Vaqueros reining horses nrha aqha cowgirl magazine
Photo by John O’Hara.

Most historians of western equitation attribute the early beginnings of the sport of reining to contests among vaqueros tending cattle in the Spanish missions. These cowboys took great pride in their horse-handling skills – the ability to effortlessly rein their horses with the large but delicately balanced Spanish bits, to sort and manage cattle, to stop on a peso and change direction with ease.

Needless to say, anglos embraced the beauty of the Californio horsemen, incorporating elements of the Spanish riding contests into their own horse show competitions. As with rodeo, wherever cowboys got together, informal and formal competitions challenged their horse-handling abilities.

Historically, parts of the U.S. favored the name stock horse classes; others called them reined horse classes. Most events consisted of figure 8s, rundowns, stops, pivots, and some form of rope work.  

In California, the competitions originally known as the “working  reined cow horse contests” gave birth to the National Reined Cow Horse Association in 1949; in the Midwest, Texas, Oklahoma and the East, the events became known as reining, and were promoted by a variety of horse associations including the American Quarter Horse Association.

In 1965, a pivotal group of top Quarter horse riders and trainers competed at the Ohio State Fair. All who attended were stunned by the level of expertise exhibited, especially by Clayton Woosley, John Stutzman, brothers Tim and Bill Horn, and Dale Wilkinson. As a group, the competitors decided that the format of their event needed to be updated and improved. To do so, they created a new association. In 1966, the National Reining Horse Association held its first futurity at the All-American Quarter Horse Congress in Ohio.

Fast-forward to 2000, when the Federation Equestre Internationale, the international group that oversees equestrian sport worldwide, welcomed reining as its first western discipline.  Then, in 2002, reining debuted at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

In 2010, the U.S.A. hosted the World Equestrian Games for the first time, and reining returned to its “home turf,” with international participation and skyrocketing spectator numbers–a fitting homage to authentic vaqueros everywhere!

(Originally published in the September/October 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).