a trainer who works well with your training level and philosophies.


· Ask around at your feed or local tack stores. · Wander around the stall/warm-up areas at a green show, and watch riders warming up with their trainers. Listen carefully. Observe each trainer's teaching style and level of expertise. If you find one you think would suit you, be outgoing and ask about his/her training program. (If the trainer appears preoccupied with show duties, ask for a business card.) · Talk to competitors. They're always good sources, because they likely know multiple trainers. · Go to NRHA's Web site and scan their list of NRHA Professional trainers in your area. Once you've identified potential trainers, consider: · The trainer's teaching style. · How knowledgeable he or she is about reining. · The trainer's attitude and general philosophy on training/showing. · Whether he/she does private or group lessons (or both). Know what fits your learning style. Many assume private lessons are always better than group lessons because of the highly concentrated attention from the trainer. It's been my experience that group lessons can be more beneficial. You can always learn from others' mistakes, as well as their successes--and you often find that students in group lessons are more able to relax and enjoy

what they're doing. Plus, when you see others making the same mistakes you are, it'll build your confidence, as you won't feel as embarrassed over your mistakes. · The trainer's specialty. Some NRHA professionals specialize in aged events and very rarely tutor beginning reiners. Their barns are full of futurity and derby horses, and the only non pros they mentor are those involved in aged events, which, of course, isn't where you're at right now. Don't be afraid to ask that question. He or she might suggest other competent local trainers to help you get started. · How much he/she charges for lessons and other training.

The ABC's of Getting Started

Your trainer should walk you through the basics of reining prep, but when you're practicing on your own, here are a few exercises to help you improve your reining skills. · Practice making perfectly round circles by setting up a cone at the center point. Eyeball a specific distance to the center and make sure you stay there as you circle around the cone. If you have trouble maintaining an even distance, keep practicing--no egg-shaped circles! · Drill simple steering exercises (circles, half circles, turns throughout the arena). Good steering skills are imperative to good reining skills. · Practice stopping your horse with a verbal cue: We train a verbal cue ("whoa") and a leg cue, and don't forget to refine and use your rein cue. · Do upward and downward transitions. Just because reiners slide to a stop in the ring every time, that doesn't remove the need to do transitions from lope to trot, trot to walk, etc. Resistance you find here will likely appear in your slides. Repeat in both directions on a straight line, and on circles. · Use "fencing." This is done when you practice "pseudo" sliding-stop rundowns by traveling on a straight line down the center of the arena (at a walk, trot, and lope) and stop near the end of the arena. To get a sense of how fencing works, watch pros doing it at a show. · Practice envisioning a smooth, flowing ride with you and your horse moving as one. Remember that, according to the NRHA handbook, the goal of reining is to have a horse that is "...willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance."

Excerpted from Team Horse & Rider, "Reining 101," Horse & Rider, November, '07.


Practice envisioning a smooth, flowing ride with you and your horse moving as one.


Stacy Westfall was the first woman to complete in--and win--the Road To The Horse competition. In 2006, she won the Freestyle Reining Chamopionship at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress with one of the highest scores in NRHA history: 239. She did it by performing without a saddle, bridle, or even a neck rope.



Revered trainer and legendary horseman Al Dunning has been a leader in the local and national horse industry for more than 30 years. His renowned book, Reining, has sold more than 100,000 copies. For more information on Al, log on to

Selecting a Reining Prospect

By Al Dunning, with Juli S. Thorson

"DOES MY HORSE HAVE REINING POTENtial?" I hear that question many times a year from customers who bring their horses to me for evaluation and possible training. Here, as a benefit to your own knowledge base, I'll cover four key matters I consider when asked to make the initial assessment, and as training progresses. change leads with ease. Genetics also are largely responsible for a horse's innate degree of trainability. That's not to say you get any guarantees, even with a solid reining pedigree, but it sure does up your chances. If your prospect didn't have parents that proved themselves capable of being reiners, his overall odds for success aren't great. "He really stops great when he's chasing dogs in the pasture" doesn't count. I won't even look at a horse as a prospect for reining if he isn't bred for the event--not because I'm a pedigree snob, but because I don't think it's fair to spend your money and my time on trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Chances are



Let's say you were to call me about a horse you'd like to place with me for training as a reiner. My first question's going to be, "How's your horse bred?" Reining talent comes from genetics, because it's genetics that produce the conformation traits that allow a horse to stop, spin, roll back, and

his ability to turn around. I like a short back--a long-backed horse has a hard time collecting himself well enough to change leads. Meaty stifles, and meaty hocks will tell me he's well-muscled in those areas for the work that reining demands.


