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Reining - Riding Styles & Disciplines

The sliding stop of a reining horse and rider in a show class. Reining Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

The discipline of Reining has become an Olympic discipline! The reining horse is world-renown. The popularity of reining has spread across the world, with many breeding establishments, dedicated trainers, and competitive riders to back the industry, and the enthusiastic spectators are always ensured a great time.


The history of the discipline of reining began with the vaquero on the Pacific Slope, and the working cowboy. A good cow hand always needed a horse that could stop and turn on a dime, or sprint forward within a split second! Throughout the history of America’s West, including Mexico, horses with this skill have always been not only prized, but essential. Working on open range land with no pens or buildings, cattle needed to be handled. Always held in high esteem were the horses that that could be steered and would respond to a flip of the fingers on a loose rein - the talented reining horses.

Cooperation between any ranch hand, or cowboy, and the horse he rode were imperative and both rider and horse then and now shared a language and a work ethic. A good horse listens to the rider without anticipating and responds immediately to the rider’s light and subtle aids, mostly the rider’s leg signals. Cowboys had lots to attend to and needed to be able to use their arms for many jobs, like roping or any number of things to deal with handling cattle. The horse must respond immediately, calmly but quickly, yet controlled, which sums up the modern reining horse.

As horsemen have proven through the ages, in countries and societies everywhere, the sport of seeing which horse is the best, fastest, most agile or performs with the greatest style is irresistible. What began as fun among working riders during free moments soon grew into the sport known today. Other modern horse show classes also derive from early cattle working days, like cutting and working cow horse classes.


With the development of the Quarter Horse, all the required skills of the cowboy’s horse were honed to perfection, and the AQHA was the first breed association to recognize the sport of reining. At that time, the sport was dominated by stock horse aspects and a far cry from what it is today. As it evolved, riders from the Midwest and East started to shape it more and more.

California was the cradle of the reined horse. The California vaquero’s horse in his heyday, ridden with a hackamore or spade bit, was admired by, and the envy of, all cowboys from east of the Rockies. It was simply the best-reined horse in the Americas, and the best all-round ranch horse, serving as an idol, a goal in the minds of riders that whetted the appetite.

When the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) had been founded in 1966 in the state of Ohio, however, the last of the old-time California reinsmen had either passed on or were inactive old-timers. They had never shown any tendency to organize, anyway, and they took their training secrets passed on only by word of mouth from father to son in true Spanish tradition - with them into the grave. The skill to train a good reined horse had all but disappeared. The level at most shows was rather low.

A group of talented and dedicated riders and horse owners began to build up the reining class as an event, once they had founded the NRHA, and put on their first futurity in Ohio, which had been inspired by the then already well-established cutting (NCHA) futurity. The sport as we know it today was started by those early reiners in and around Ohio and farther east. They focused on finesse, clearly-defined rules to level the playing field, and standardized performance patterns that allowed the riders to show off their horses to their best abilities, and they focused on what was by then already the trademark of the reiner: the sliding stop and the spin. They developed reining as a spectator’s event, putting emphasis on speed and precision. The northeastern USA became the center of the sport, with Ohio as its headquarters.

Those eastern reiners had no ranching background, and developed the class maneuvers irrespective of cow work. While in cow work a stop needs to be short to be effective, the sliding stop was developed, which is great to watch but complete nonsense in practical cow work. Instead of the set and turn in cow work, the spin was developed four 360-degree turns in succession instead of a 180-degree turn.

Special care was taken to show reining on specially prepared surfaces that allowed horses to slide far. The sliding plate (shoe) evolved, which enhances sliding on the hind feet. Patterns became increasingly sophisticated, rules for showing/judging were constantly improved.

When NRHA moved their annual futurity from Ohio to Oklahoma City in 1986, they stopped being an easterner’s association, and opened up the sport to reiners nationwide. Shortly afterwards they also moved their headquarters there. It was after that move that riders from out west started to come to the Futurity, and the two worlds Eastern and Western fused to create an even better, even more spectacular reining horse.

While the eastern reining horses often worked in a natural way, with their heads high and their noses stuck out, and skating on their hind shoes without using their backs, the West Coast riders introduced a more collected horse that worked up in the bridle and stopped deeper, staying round and using his back.


