Reining is a western riding competition for horses where the riders guide the horses through a precise pattern of circles, spins, and stops. All work is done at the lope (a slow, relaxed version of the horse gait more commonly known worldwide as the canter), or the gallop (the fastest of the horse gaits). Originating from working cattle, reining is often described as a Western form of dressage riding, as it requires the horse to be responsive and in tune with its rider, whose aids should not be easily seen, and judges the horse on its ability to perform a set pattern of movements. The horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely. A horse that pins his ears, conveying a threat to his rider, refuses to go forward, runs sideways, bounces his rear, wrings his tail in irritation or displays an overall poor attitude is not being guided willingly, and is judged accordingly.
Throughout the history of the Americas, 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.
The reining pattern includes an average of eight to twelve movements which must be executed by the horse. Patterns require the following movements:
Scoring is on the basis of zero (0) to infinity, and 70 is an average score for a horse that made no errors but also did not perform maneuvers with a higher level of difficulty. Points for each maneuver are added or subtracted by 1/2, 1, and 1-1/2 point increments for each of the 7 to 8 maneuvers in the designated pattern as follows:
Each part of the pattern is judged on precision, smoothness, and finesse. The "degree of difficulty" for each maneuver, typically related to speed and agility, is also assessed. Increased speed increases the difficulty of most movements and the potential for a high score. For example, a perfectly executed fast spin will score higher than an equally perfectly executed slow one. A score below 70 reflects deductions for poorly performed movements or penalties, a score above 70 reflects that some or all movements were above average.
In addition to the scores for each maneuver, a large variety of penalties may be assessed for specific infractions. Penalties may range from a half-point (1/2) to five (5) points for each infraction, and in some cases a significant error may result in a zero score (0) for the run. Certain misbehaviors may incur penalty points beyond a poor score for a given maneuver. Significant errors, such as going off pattern or using illegal equipment, will result in a "zero score". Under NRHA rules, horses with a zero score cannot earn a placing or advance in a multi-go event, though they may be eligible for a payout if there is a small number of horses in the entire competition. Some sanctioning organizations other than NRHA may allow a horse in a small class to earn an award for last place. Major mistakes, such as failure to present the horse for an equipment check, a rider with illegal equipment or one who abuses the animal in specified ways, result in a "no score," which prevents the horse from earning any award or payout, even if it is the only horse in the class.
Reining may be performed by any horse, but the Stock horse breeds, particularly the American Quarter Horse, dominate the field. The reining horse must be agile, quick, and very responsive to the rider's commands. Powerful hindquarters are required to hold position in a sliding stop or a rollback, excellent coordination is required for proper spins and flying lead changes. Correct leg conformation is essential, as the limbs and joints are often under considerable stress in competition. The horse must also have an excellent temperament to perform with both speed and precision.
Riders must use a western saddle. Spurs are allowed, but whips are not. Bridles are western-styled, without a noseband or cavesson. The bosal style hackamore is also allowed on "junior" horses. 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 front 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. Polo wraps are also another form of protection that is used, this helps give support to the tendons and ligaments, and prevents bruising and irritation. These can be used on all four legs but if wrapped improperly can cause damage.
Reining horses are usually fitted with special horseshoes on the hind feet called slide plates. Slide plates have wider bar steel and are smoother than regular horseshoes, with even the nail heads filed to be flush with the shoe. When the horse plants its hind feet for a sliding stop, the shoes allow the hind legs to slide along the ground with less resistance. Slide plates often have long trailers to help the horse's hind legs slide in a straight path as well as a rolled toe so that the front of the hoof does not accidentally catch the ground.
Riders must wear a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. In most competitions, they also wear chaps. Gloves are optional. There has historically been less difference between men's and women's attire in reining than in most western events, though women's clothing is more influenced by fashion trends from Western pleasure competition, and thus women sometimes wear brighter colors, and are more apt to add a decorated jacket or vest, though usually not as flashy as in other horse show events. Wearing a certified equestrian helmet is permitted by some organizations, though not commonly used.
