Focus on Discipline: Reining

Ridin' and slidin' -- the reining horse runs a precise pattern at speed. This equine athlete excels at galloping full out, screeching to a sliding stop, and whirling in a high-speed pirouette. He responds to his rider instantly, at the touch of rein or leg. The sport demonstrates the skills of a ranch horse, with contests that have been dubbed "Western dressage" sponsored by the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA). In the show pen, the reining horse performs a series of maneuvers as specified in one of nine patterns. Horses also compete in breed-specific contests, following patterns similar to those developed by NRHA. Competitions of the NRHA are capped by the prestigious Futurity. Every December in Oklahoma City, hundreds of three-year-olds compete for the top prize of more than $100,000.


To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control him.

Reining is possibly the most demanding discipline. Champion reiners perform brilliantly at speed on a loose rein. The horse is under complete control, responding to minimal cues from the rider. These athletes perform in the rundown, galloping on a straight line, then halt in a rollback or the spectacular sliding stop. Patterns also require backing up fast and straight. Horses lope small, slow circles and gallop large, fast circles, with flying lead changes at the centers of figure eights. In the circles, they "shut off" in transitions from fast to slow, or move out from lope to gallop. In the spin, also called the turnaround, riders seek a horse that will "spin a hole in the ground." The horse plants a hind foot and sweeps the forehand in a series of circles. The best performers crouch to pivot flat.

The maneuvers demand a balanced horse which propels himself from the hindquarters. He changes leads without moving his topline, and he collects and extends through the pattern. He bursts into a full gallop for the rundown, and then, to slide, bends in the loin and back. As he slides, his tail drags on the ground behind his braced hind feet. Judges look for consistent runs that approach the ideal.

NRHA rules begin with, "To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control his every movement." Judges score each maneuver according to this vision, with an average score of 70 points. Any score over 70 indicates that the horse "plussed" (excelled the correct performance by at least one-half point) at least one maneuver. NRHA judges will disqualify an unsound, unfit horse, including the horse which is lame or shows signs of fresh injury. An equipment judge inspects entries for illegal equipment. Riders must drop horses' bits for inspection.

Built To Rein

Winning reining horses display correct stock horse conformation. R. Dean Scoggins, DVM, of Villa Grove, Ill., has been involved in the sport for the past 25 years. He said, "Anything that allows the horse to perform strenuously, that makes it easier for him, also makes him easier to train. If a movement hurts him, he won't want to do it. If the horse is structured so it's easiest as possible for him to do it, he'll last longer."

The balanced horse, built with withers higher than croup, can stop with hindquarters collapsed and shoulders elevated. He needs a strong back and loin to stop correctly. Joe Stricklin, DVM, treats reining horses in his Abilene, Texas, practice. He compared the conformation of a reining horse to that of a cutter, because the reiner also must move quickly from the hindquarters: "You need a well-balanced horse, from front to back. You have to have a horse that has lots of hindquarter muscle mass. Look for a sloping hip."

To handle the rigorous demands of the training and conditioning, a reining horse should be free of serious leg deviations. A horse with less-than-correct knee conformation won't withstand the sprinting and turning. Timothy Bartlett, DVM, of Vincennes, Ind., has been actively involved in the sport as a president of NRHA and an NRHA judge. He looks for "angles of the foot and shoulder, hock and rear feet to all correspond. The rear angle can be a couple of degrees less, so the horse isn't below the low 50s behind, and 55 (degrees) in front."

The exceptionally correct horse has an edge in reining, not only as a youngster, but through subsequent seasons of hauling. Scoggins noted, "You don't want to see too much deviation from what you think of as correct conformation, so he's able to sustain the demands over a long period of time."

The reining horse needs a free-moving front end, so he can elevate legs, shoulders, neck, and head when he sits down to slide. A sloping shoulder helps the horse carry itself and the rider's weight through the maneuvers. A substantial forehand aids the horse. Stricklin advised, "You don't want a horse that's really light-muscled in the front end, or he can't push in the spin."

A long neck helps the horse move in balance. Bartlett said, "I prefer a long, thin neck that comes out straight. A horse that carries his head naturally very high will not be competitive as a reining horse."

