Dressed in a pure beaver-felt hat, Swarovski crystals dangling from her broad-collared western shirt, custom riding boots, hand-made spurs and chaps “just so,” Marcy Ver Meer gallops her diminutive but well-muscled stock horse down the long side of a riding arena, building speed. Just as you think the pair will vaporize and be transported back to the future à la Michael J. Fox, the Arizona woman sits deeply in the saddle and the horse skids on its hind legs, sliding across the combed arena dirt like a water skier on a lake.
As their forward momentum slows to a near standstill, she flicks her reins, the horse pivots 180 degrees on its hind quarters, and the pair lope off in a relaxed fashion as hoots and whistles of encouragement rain from the stands.
What’s going on? Well, you’ve just watched Ver Meer perform a slide, the signature maneuver in the fast-growing, immensely popular sport of reining. Though the sport has been a fixture in western equitation dating back to the 1950s (and an informal form of competition for centuries), in the last decade its popularity has surged tremendously both in the U.S. and abroad.
As testimony to its international appeal, reining made its first appearance on home turf at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, an Olympic-caliber competition. The quadrennial battle for world titles among the world’s greatest horsemen took place at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, with reining as a madly-popular, center-stage event.
The upper levels of reining have traditionally been dominated by the guys. However, in recent years, women have emerged as frontrunners at the top of the game. Many will remember 2007 as a watershed for women riders: that year, Marcy Ver Meer won the reserve championship at the NRHA Futurity, traditionally the sport’s highest paying and most closely watched event, and non-pro rider Mandy McCutcheon of Texas became the first woman and only non-pro rider to rack up more than $1 million in career NRHA arena earnings.
Ver Meer, whose reserve title at the NRHA Futurity ranks among the greatest achievements for female reiners to this day, explains the sport’s appeal: “For me, reining is both a physical and mental challenge. And I enjoy that. When you get a horse that can run and slide 30 feet, it is a wonderful feeling. You feel like you are floating.”
Reining can be broken down into three events: standard reining competition, freestyle, and the related “working cow horse” competition.
Anyone who’s watched Olympic figure skating can grasp the differences between standard reining and freestyle. Standard reining is like ice dancing, in which every pair must do the same pattern and steps. In reining the “steps” are actually individual elements combined into a single run or “test,” in which each element links to the next.
Freestyle is akin to the long program in pairs figure skating. Here, the rider chooses the order of elements and may even incorporate non-required elements, such as the side pass borrowed from dressage. The ride is set to music and horse and rider may perform in costumes – which often results in creative or whimsical choices of attire in bids to gain audience support.
In working cow horse competitions, riders compete in reining but must also demonstrate cattle-handling skills including the fast-paced (and somewhat dangerous) fence work, in which the rider must chase and turn a cow or steer at a full gallop, using the arena fence as a means to direct and control the cow.
Whether performing freestyle, executing a prescribed reining pattern, or participating in a reined cow horse contest, the same basic elements or maneuvers must be present.
The horse and rider perform large circles at a gallop and smaller circles at a lope. Judges look for perfectly round circles and a pronounced change of speed as the horse transitions from the large, fast circle to the slow, small circle. Often, circle patterns will be arranged as figure-eights so that the horse is shown working both the left and right (or “off”) side of the horse, as well as a flying change of lead as the horse crosses the center of the arena to change direction.
The flying change is almost balletic, but subtle. During the suspension phase of its stride, the horse must change its leading front leg and hind leg, the “lead.” Those familiar with horses will know what this means, but for novices, here’s a comparison, again from figure skating.
Imagine a female skater performing a graceful, sweeping clockwise circle on one foot. She holds her outside skate high in the air behind her and her arms outstretched as glides through the circle. At center ice, she drops her suspended skate to the ice, transfers her weight to that skate, and lifts the leg that had been supporting her throughout the circle she’s just completed. Raising that leg, she is now performing the same maneuver, only in a counterclockwise direction and supported by the opposite leg.