With any horse, proof of potential lies in his actual ability to perform the work he's asked to do. I want to see a horse that's giving readily to bit contact, and is relaxed and moving freely beneath the weight of his rider. Hindquarter conformation that includes well-muscled stifles and correctly aligned columns of rear-leg bones will make it possible for him to stride up deeply behind and push off. You won't have to work and struggle to collect him, and he'll deliver a smooth ride. Watch the horse as he stops. He should be light on the reins, with good body balance and a rounded back, as he gets his butt in the ground. He shouldn't appear to be straining, stiffening, or otherwise struggling to get stopped.



While pedigree and conformation analysis can tell you quite a lot about a horse's potential as a reiner, there's one key matter you can't determine until you actually start riding and training him. That's the matter of heart, or "try." Horses vary greatly when it comes to this, as it's an individual thing. Some have little to none of this quality, and others have a seemingly bottomless supply. The closer a horse is to the bottomless side of the spectrum, the better the performer he'll turn out to be--in reining, or any other discipline. Often, a horse with a lot of heart is able to compensate, at least to some degree, for less-than-ideal reining conformation. He'll put up with the repetition and physical exertion that reining maneuvers require, and won't rebel or quit you when training hits a difficult patch. He'll try to find a way to please you, and even if his best isn't as good as that of another horse, he'll deliver it with consistency. This is one reason why horse training is as much an art and a mystery as it is a science. It's also why the more prospects you try, the more readily you'll know heart in a horse when he has it--and why a horse that's big on heart, and maybe not so big on reining ability, still has a purpose in this world.

Excerpted from "Reining Potential," Horse & Rider, October '07.

When a horse stops he should be light on the reins with good body balance and a rounded back.

high that both you and I would be disappointed, and that your horse would be overchallenged, and frustrated.


Assuming your horse is bred for reining, my next step would be to see him in person, to evaluate his conformation. Although some owners ask me to look at their prospects as yearlings, or even weanlings, I don't think you can see a lot until a horse is at least 2 years old. Horses simply change too much as they're adding their growth to that point. I like to see a horse with big, intelligent-looking eyes, good-sized nostrils, a relaxed set of ears, and a short mouth. He should have a small, clean throatlatch for ease in flexing, and a neck that's longer on top than on bottom, also good for flexing. The curvature over the top of his neck contributes more to his flexing ability. He has an adequately sloped shoulder that ties in high, and isn't so bulky in his front-end musculature that it limits


Reining Maneuvers

REINING IS A JUDGED EVENT DESIGNED TO show the athletic ability of a ranch-type horse within the confines of a show arena. In NRHA competition, contestants are required to run one of 10 approved patterns, included in the NRHA handbook. Each pattern includes small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, rollbacks over the hocks, 360 degree spins done in place, and exciting sliding stops that are the hallmark of the reining horse. Following are maneuver descriptions as defined by the NRHA: and speed, which demonstrate control, willingness to guide, and degree of difficulty in speed and speed changes. Circles must at all times be run in the geographical area of the arena specified in the pattern description and must have a common center point. There must be a clearly defined difference in the speed and size of a small, slow circle, and a large fast circle; also the speed and size of small, slow, right circles should be similar to the small, slow, left circles. Likewise, the speed and size of the large, fast, right circles should be similar to the large, fast, left circles.


The walk-in brings the horse from the gate to the center of the arena to begin the pattern. The horse should appear relaxed and confident. Any action which may create the appearance of intimidation, including starting and stopping, or checking, is a fault, which shall be marked down according to the severity in the first maneuver score.