The association and the sport grew by leaps and bounds, and in the year 2000 became an FEI-recognized discipline and the first and only western riding discipline, with designs on becoming an Olympic event.

Being able to be described as a form of western dressage, reining is often compared to (English) dressage, but the demands of the two events differ greatly. Conventional (English) dressage definitely requires very sophisticated maneuvers, but riders are allowed to ride with two hands, and maneuvers are slow. Finished reiners must be shown with only one hand holding the reins, the reins held between fingers, and with only one finger between the reins. Plus, the reins are expected to be loose. The reiner’s patterns also include high-speed circles and run-downs, and any conventional dressage horse would completely fall apart and come undone after but one such fast circle, or even a run-down.

Reining horses, , are expected to stay controlled on a loose rein throughout the whole pattern, and get into low gear after a large, fast circle, on a loose rein and on the dot, performing a small, slow one, and with no visible aid from the rider. Rules are also more strict for reiners, and some faults that still allow the contestant in conventional dressage to go on and even do well would automatically result in a 0-Score.


The overriding demand is, willingly guided . As soon as a horse shows any kind of resistance, it will be penalized. Reining is about speed and speed control, about style, and accuracy. Precise completion of predetermined patterns are the name of the game and are essential.

All patterns include two large, fast circles and one small, slow circle in both directions, a flying lead change in both directions, spins in both directions, stops and rollbacks, and a stop and back-up; they vary in the order these maneuvers are prescribed. Patterns are ridden from memory, and any deviation from the pattern automatically results in a 0-score. So-called hesitates are prescribed in all patterns after maneuvers, to show the ability and willingness of the reining horse to stand calmly.

All circles must have a common point where they touch in the center of the arena, Spins are 360-degree turnarounds on the hind feet, with the horse’s rear end staying in one spot. Rollbacks are 180-degree turns after a stop, which the horse leaves at a lope. Flying lead changes must take place in the center of the arena. All stops must be executed past the prescribed marker. Sliding stops are the reiner’s trademark and are stops from a full gallop on the hind legs, while the front legs stay loose and keep moving until the reining horse comes to a standstill. Speed control must be demonstrated while coming down from a fast circle into a small, slow one.


The judging system the NRHA has developed is highly respected in the entire world of equestrian sports. Other disciplines adopted it, tailoring it to their needs. Riders enter the arena with a score of 70, then plus points are added for better-than-average reining performances, minus points are deducted for below-average performances, and penalty points are deducted where incurred. All maneuvers are scored on a scale from minus 1.5 to plus 1.5, with 0 denoting a correct, average maneuver.

Penalties are charged independently of maneuver quality for instance, a horse’s spins may be scored a plus 1, because they were very good, but if this horse overspun for a penalty of half a point, that half point is noted in a separate (penalty) box, and in the final tally the net worth of that maneuver will then end up to be plus half.

Over-spinning or under-spinning of more than 90 degrees results in a 0-score. Trotting steps anywhere during the pattern are penalized. Performing the maneuvers in a different order than prescribed in the pattern results in a 0-score.

Reining horses are judged on correctness first; then style - and speed, where required - adds points. Speed can raise the score, because of the higher degree of difficulty, but not if precision is sacrificed.

Freestyle combines the movements with a musical routine and often costumes. Sometime, freestyle reiners perform even without a bridle, which really increases the difficulty! The required basic maneuvers must always be performed, though

Reining horse associations are found all over the world nowadays, with Europe being the largest center outside North America.

Galloping the fast circle of a reining pattern. A reniner spinning. Crossing the outside foreleg over the inside, while in a spin. Sliding stop.
Photos from left to right. 1) Large, fast circles are part of every reining pattern, and are performed, as everything else, with slack reins at top speed.  2) Next to the sliding stop, the spin is another trademark maneuver of the reining horse - four fast, continuous 360-degree turns on the haunches. 3) Performing the spin, the horse is required to step rhythmically with his front legs around the rear end, always crossing with the outside front leg over the inside front leg. 4) A beautifully balanced sliding stop on a loose rein, with the horse sitting deep on his haunches.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.

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