Reining 101

Reining 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about the sport of reining, and then some.

Duane Latimer competes in reining at the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky (Credit: AQHA)

text size

Reining has been called the dressage of the western world, and it's a sport where the American Quarter Horse breed dominates. As in dressage, a rider pilots a collected horse through a prescribed reining pattern while being judged on smoothness, control, attitude and finesse.

However, all similarities stop there. Where dressage is slow and measured, reining is a fast-paced thrill ride full of hard-driving runs, explosive stops and dizzying spins.

What is Reining?  

Reining evolved from the everyday ranch horse, which was quick on his feet and could be directed by a light rein. Proud of their hard-working mounts, cowhands would get together and challenge one another to see whose cow horse could stop harder, slide farther and turn faster. Thus, the reining competition began.

Today, reining is a judged event designed to show these same athletic abilities in a horse, but within the confines of a show arena.

Each horse and rider perform an individual, pre-assigned pattern from memory. There are 15 reining patterns in AQHA events.

Each pattern includes 360-degree spins; flying lead changes; small slow circles; large fast circles; rollbacks; and sliding stops. The rider and horse must complete these maneuvers smoothly and accurately while maintaining controlled speed.

Keeping Score

The best ride is one that appears effortless while combining technical difficulty and stylistic elements.

A judge scores every part of the pattern from the time the horse enters the ring until the last maneuver.

Each rider enters the ring with a score of 70, which denotes an average performance. The judge then adds or subtracts points during the performance. With seven to eight maneuvers in each pattern, each maneuver gets a score ranging from minus 1 1/2 (extremely poor quality) to plus 1 1/2  (excellent quality). Points are given for level of difficulty and finesse, while points are taken away for loss of control of the horse or deviations from the pattern. If no points are given or taken away, that denotes a maneuver that is correct with no degree of difficulty.

Why Didn’t That Really Fast Horse Win?

At reining shows, it’s not unusual for the crowd to get excited and whoop and holler for explosive stops and super-fast spins. Although these horses sometimes win, other times you might be scratching your head as to why they didn’t score well.

Remember, the judge is scoring the entire run. Even if a horse has beautiful, long sliding stops, he’ll lose points if he races out of control in his large circles.

It’s Not Easy, but It’s Fun

As with dressage, reining is a challenge. It takes many hours of practice and plenty of skill to even get a score of 70. But the best thing is that it is a wonderful discipline for both the horse and rider, and it will make them more versatile and better performers as they move into other events.

Going Global

In 2000, reining was approved by the Federation Equestre Internationale, and in 2002, the sport took the international stage as part of the World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Reining has been a part of the World Equestrian Games from then on, and most recently had an appearance at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. 

Recently, reining has been featured much in the Paramount Network shows "Yellowstone" and "The Last Cowboy." AQHA member Taylor Sheridan is the director, writer and producer of "Yellowstone," starring Kevin Costner, which follows a family’s fight to save their Montana ranch. In 2019, Taylor created and produced “The Last Cowboy,” a Paramount television reality series that followed professional reining trainers and their horses as they prepared for and competed at the The Run for a Million. Taylor hosted the event in September 2019 in Las Vegas, where 10 riders vied for their share of $1 million. “The Last Cowboy” and The Run for a Million will return in 2020, and “Yellowstone” is set for a third season.