Spins are a series of 360-degree turns, executed over a stationary, inside hind leg. Propulsion for the spin is supplied by the outside, rear leg and front legs, and contact should be made with the ground and a front leg. The location of hindquarters should be fixed at the start of the spin and maintained throughout the spins. It's helpful for a judge to watch for the horse to remain in the same location, rather than watching for a stationary inside leg. This allows for easier focus on the other elements of the spin (ie., cadence, attitude, smoothness, finesse, and speed).


Circles are maneuvers at the lope, of designated size


LEFT: Propulsion for the spin is supplied by the outside, rear leg and front legs, and contact should be made with the ground and a front leg. RIGHT: Rollbacks are the 180-degree reversal of forward motion completed by running to a stop, rolling (turning) the shoulders back to the opposite direction over the hocks and departing in a canter.



The horse should enter the stop position by bending the back, bringing the hind legs farther under the body while maintaining forward motion and ground contact and cadence with front legs.


To hesitate is the act of demonstrating the horse's ability to stand in a relaxed manner at a designated time in a pattern. In a hesitation, the horse is required to remain motionless and relaxed. All NRHA patterns require a hesitation at the end of the pattern to demonstrate to the judge(s) completion of the pattern.


Stops are the act of slowing the horse from a lope to a stop position by bringing the hind legs under the horse in a locked position, sliding on the hind feet. The horse should enter the stop position by bending the back, bringing the hind legs further under the body while maintaining forward motion and ground contact and cadence with front legs. Throughout the stop, the horse should continue in a straight line while maintaining ground contact with the hind feet.

Lead Changes

Lead changes are the act of changing the leading legs of the front and rear pairs of legs at a lope, when changing the direction traveled. The lead change must be executed at a lope with no change of gait and be performed in the exact geographical position in the arena specified in the pattern description. The change of front and rear leads must take place within the same stride to avoid penalty.


Rollbacks are the 180-degree reversal of forward motion completed by running to a stop, rolling (turning) the shoulders back to the opposite direction over the hocks and departing in a canter, as one continuous motion. The NRHA handbook states no hesitation; however, a slight pause to regain footing or balance should not be deemed hesitation. The horse should not step ahead or back up prior to rolling back.

Rundowns and Runarounds

Rundowns occur in a pattern before a stop. They are runs through the middle of the arena and along the side and ends of the arena. Rundowns and runarounds should demonstrate control and gradual increase in speed to the stop.



A backup is a maneuver requiring the horse to be moved in a reverse motion in a straight line at a required distance; at least 10 feet.

How to Make Same-Size Circles

By Bob Avila, with Sue Copeland

TO CIRCLE YOUR HORSE CORRECTLY, YOU'LL need to learn where you are in the arena at all times. A technique I've found helpful is to mentally divide the arena both crosswise and lengthwise. For instance, say you're in a 100-foot by 200-foot pen. Before your run, mentally draw a line across the middle (the point on the pattern where you'll be performing your lead changes). Next, look for an object on each of the arena's long sides that you can use to visually mark that middle line. Use the judge, a dirt spot on the wall, a banner, a cone, or anything else you can easily spot for a center-line marker. Then look lengthwise down the arena, to each of the arena's short sides, and find two objects that identify the sides' center points. These could be gates, roping boxes, bucking chutes, etc. You now have a visual map of the arena that will help you keep your circles round and even. Before you ride, survey the arena and visualize riding to your circle markers (we'll imagine a bucking chute and an imaginary Horse & Rider banner as markers). Say your pattern has you picking up the right lead to lope your first set of circles. Picture yourself coming around the circle and riding to your map sites. For instance, if bucking chute number three marks the top of your first circle, you know that's your center point on the short side. As you come around to ride across the middle, visualize yourself watching for and riding to the "H" in the Horse & Rider banner, which marks that midpoint. After changing leads in the center, focus on your markers at the arena's opposite end to keep your second set of mental circles round and even. When it's time for your run, concentrate on looking up and riding ahead to each marker, just as you did when you visualized your pattern. (Tip: Avoid the temptation to look down after the lead change to be sure your horse has changed correctly. By the time you look up again, you'll have launched yourself on an inaccurate set of second circles.) As a bonus, you'll find that when you have an object to ride toward, you'll subliminally guide your horse in that direction, making your circles appear more effortless than when you ride without a focus point. You can also practice this at home. Walk, jog, and lope figure-eights, using cones, dirt clods, or any other such objects as your circle markers.


