As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline; as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.
This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses. I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide. Is that cool?” Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that! As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.
I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.
So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.
But I needn’t have worried. Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.
Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?
Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.
I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.
This is getting serious.
Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!
Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.
Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.
“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight. “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”
Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!
Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.
Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus. To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids. To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.
When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!
After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.
Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.
After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:
- Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
- During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
- Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.
Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist. I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.