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Competition Index
First Posted: July 24, 2008
Jan 7, 2011

Reining Horse Competition

Reining Horse Competition

Reining Horse Sliding Stop


Throughout American history, dating back to the earliest Spanish settlers in what today is Mexico and the Southwestern United States, including Texas and California, ranchers needed to manage cattle from horseback. Cattle were moved, branded, doctored, sorted, and herded, often on open range without the benefit of fences, barns or other means of holding the animals. A good cowboy needed a quick and nimble horse, one that could change directions quickly, stop "on a dime," and sprint after an errant cow. The horse needed to be controlled mostly by legs and weight, ridden with only one hand and a light touch on the reins, so that the cowboy's attention could also be on tasks that could include handling a lariat (to rope cattle), opening a gate, or simply waving a hand, hat or rope to move along a reluctant herd animal. Informal demonstrations of these ideal characteristics amongst ranch cowboys and vaqueros evolved into the sport of reining, as well as the related events of cutting and working cow horse as well as several other horse show classes.

Other nations with traditions of herding livestock on vast acreages, such as Australia and Argentina, developed similar traditions that have blended into the sport as it has expanded worldwide.

Reining as a sport was first recognized by the AQHA in 1949. From 1966-2000, it was managed by the National Reining Horse Association. It became an FEI-recognized discipline on April 14, 2000.


The reining pattern includes an average of eight to twelve movements which must be executed by the horse. Patterns require the following movements:

  • Circles: the horse must perform large, fast circles at a near-gallop and smaller, slow circles at a lope. They should be perfectly round, with the rider dictating the pace of the horse. There should be an easily seen change of speed as the rider transitions from the large, fast to the small, slow circles. Most circles incorporate changes of direction that require a flying change of lead.

  • Flying change: the horse changes its leading front and hind legs at the lope mid-stride, during the suspension phase of the gait. The horse should not break gait nor change speed. While completing a change at speed can improve one's score, precision is the most important factor in judging: A horse taking more than one stride to complete the change, or a horse that changes early, late, or that changes only the front feet and not the hind feet will be penalized.

  • Rundown: the horse gallops or "runs" along the long side of the arena, at least 20 feet from the fence or rail. A rundown is a required movement prior to a sliding stop or a rollback.

  • Sliding Stop: the horse goes from a gallop immediately to a complete halt, planting its hind feet in the footing and allowing its hind feet to slide several feet, while continuing to let its front feet "walk" forward. The back should be raised upward and hindquarters come well underneath. A particularly powerful stop may, depending on arena conditions, produce flying dirt and a cloud of dust. The movement should finish in a straight line, and the horse's position should not change. This movement is a crowd favorite, along with spins.

  • Back or Backup: the horse backs up quickly for at least 10 feet. The horse must back in a perfectly straight line, stop when asked and hesitate a moment before the next movement. It is judged on how quick, smooth and straight the line is.

  • Rollback: the horse immediately, without hesitation, performs a 180-degree turn after halting from a sliding stop, and immediately goes forward again into a lope. The horse must turn on its hindquarters, bringing its hocks well under, and the motion should be continuous with no hesitation.

  • Spins or Pivots: beginning from a standstill, the horse spins 360 degrees or more (up to four full turns) in place around its stationary inside hind leg. The the hind pivot foot must remain in essentially the same location throughout the spin, though the horse will pick it up and put it down as it turns. Spins are judged on speed, accuracy and smoothness. A pattern requires at least one set of spins in each direction. Precision is particularly critical: A horse that moves out of position or stops with even one foot a few inches from the center line from which it began will be penalized.

  • Pause or Hesitate: the horse is asked to stand still for a few seconds to "settle" between certain movements in the reining pattern, particularly after spins. Pauses are not judged as a movement per se, but a horse that is ill-mannered or behaves with impatience when asked to wait will be penalized.


The horse begins with a score of 70. Points are added or subtracted by 0.5, 1, and 1.5 point increments for each of 8 to 12 movements. Each part of the pattern is judged on precision, smoothness, and finesse, and increased speed increases the difficulty of most movements and the potential for a high score. A score of 70 is considered an average score for a horse that made no errors but also did not perform with any particularly exceptional ability. A score below 70 reflects penalties for incorrectly performed movements or misbehavior of the horse, a score above 70 reflects that some or all movements were above average. A score over 80 would reflect an exceptional performance. Significant errors, such as an incomplete flying change, may result in a "zero score," which might still allow a horse in a small class to earn a ribbon for last place (awards are given to the top three, five, six or ten competitiors, depending on the type of competition and sanctioning organization). Major mistakes, such as a rider going off-pattern, result in disqualification, which prevents the horse from earning any award, even if it is the only horse in the class.

The Horse

Reining may be preformed by any horse, but the American Quarter Horse is by far the most popular, especially for international competition. The horse must be agile, quick, and very responsive to the rider's aids.

Equipment and Rider Attire

Horses in reining competition are required to perform in a bridle with a curb bit if they are four years old or over. Horses under four years often compete in a snaffle bit or a bosal hackamore, often in futurities, which pay very large purses. Riders must ride in a western saddle. Whips are not allowed, and there are very strict rules about what types of bits and bosals are legal.

For protection, horses usually wear splint boots on the cannons of their lower legs as well as skid boots on their hind fetlocks. Bell boots, which wrap around the pastern and protect the hoof and coronary band, are also usually seen, sometimes only on the front feet, other times on all four feet.

Riders must wear a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots. In most competitions, they also wear chaps as well as gloves, spurs, and a neck scarf. There is less difference between men's and women's attire in reining than in most western events, though women's clothing is often of brighter colors, and they are more apt to add a decorated jacket or vest, though usually not as flashy as in western pleasure or related events.

Reining Competitions


In individual nations where reining competitions are held, national organizations usually oversee the sport. For example, in the United States and Canada, where reining is quite popular, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) is the lead organization, creating patterns and developing judging standards. It sanctions events open to all breeds. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) works with the NRHA to sanction breed competitions open individual horse breeds, such as Morgans or Arabians. Individual breed organizations that sanction their own shows for breeds like Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Paints also work with the NRHA. Reining classes can be held at a stand-alone competition just for reiners, or as one category within many different classes offered at a horse show.


International competitions are regulated by the International Equestrian Federation. Reining is growing in popularity around the world and is one of the world's fastest growing horse sports. Its popularity has spread to Europe and beyond, especially to Australia and Germany, and it is one of the latest additions to the World Equestrian Games, first included at the 2002 Games in Jerez, Spain.


Freestyle reining allows a horse and rider team to incorporate reining movements into a musical routine, similar to the KUR Freestyle competition in Dressage, or even the freestyle events in human competitions like figure skating or gymnastics. Some freestyle reining competitions also allow the riders to ride bareback (without a saddle), or without a bridle, which, when allowed, increases the difficulty of the movements. The rider must include a specified number of maneuvers in a performance within a designated time. Circles, flying lead changes, spins, sliding stops, and rollbacks are all part of a reining freestyle.

Competition Index