Twice named World's Greatest Horseman, Bob Avila has three wins at the Snaffle Bit Futurity. For more information about Bob's training techniques, see

Concentrate on riding to your markers by looking up and ahead. Your horse's hoofprints will enable you to grade your progress on each circle. With time and practice, riding accurate circles will become second nature.

Excerpted from "Ask A Pro," Horse & Rider, August '99.


Circles must at all times be run in the geographical area of the arena specified in the pattern description and must have a common center point.

Pattern Pointers

Judge Maryann Willoughby guides you through the maneuvers of NRHA Reining Pattern 2.

There are 10 approved reining patterns in the NRHA handbook. We've selected one as an example to help you visualize the pattern from a judge's perspective. Familiarize yourself with the arena, noting where you'll be executing your maneuvers and establishing reference points. This pattern begins at the middle markers, but as soon as you enter the arena, I'm judging you. You may walk or trot to your starting position--trotting wastes less time, but if your horse performs better by walking in, that's fine. It's possible to score a zero for the entire pattern even before beginning it, if you switch hands on your reins. You must perform the entire pattern holding your reins in the same hand. If you change your rein hand during the pattern or enter the ring riding twohanded and later hold them in one hand, you'll earn a zero score. Exhibit a full halt before beginning the pattern, or incur a 2-point penalty. To score well, perform a smooth, straight and steady lope departure. I don't


mind seeing two or three walk steps, but any trot steps incur penalties. If your horse can smoothly pick up the lope from a standstill he'll show a higher degree of difficulty and I'll consider it toward a plus score for the whole maneuver. The right circles are first, so make sure you get the right lead to begin. If not, you'll incur a 1point penalty for each quarter circle you're on the wrong lead. Breaking to the trot to correct the lead incurs a 2-point penalty, so it's better to get a flying lead change. The small, slow circle is first, and should be symmetrical, pleasing to the eye, coordinated and collected. Maintain good forward motion--I don't want to see a slow pace so collected that it looks artificial. I also don't want to see a cramped small circle, so tiny and tight that I can't see your horse moving freely. Return to the arena's center as you close your small circle or your circles will be off-center in the pattern. If they're off-center, even beautiful circles will earn only a zero maneuver score, and mediocre circles will earn a negative score.


The walk-in brings the horse from the gate to the center of the arena to begin the pattern. The horse should appear relaxed and confident.

Keep your large circles symmetrical but distinctly larger than the small circle. I shouldn't have to guess which size you're showing me. The fast pace shouldn't be breakneck. Know how much speed your horse can show without losing form and control, and don't push him past it. Often, when horses run too fast, their hind legs work too closely together so their hind lead becomes indistinct. Keep control first, then add speed if your horse is capable. I like to see a horse bend from nose to tail just enough to follow the arc of the circle. His head shouldn't be tipped to the outside, or too far to the inside. He should carry his head at a height that's natural for his build, rather than artificially low or over-fixed. I don't mind light rein contact, but if he goes beautifully on a little drape, I'll score him higher. Maintain the same rein length throughout the pattern. Perform your flying lead change at the middle markers--too early or too late incurs penalties. The lead change should be smooth, straight, and level without your horse hopping into the air to change, and without you having to throw him onto it. He should change with his front and hind legs simultaneously. The danger point of this pattern is coming out of the large fast circle to the right and dropping right back to a small slow circle after your lead change. Your horse must respond readily and drop obediently down into the slower pace. The left circles


1. Beginning on the right lead, complete three circles to the right: the first circle small and slow; the next two circles large and fast. Change leads at the center of the arena. 2. Complete three circles to the left: the first circle small and slow; the next two circles large and fast. Change leads at the center of the arena. 3. Continue around previous circle to the right. At the top of the circle, run down the middle to the far end of the arena past the end marker and do a right rollback--no hesitation. 4. Run up the middle to the opposite end of the arena past the end marker and do a left rollback--no hesitation. 5. Run past the center marker and do a sliding stop. Back up to the center of the arena or at least 10 feet. Hesitate. 6. Complete four spins to the right. Hesitate. 7. Complete four spins to the left. Hesitate to demonstrate the completion of the pattern. Rider must dismount and drop bridle to the designated judge.