Long pasterns and weak fetlocks can limit the horse's ability to turn hard or slide. Trainers gallop prospects for months in early training, and horses take a lot of pounding. "If his front leg conformation is such that it leads him to a bowed tendon or chips in knee and ankle, he won't hold up," said Bartlett. "A lot of reining horses eliminate themselves early on, even if they have the ability and the try, because they can't hold up."

The reining horse needs a strong back and loin, with a low tail set. The hindquarters help him to get deep in the ground when he stops and pivots. Bartlett noted that he likes to see a horse which stands wide in the stifles. "The stifles need to be strong, and you can't have a lot of laxity in the stifles. In deep ground, the horse needs that extra strength to be able to stop."

In the stop, the horse's hind cannons form a minimal angle to the ground. This position stresses the hocks, which Bartlett considers the most important area in the legs. He described the hocks he prefers: "I like a slight set, not too tall, not too low. I avoid the sickle-hocked or cow-hocked horse, or one with an extremely high or angled hock." He did add that the less-than-perfect horse can compensate for a weakness by strength in another area. A strong hip and stifle might balance hocks that appear weak.

Scoggins added, "Reiners need big joints, and joints that are aligned. The horse should be correct with substance under him. Little hocks won't hold up."

Most reiners are small in size. They need to be quick on their feet, and horses of more height tend to be slower. "You don't want a reining horse that's of a tall or lanky build," said Stricklin. "That conformation leads to more problems in soundness."

In motion, the top reiners make the maneuvers look easy. They gallop with a free, easy movement, light over the ground in effortless turns and stops. The rollback is one of the most demanding actions, where the horse pivots in a half-turn and leaps back into the gallop. The top horses flow into this turn in one smooth motion.

Scoggins advised, "Look for a horse that is fluid in front and moves well. In the turnaround and stop, judges want the extreme, fancy stop, so the horse has to be loose in front. He can't be tight, bound-up, or heavily muscled in front." Not all top reiners are picture-perfect Quarter Horse types. From his experience with Arabians in this sport, Scoggins noted, "Some light-muscled horses can be outstanding reining horses. It's agility, not strength and bulk."

On The Pattern

The pattern demands a strong horse, able to pack the weight of rider and stock saddle. The rider helps the horse by staying in the middle, over the horse's center of gravity. Through training, the young horse develops muscle through the loin, croup, and inside of the hind leg. Stricklin said, "These horses have to be fit. They do take a lot of riding to keep the muscles in shape. Myositis is quite common. You have large muscle masses in the stocky Quarter Horse types." He added that working these horses hard after days of rest results in this muscle inflammation.

The reining horse has to be fit enough to work aerobically and withstand fatigue. Certain patterns can demand more of the horse's fitness, so he "runs out of air" after fast work early in the pattern. Also, anxious riders tend to over-exert their mounts in the warmup pen.

Bartlett explained, "What makes reining a fascinating sport and a hard sport to condition for is that the horse has to go fast, and he has to go slow. He needs the anaerobic and the aerobic training, and the mental attitude to do both in a short time frame. Plus, he needs the strength to do the maneuvers. You can get him too fit, with too much energy, which makes him almost impossible to train."

Stricklin noted the effect of the intense pressure placed on reining horses. "If the horse isn't in shape, he has no air to do the job correctly. When he's winded, his head comes up and he can't stop as well. He won't mark as well in the stop, and when he's fatigued, he's more likely to get hurt." He advises riders to build up stamina in reining horses through riding on the trail.

To accept the training and competition, the reining horse must be honest and sane. He obeys every signal, moving at the indicated speed and direction. He relaxes after a maneuver, waiting for the next cue. Bartlett cited the horse's willingness as crucial. "The mental attitude--the try--is the overriding factor that will be the most important if others are adequate." He added that a calm horse's attitude could compensate for some physical weaknesses. This horse might not require as much galloping in training, so he might be able to hold up despite his conformation. The too-lazy horse won't succeed in reining, as he'll resist the fast work.

