Friday, December 12, 2008

Reining: What is it? How is it scored?

I have been asked by a few people now, "What is reining and how is scored?" I thought I would attempt to provide you with as short of a summery as I can manage...though I doubt there will be anything short about today's post (well, besides me...and I am 5'5" so not short at all!) Please let me know if there is anything that you think I presented incorrectly or if any clarification is needed.

The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) describes reining as, "A judged event designed to show the athletic ability of a ranch horse within the confines of an arena....Each pattern includes small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, roll backs, 360 degree spins done in place and exciting sliding stops that are the hallmark of a reining horse."

The key principle of reining is defined in the NRHA handbook and should always be at the forefront of a reiner's mind....

"To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control his every movement.

The best reined horse should be willing guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely.

Any movement of his own must be considered a lack of control. All deviations from the exact written pattern must be considered a lack of or temporary loss of control and therefor a fault that must be marked down according to severity of deviation."

I have posted a video (Thank you Stephanie!) that I think is a great example of what a reining run should look like. Everything is very smooth, very controlled, and very fast. At no time do you see this horse look frazzled, nor does he appear to make a single move without first waiting for the guidance of his rider.

Lets break down that ride.

See how relaxed and confident Tinsel Jac looks as he walks into the arena? Notice how calm and still he is before, between and at the end of each maneuver? (maneuvers are when he spins, or stops, runs a circle, does a lead changed etc.. but also includes the transition from one to the other.) If he were to dance around or move his feet too much, it would lead to severe penalties or even a score of 0. He doesn't appear stressed or frazzled. He looks like he is looking to his rider for the next cue. Watch how smoothly Adrea picks up on him, how supple the cue is. That is what you want to see!

He starts with a turn around, (360 degree spins on the hindquarter that require a horse to pivot on his inside hind foot. The hindquarter should remain relatively stationary, while the front end travels smoothly around, with the horse crossing one leg over the other a speed that is consistent or increasing but never varying from slow to fast.) After 3-4 revolutions, the horse must stop facing exactly the correct direction. If he is off by even a quarter of a rotation, that will be deducted from his score.

Same thing...opposite direction.

Next is his departure. The horse must pick up the right lead without trotting, within a specificed number of steps and it should look fluid, not chargy or lazy.

Large fast circle. Notice how he builds in speed? How controlled Tinsel Jac looks? His head set is steady and even but the reins seem to barely touch him. He looks balanced and in frame. His circles are round and even.

Watch the transition from the large fast circle to the small slow. See how he slows at the centre of the arena? How little of a cue it took his rider to get him to come down? See how relaxed his lope is?

A flying lead change in the centre of the arena and then off he goes into the large fast in the opposite direction.

Another transition from fast gallop to slow lope. It is pretty and there nothing harried about it.

Flying lead change. Smooth and at centre.

Now off to set up for his run now.

A reining horse's "trademark" stops are exciting to watch as he gallops at an increasing speed down the length of the arena before bringing both hind feet underneath himself, dropping his hindquarter and allowing his hind feet to act like a set of skis, allowing him to slide along the ground. His front feet paddle forward and he comes to a complete stop before straightening himself.

Immediately after he stops, he rocks his body back on his hocks, picks up his front end, turns back the way he just came and lopes off on the same tracks he came in on for a perfectly executed rollback.

Runs down for the next stop.

His body damn near breaks in half in that stop. The reins haven't touched his face.

His spins on his hocks and lopes off on the same tracks he came in on.

On the last stop, he backs up over 10 steps, his back is round and he hustles.

Man pats horse. Good job.

Score 227.5 (combined scores of 3 judges breaks down for an average score of 75.5)

Looks easy? Well its not!


Each maneuver has a specific criteria for what is considered correct and what constitutes a deviation from the written pattern (the set sequence of events that you must ride the horse through). Any deviation from the exact written pattern results in a penalty or a 0 score.

Each maneuver has been broken down in the NRHA Handbook and has a technically good or technically bad definition of how it should be run. For example:

"the lead change must be exexuted at a lope with no change of gate or speed... the change of front and rear leads must take place within the same stride..."

A large fast circle is done at a gallop and should maintain or build in speed but never slow. A small slow circle should be a slow, consistent and collected lope. The transition between the two should be marked and in the centre of the arena.

If the rider has to visibly correct your horse at any time, that will take away the overall picture and effect the score of the "run". It should appear that the rider is guiding his horse through each stage, with as little contact as necessary. It should look like the horse is reading his mind.

Scoring works like this:

When a rider walks his horse into the arena, he automatically has a score of 70.

Everything he does after that, from the second his horse takes the first step of his pattern all the way to his last, is judged as either a plus 1/2 to 1.5 (Good), simply correct, (no points plused or minused) or minus 1/2 to 1.5 (bad).