She has performed a lead change, shifting from her right leg supporting her to her left leg. Similarly, for a horse to remain balanced, it must shift as it transitions from a left-circle to a right circle (or vice-versa), using its inside leading legs as support. Making the shift in balance while at the lope or gallop requires a flying change of lead.
While it’s certainly thrilling to see a horse change lead at a full gallop (which can also earn extra points), what judges are focused on is the accuracy of the transition – that it is neither too early nor too late. Ideally, the horse changes lead exactly where two circles “kiss” at center arena. Also, the horse should complete the flying change of lead in a single stride. An improper lead change often looks like stumbling, as with a person who falters on a crack in the sidewalk and must regain balance.
The horse must run or “gallop” parallel to the arena’s side, building speed down the entire length of the arena prior to performing the sliding stop. Judges look for a willing horse that shows no anxiety or anxiousness as it sets up for the exciting next maneuver.
Reining’s signature maneuver, the slide is an extreme example of a stop on the rear haunches. At a full gallop, the horse gathers its hind legs underneath its body and rocks its weight back, planting its rear hoofs while its front hoofs continue to paddle forward. With the help of special horse shoes called “sliders,” top reining horses easily slide 20 feet or more, leaving straight-as-rails lines in the dirt. A real crowd pleaser.
Typically, a slide in mid-pattern is followed by a rollback in which the horse, having performed the stop, immediately pivots, turns 180 degrees, and goes forward in a lope. The turn must be performed on the hindquarters, with no hesitation. The best horses actually stay in the lines drawn by the slide they just performed.
Often a maneuver that follows the slide, the back or backup requires that the horse back quickly over a distance of 10 or more feet. Judges look for a quickness, accuracy, and willingness. The horse must also pause quietly before moving onto the next maneuver (or exiting the arena, if it is the final maneuver).
Like slides, a spectator favorite and a signature maneuver of reining. From a standstill, the horse pivots in place in a full 360-degree circle; up to four and one-quarter circles may be specified, and the horse must stop precisely where required or the score is marked down. The inside hind-leg acts as a pivot point and a top reining horse may be said to “drill a hole” as this pivot foot remains firmly in place. Judges look for cadence and smoothness; gaining speed with each successive spin can add additional points to the score.
Riders will often pause between one maneuver and the next to give the horse a chance to settle. This is particularly true prior to or following a spin. While not a required element, a horse that displays impatience or anxiety during a pause may be marked down.
A horse enters the arena with a score of 70, with a range of possible scores from 60 to 80 (the all-but-impossible “perfect score”). Points are added or subtracted for each of the maneuvers. Marks range from -1.5 for terrible execution to +1.5 points for excellent execution. A horse or rider that goes “off pattern” may be disqualified. A respectable score is 70, while a higher score indicates that the horse earned bonus points for particularly well-performed maneuvers.
At larger shows, multiple scores from several judges are compiled to form a high composite score. A three-judge panel might award a score of 225 for an outstanding run with an average score of 75 points from each judge.
Reining is easy to get involved in. Although cutting, roping, and cow horse competitions are all immensely popular, each requires an investment in cattle or at least the ability to lease or rent other people’s practice animals. Reiners don’t need cattle, which cuts down on the cost of practice and participation, and increases the practicality for many cowgirls.
Newbies can get a taste of the competition by attending an NRHA-sanctioned event. Nowadays, local shows for western riders and breeds often feature a reining competition. Many professional trainers will give novices a test ride on a trained horse, hoping to fuel an addiction, sell a horse and capture a new client.
The sport’s emphasis on futurity and derby events, which take place in the third and fourth year of a horse’s life, means veteran horses with years of arena experience are often available from top riders and trainers, who pass the horses down to their less-experienced clients as the horse’s progress in age.
As with most equine endeavors, however, the commitment doesn’t end there. To truly progress, a rider requires the careful attention of a trainer; expect to enjoy several years mastering the fine points of riding and reining to become competitive!
(Originally published in the September/October 2010 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).
Photography by John O’Hara.