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Reining Champions

Gorgeous equine athletes, talented cowgirls, six figure earnings, and skyrocketing international participation makes the upscale sport of reining the reigning leader in western riding competitions.

July 02, 2017

The exciting slides and spins of reining make it one of the fastest-growing equine competitions. The visibility of the sport exploded recently when Team USA dominated the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Back in the USA, Grammy award-winning singer Lyle Lovett shared a video on David Letterman showing the singer and his reining horse in competition.

The National Reining Horse Association’s (NRHA) website describes reining as “a judged event designed to show the athletic ability of a ranch type horse within the confines of a show arena.” Riders guide their horses through one of the NRHA-approved patterns which are designed to evaluate the horse’s ability to lope small, slow circles and large, fast circles, execute flying lead changes and perform roll backs, and 360-degree spins and sliding stops.

Mandy McCutcheon, who represented Team USA at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in August of 2014, is the first woman to join the NRHA’s millionaire club. She is the daughter of NRHA three-million rider Tim McQuay and is married to NRHA one-million rider Tom McCutcheon.

“I grew up with horses,” says McCutcheon, who lives in Aubrey, Texas. “When I was little, I just had a pony instead of a babysitter.”

McCutcheon competed at the WEG along with her husband. Team USA won the gold in reining; in fact, American riders have dominated international reining competition and have won every World Equestrian Games team gold medal since the sport was first included at the 2002 Games. Perhaps not such a surprise, since the discipline is inspired by the historic cowboys of the American West, whose living depended on mastery of such maneuvers when working cattle.  McCutcheon brought home some personal hardware as well, winning bronze in the individual WEG reining competition— the first woman ever to win an individual reining medal at the competition.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” McCutcheon says of competing in France. “To be part of a team is a whole different thing than showing for yourself.  That part of it was fun but also stressful.  You don’t want to let your team down.  Fortunately it worked out well, but it was very nerve-wracking.”

In addition to having a reining trainer for a dad, Mandy’s mom Colleen is involved in the hunter-jumper world.

McCutcheon rode Yellow Jersey, an American Quarter Horse owned by her parents, at the World Equestrian Games. The 10-year-old palomino stallion is sired by Wimpys Little Step, whose progeny have more than $7 million in NRHA competitions, and Yellow Jacket helped Team Italy win team bronze at the 2010 Games.

“That’s pretty impressive as far as the horse,” McCutcheon said.  “His longevity and his ability to keep stepping it up.  He’s been doing it awhile.”

McCutcheon says that it’s hard to describe what it feels like to ride a reiner, but quickly adds, “It’s a huge adrenaline rush.  It’s so fun. If you do it once, you just can’t stop.”

Jessicah Torpey of Princeton, Kentucky, agrees about reining’s addictiveness.

Torpey grew up in the business with a step-father who trained reining horses before marrying a reining horse trainer, but says she is her own horsewoman and would have been in the horse industry in some capacity, even if she hadn’t stuck with reining. But she’s glad she did.

“A rush! Truly, it’s a rush!” Torpey says of the thrill of riding reining horses. “Especially to ride a really, really good one…there is a bond that you get with your horse that makes it even more so. The maneuvers, it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you do them, it’s just fun– even at home.  Everybody likes to show and go fast, but I think reining horses are fun to ride at home even if you are not showing them.”

The purpose of the reining classes is to display the horse’s “handle” or responsiveness and the rider’s control of the horse. Torpey says that level of training results in an extremely versatile horse, which adds to a rider’s enjoyment.

“It’s fun to have a horse that broke, and that you can do so much stuff on,” Torpey says. “I think if you were to take a reiner and put a dressage saddle on one, I think they could cross over pretty easily. We teach them to do a lot of those maneuvers. They are trained like that.”

Torpey invites those interested to give the sport a try.

“I would urge any new woman that has any reining questions, wants to see one ridden, or wants to try it, to call their nearest NRHA professional and just come check it out,” she says.  “NRHA has a list on their website, or if you phone, they will direct you to your nearest NRHA professional.”

But what if a new rider is intimidated about memorizing the patterns or making a mistake?

“Don’t worry about making mistakes, just have fun,” Torpey advises, adding, “There’s no mistake that hasn’t already been made by the top pros and non-pros, I promise.”

Jessica shares advice she received from her step-father, Charlie Hutton, that helped her to commit the reining patterns to memory: he always said to run the patterns on foot so that she could learn them and visualize it.  It seemed to work!

“If you are at all intrigued, contact a reining trainer,” Torpey says. “Most are very outgoing and love to share their sport. Most likely they will have a horse that you can ride, to see what it’s like.”

And beginning reiners aren’t expected to be perfect riders on $50,000 horses.

“There’s a level for every rider and every horse,” she adds. “Just because a horse isn’t a futurity finalist doesn’t mean there’s not a class for it. The NRHA does a great job offering a variety of classes and levels.”

While the sport is dominated by stick horse types, specifically American Quarter Horses and American Paint Horses, reining horse trainer Crystal McNutt’s preferred mounts are Arabians.

“I’ve always ridden Arabs since I was a little kid,” McNutt says. “I had Quarter Horses here or there, but I grew up in the ‘Arab’ world and I rode Arabian and half-Arabian reiners and I like them! I love the Quarter Horses, too, I just make my living riding Arabians reiners. I just found my place. Every breed is getting more specialized, whether it’s reining or pleasure. Arabians are really smart, and they are kind horses.”

“My parents got me riding lessons when I was four,” McNutt says of her path to reining. “I started off in equitation classes, which back then were called stock seat. That’s how I got into reining.”

Her dad eventually shipped her horses from Conroe, Texas, to trainers in Arizona, and McNutt ended up establishing her training operation in Scottsdale.

“I like the adrenaline of it,” McNutt says of reining. “I like the intensity of it. I like that it’s technical, and yet a little bit wild. I like all of it. It’s awesome.”

McNutt is quick to invite others to try reining, too.

“I always say to women that they should just try it, to see if they like it,” McNutt says. “The way I’ve gotten people hooked is to let them ride. You’re not going to make someone like anything – either they like it or they don’t. With the reiners, I’ve had a lot of people try it, and many really like it. They enjoy the time they get to spend with their horses.”

McCutcheon echoes the invitation.

“Try to find a reining horse trainer near you and see what they have to offer,” she says. “The best way to is to have somebody to guide you to the horses and horse shows that are right for you.”

With the rising popularity of the sport, you never know who you might run into in the practice pen, but odds are they will be supportive and welcoming.

Give it a spin:

Even if you’ve never ridden a reining horse, NRHA has a place for you to get started competing.

For more information visit NRHA.com

Images provided by NRHA/Waltenberry, NRHA/Baxstrom, NRHA/Bonaga, and NRHA/Diale.

(Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).

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