That looks like this:

-1.5 Extremely Poor
-1 Very Poor
-1/2 Poor
0 Correct
+1/2 Good
+1 Very Good
+1.5 Extremely Good

So lets say a rider were to do a 360 degree turn to the right exceptionally well, that would be plus +1.5. Once he had completed that maneuver, the judge would tell his scribe (an assistance that writes down how he judges each maneuver) what he had scored. He would also make note of any penalties, incurred such as over or under spinning (stopping short of or over the exact spot that he were suppose to end his spin.) Let say that rider missed his stop by a quarter turn. That would incur a 1/2 point penalty.

Now, lets say, that after doing that turn to the right, he did on to the left but his horse bobbled or tripped and didn't make a smooth turn so the judge afforded him a score of "very poor" (-1). And so it would go, as the horse worked through his pattern. Lets say that he did nothing wrong and nothing particularly well for the rest of his pattern. Doing something "correct" gets you neither a plus or minus score. So...

At the end of the run the score would be tallied.

He started with 70

+1.5 for the right turn around = 71.5
-1 for the left turn around = 70.5
-.5 penality for over spinning = a score of 70 for that ride.

One thing to keep in mind is that the judge looks at each maneuver as a whole. Meaning that, it is not just the grand looking sliding stop that is judged as good or bad. We must break down the individual parts of a stop to come to a final score for that single maneuver.

The judge would break down the maneuver and judge each part as a whole.


How did the horse run down to his stop, was it a consistent escalation in speed?
How fast was he running before being asked to stop?
How did the horse break down in his body at the start of the stop?
To what degree did the rider have to cue his horse to get him to stop (picking up on the reins)?
How did the horse responds to this cue (maybe tossing his head a little or pulling his head forward off the bit)?
How did the horse actually execute the stop (sitting down on his hocks, paddling with his front)?
How hid he complete the stop (waiting till he is completely stopped before straightening out to stand back on his hind legs)?
Did he rollback over his hocks and lope off on the same tracks he came in on?

And a dozen more supple things that the judge watched for that helped him decide the degree of difficulty of the maneuver (speed makes things more difficult and gets judged higher so long as it remains correct.) and how well it was done. He pluses and minus's each question in his head until he arrives at one final score for that single stop.


All in all, I love the funamentals of reining but not what the sport demands of its horses. Reining is the dressage of western riding and to me, there is no greater joy than riding a finished bridle horse. It feels like magic. He reads youre every motion and you truly feel at one with the horse. I focused on reining because I wanted to learn to ride, technically speaking. I wanted to learn the art of equitation with a horse that I respected for its ability to put that knowledge to work. Reining, at is heart, is a decipiline that requires the softenst touch and the most supple cues. I am just not sold on what it takes to get a horse finished in a timely fashion....


  1. I must say that was a very informative read! And the video was a prime example. I am new to reining, and by no means have a reining horse, but I work with them dailey. And observe my coach. Thank you for 'breaking it down'. A well run reining pattern is always a lovely sight to see. And the response between horse and rider is something I continuously marvel at.

  2. Great explanation of reining, Chelsi!!! The video link really helps to show just how tense and upset little mare in the post below is.

    The rider in this video is much softer and gentler also. Subtle cues make a horse look much more responsive than demanding ones.

    Dressage and reining are very similar, in that the popular road to a finished horse may be short and unkind vs. long and lasting (relationships and training techniques that is!).

    PS-I awarded you with the Superior Scribbler Award! You definitely deserve it! :) Come pick it up when you have a minute.

  3. I didn't read the breakdown the 1st time I watched this video. It brought a lump to my throte. There was just something that even i could see. Then I read your breakdown and watched it again. Then I watched the video from yesterday!
    What a big hugh differance in style! Now I feel bad for the horse from yesterday!

  4. Like night and day!!

    I have really tried to understand and work on my reining skills because a good barrel horse should be able to do all of the same maneuvers a reining horse does, except of course the sliding stop. They must still know how to stop correctly and square, but we do not want the hindquarters to completely die.

    A lady my mom used to barrel race with was adamant about showing her barrel prospects in reining classes until they could place before starting to haul them as barrel horses. That was in the 60's, but the basic principle is still a sound one(IMO).

  5. Thanks for the education. I'm glad there wasn't a short quiz at the end, cuz I would have flunked miserably.

  6. Great post! :)

    One thing a lot of rookies (and not-so-rookies) forget is that the first thing a judge looks for is whether or not the maneuver is correct. That's the first criteria that must be met. They spend a lot of time trying to look good when they just need to look right!


  7. Thanks for the most excellent post!
    I love reining very much, even if I don't have a reining horse.
    It is true that the reining horse is similar to the dressage horse in that they have been through "high school" and are very well educated equines.