Riders may use both hands when a horse is ridden with a snaffle bit or a bosal hackamore. However, snaffles and hackamores ridden with both hands are usually limited only to special classes for horses between the ages of three and five years old. Most of the time, with the exception of "freestyle" classes, snaffle bit and hackamore horses do not compete directly against curb bit horses, though specific details vary depending on the particular sanctioning organization. In the last thirty years, the snaffle bit is the more common headgear used on younger horses, but in the past, the hackamore was more common. Some local or regional competitions offer a non-sanctioned "novice horse" division where horses of any age who have limited experience as reining horses can be ridden two-handed in a snaffle.
Sometimes reining classes at breed shows are split into "junior horse" and "senior horse" divisions. Depending on the breed, Junior horses are either 3, 4 or 5 years old, and allowed to show in a snaffle or bosal. Senior horses who age out of the junior horse divisions at age six must be shown in a curb. The rules have changed over the years to reduce the stress on young horses. Junior horse divisions at one time were limited to horses that were only 3 and, sometimes, 4 years old. Expansion to age five parallels the standards set by the FEI and in endurance competitions, recognizing that the physical and mental development of most young horses is not considered complete until that time. Further, though many western stock horse breeds are started under saddle at the age of two, they generally are not physically or mentally ready to be entered into any type of reining competition at that age and in some cases are prohibited from entering any performance class until at least 2-1/2 years old. Both the NRHA and many breed associations offer snaffle bit futurities, usually for three-year-old horses, which pay very large purses.
Reining as a sport was first recognized by the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) in 1949, and later by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) in its western division and within a number of its breed divisions. The National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) was formed in 1966 in the United States, and developed a worldwide membership as well as standardized rules and patterns that significantly influenced other organizations, including the AQHA and USEF. The sport of reining became an FEI-recognized discipline in 2000, and FEI-sanctioned reining competitions are held across the world, including at the World Equestrian Games. In 2011, USA Reining was established to serve as the reining sport affiliate for the USEF and FEI competition structure in the United States.
Individual divisions at a reining competition vary with the sanctioning organization. However, standard classes include those limited to junior or senior horses, to horses of a specific age (such as three-year-olds), classes for professional, "non-pro," or amateur riders (those who do not work with horses for pay), youth riders of various ages, adult riders over age 40 or 50, as well as open events for all competitors. Classes may also be limited by the experience level of the horse or the rider.
In individual nations where reining competitions are held, national organizations usually oversee the sport. 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. For example, in the United States, the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) creates patterns and develops judging standards, sanctioning events open to all breeds. However, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and its reining discipline affiliate, USA Reining, are the national organizations overseeing FEI and high performance competition in the USA, but also work with the NRHA in non-FEI open reining competition sanctioned by the USEF, and in individual horse breed show reining competition governed by the USEF, such as Morgans or Arabians. Breed organizations that sanction their own shows, including those for Quarter Horses (AQHA), Appaloosas (ApHC), and American Paint Horses (APHA) also cooperate with the NRHA.
International competitions are regulated by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). Reining is growing in popularity around the world, including Europe and Australia. It was added as a part of the World Equestrian Games, beginning in 2002.
Freestyle reining allows a horse and rider team to incorporate reining movements into a three and one-half minute musical routine, akin to the KUR Freestyle competition in Dressage, but with elements that resemble the freestyle events in human competitions such as figure skating. Under NRHA rules, costumes are allowed, though not required; riders may ride with one, two or even no hands on any type of NRHA approved bit; props, within certain limits, are allowed; and the show management may allow special arena lighting. Freestyle reining competitions have no specific rules as to saddle, though humane equipment is required. Allowing "no hands" means that some competitors may perform without a bridle, which increases the difficulty of the movements. The rider must include a specified number of spins, stops and flying lead changes in a performance. Rollbacks, rein backs and dressage type maneuvers such as the half-pass may be added and scored. Competitors are judged on technical merit and artistic impression. At some competitions, an applause meter is added and may contribute to the artistic impression portion of the score.