The horse has to stay fresh on the patterns, willing to turn on the spot and never anticipating the stop. Riders like the bold horse with "sting," or the temperament to thrive while campaigning. Scoggins said, "The horse has to have an exceptional mind to stand the discipline and tolerate the level of control that you have to place on a reining horse. He has to be very willing and very forgiving to tolerate that amount of control."


The reining horse must be physically tough. Trainers gallop horses a great deal in training, in circles, figure eights, and rundowns. Preparation for a futurity begins early in the two-year-old year. The horse which is bench-kneed or back at the knee won't hold up to the stresses of reining. Bartlett noted, "Horses that toe out badly in front will have problems turning around. We see concussion-type injuries on the fetlock and knee."

The forehand absorbs the strain if the horse doesn't get into the ground to stop. Circles also can lead to problems in the front end in a horse which doesn't have correct conformation. Stricklin said, "The horse that's back at the knee has problems with the pressure of the short bursts of fast galloping. We see knee chips on those horses." He added that front tendons can show soreness, especially in the horse which carries too much weight on the forehand.

Certain maneuvers can increase stress on the horse's hindquarters. Stricklin named the rollback and stops as affecting hocks, hips, and pelvis, explaining, "The type of ground the horse works in adds to that pressure. In really deep ground, which tends to be sticky, it's hard for the horse to come up out of the ground. When he stops, he puts weight on the back end. Then when he rolls back, there's a lot of torque in the turns."

Scoggins compared the reining horse to a weight lifter, noting that the two athletes have the same types of injury. "A horse that wants to collapse and stop hard puts so much effort into it. It's like a weight lifter doing a powerlift, packing 200 to 300 pounds of rider and saddle, going 30 miles per hour and shutting it all down, and holding it. The hock and fetlock joints are probably the most frequently afflicted areas. Problems in the stifle and hip area can wash the horse out, because of the demands of the sport."

With the hock as the primary problem area, bone spavin is common. Some horses develop bog spavins. Such conditions in the hock can lead to back problems, with the horse protecting himself in the stop. Bartlett sees hind end lamenesses associated with stopping and spinning. He described what he calls the "wheel effect," explaining how a leg problem "rotates" up to affect the back.

"The wheel can start anywhere, in the hocks or front feet. The horse that is sore behind also tends to be sore in the front feet, if he continues to be used."

Stricklin named the sacroiliac subluxation (partial dislocation where the pelvis connects with the spine) as one of the most missed problems in reining horses. He said, "Hocks are blamed for this injury. The horse will travel similar to a hock lameness. It's hard to diagnose, because you need to rule out the hocks before you can see it's a subluxation. The horse could be diagnosed initially with a hock problem, but not respond to treatment."

When a horse has this injury, he shifts his weight from the hindquarters to work more off the front end. Riders complain of riding "downhill." Due to pain through the back and rump, the horse moves stiffly.

Stricklin said, "We do see some patellar ligament problems. The kneecap can lock on the ridge of the femur. We also see where the medial patellar ligament is inflamed."

Foot Care

Reiners should be shod at a natural angle, to allow for the horse's action at the lope and gallop. Trainers use sliding plates on the rear feet, to help the horse glide over the ground in the sliding stop and to turn in the spins. Scoggins advised to avoid long toes or extreme angles on the hind feet. "I start with the slider from the first shoeing, so the horse learns to handle the shoe. Some horses are afraid they will slip. We turn them out and let them learn to handle them. Many horses are scared when they first start to slide, and they need to learn to handle the type of footing." He noted that sliding plates are easily pulled off the foot.

The shoes' greater width--from 1 inch to 1 1/4 inches--contributes to this problem. Bartlett said, "The more natural you stay with the sliding plates, the longer the horse will keep stopping, and the easier it is for him to turn around. If the sliders are too long, you increase torque in the hock and it's harder for the horse to turn."

To help the reining horse cope with the sport's demands, Stricklin advised riders to do leg stretches on the horse before schooling or competing. "Passively pull the front leg back and forward, to stretch him out. People never think about stretching their horses, but a lot will warm up on a slow lope in a circle. The lope doesn't stretch the horse--you should do an extended trot to loosen the horse up."

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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