In a hesitation, the horse is required to remain motionless and relaxed. All NRHA patterns require a hesitation at the end of the pattern to demonstrate to the judge(s) completion of the pattern.

should have the same qualities of the right circles regarding size, symmetry, pace, and form. After the second maneuver's lead change at the pattern's center, start a large circle to the right. If you missed your lead change, you'll lose one point for each quarter circle that you're on the wrong lead, so get the change as soon as possible--without trotting. If you break gait for a lead change, you'll incur more penalties. Maintain a controlled medium pace rather than the previous large circles' fast pace, and turn down the pattern's center at the top of the circle. As you begin your run down the middle, maintain a controlled pace--I don't want to see your horse toss his head up and run off with you. Gradually build speed down the length of the arena, but don't overestimate how well your horse can stop. If you pick up too much speed, he'll blow his stop, and you'll lose maneuver points. Don't try


to outrun your competitors; stay within your horse's capability. Make sure you're past the bottom end markers before initiating your stop. If your horse assumes a stopping position before he passes them, he's "scotching" and incurs a 2-point penalty. For a nice stop, I like to see a horse with his back rounded, his head down, his hind legs well under him, and some slide (though, some horses stop nicely without sliding). His front end should also stay on the ground, so he's not bouncing in the air to stop. Roll back to the right directly from your stop. The stop and rollback should flow into one seamless movement, with no hesitation. Your horse should snap right back onto his own tracks. If he resists the rollback and freezes up, you'll incur a 2-point penalty. A shorter hesitation will also lower your maneuver score. (Tip: Instead of trying to remember rolling back to the right or left in this pattern, think of rolling back toward the judge, who should be positioned on the left wall. But, make sure that's where she is before you ride!) Run back up the pattern's middle, gradually building speed--not bursting into a dead run. Know your horse's stopping ability, and don't push him past his best pace. Stop at the top of the pattern, past the end markers, and roll back to the left (remember, roll back toward the judge here, too). Then, directly and fluidly from the rollback, run down the pattern and perform a sliding stop past the center markers. If your horse stops really deep, I'll let him get back on his feet, but there should be no noticeable hesitation before backing. Back him to the pattern's center, or at least 10 feet, but try to make it back to the center. After backing, hesitate. Then, begin four spins to the right. As judge, I'll be counting aloud, so you'd better be counting them, too. Any fraction more or less than four complete spins incurs a penalty. Hesitate before starting your spins to the left, or you'll score a zero on your entire pattern for not following the instructions. For a good spin, your horse should plant one hind pivot foot, rather than swapping hind feet, which is bad form and may cause him to travel as he spins. Worse yet, is if he runs around with both front and hind feet. He can be straight from head to tail, or slightly arced in the direction of his spin. Establish your spins on a pivot foot before adding speed, and don't push him beyond his ability or he'll lose form. Hesitate in order to show completion of pattern.

This article first appeared in Pattern Perfect, July and August, Horse & Rider, '07.



Reining Resources

To learn more, check these on-line resources.

· for upcoming shows in your area, a list of professional trainers, and information on the NRHA Affiliate Program. · Stacy Westfall: · Bob Avila: · Al Dunning:


To test your reining knowledge, log on to, and take the Reining Sweepstakes Quiz, using this booklet as a guide. You'll be entered in the on-line Reining Sweepstakes for your chance to win a day at one of Stacy Westfall's upcoming clinics.

For more articles and tips from the pros, check out these and other reining features on · Maintain Your Horse's Turnaround, with Mike Moser. · Straight Rundown to the Perfect Sliding Stop, with Todd Bergen. · Reining: Five Keys to Consistency, with Duane Latimer. · Map Your Reining Win--A five-step visualization strategy with NRHA Futurity champion Dell Hendricks.



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