Riding Tips

A Beginner’s Guide to Reining (Tips, Maneuvers, etc.)

Horse riding with reins
Written by Natasha D.

Rookie Intro to Reining

The equestrian sport of reining has grown in popularity both nationally and internationally in recent years. With winning purses also growing to amounts of a quarter of a million dollars, it’s no wonder why more and more riders are catching the reining bug.

Reining patterns create an addictive challenge for riders of all ages. Originating from maneuvers needed to work cattle on a ranch, reining provides a platform for stock horses to shine. With an easy to understand scoring system and a beginner friendly atmosphere, reining is the perfect place to start your western performance career.

The Sport of Reining

NRHA Hall of Fame Inductee Jim Willoughby states:

To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control his every movement. The best reined horse should be willingly guided or controlled with little to no apparent resistance and dictated to completely.

Reining is most commonly compared to dressage due to the similarities in teaching body control. Although both disciplines strive for true collection and finding balance through the body, one major difference between reining and dressage is the use of contact. Reining horses are trained to perform maneuvers on a loose rein and are entirely trained off the rider’s legs and seat. This creates an effortless look, almost as though the rider is telepathically communicating with their horse.

Reining was created to showcase the athleticism of the cow horse. Ranchers needed a horse that was able to stop quickly, spin on a dime, and sprint when completing jobs or chasing cattle. Modern day reining was built to illustrate the speed and agility required by this flat work.

Reining Maneuvers

Each reining pattern includes seven to eight different maneuvers. These maneuvers trace back to what you could see a horse doing on an actual working ranch.

Patterns can include: Walk in, jog-in, sliding stops, spins (turnarounds), rollbacks, circles, backups, hesitations, flying lead changes, and run downs.

Riding with reins

Photo cred: Canva

What exactly are the judges looking for in each maneuver?

  • Walk in: The horse walks into the area through the gate and travels to the center of the arena in a relaxed and confident manner.
  • Jog-in: The horse will jog the majority of the way to the center of the area. Similar to the walk in, horses should be relaxed and confident with no appearance of intimidation from the rider.
  • Sliding stops: Stops will be performed by bending through the back and bringing the hind legs under the body in a locked position. This locking position creates the sliding stop. Ideal stops will draw straight lines in the dirt with the hind legs always having contact with the ground. The horse’s front legs should maintain forward motion and contact with the ground during the stop.
  • Spins: Sometimes referred to as turnarounds, spins are pivots on the hind end. What makes a spin different from a pivot is the speed. The horse will complete this high speed pivot by maintaining a stationary hind leg.
  • Rollbacks: A 180 degree reversal of direction following a sliding stop. This is a continuous motion after the stop and should not have any hesitation other than regaining foot balance.
  • Circles: Completed at the lope, circles will be designated by size and speed. Judges are looking for control, willingness, and degree of difficulty in speed and speed transitions.
  • Backups: Must be at least 10 feet. Horses will move in a reverse manner in a straight line.
  • Hesitations: Shows the ability for a horse to pause and relax for a designated time. This is typically done after the last maneuver of the pattern.
  • Lead changes: A flying lead change is required in most reining patterns. For a flying change, the front and rear pair of legs change leads at the same time. There should be no change of gait or speed and performed in the part of the arena stated in the pattern. (The alternative to a flying lead change is a simple lead change, where the horse breaks from a lope down into a jog or walk before picking up the opposite lead.)
  • Run downs: Performed either along the sides of the arena or down the middle, a horse will gradually increase speed towards the sliding stop.

Check out this sample pattern run by Matt Mills:

How are reining classes scored?

According to the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), each horse and rider combination starts with a score of 70. From there, each pair can either earn positive or negative points depending on how they perform each required maneuver.

Each maneuver is scored with the following 1/2 point increments:

  • -1 1/2 extremely poor
  • -1 very poor
  • -1/2 poor
  • 0 average
  • +1/2 good
  • +1 very good
  • +1 1/2 very excellent

Positive credit points are given for smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness, and speed which all raises the difficulty of the patterns.

Negative credit penalties are given for things such as blatant disobedience of the horse, breaking gait, freezing in a spin or rollback, over/under spinning, not running past a specific marker in the arena, and simple lead changes.

Check out a judge’s perspective on a typical reining pattern:

A penalty score of zero can also occur. For example, failure to complete the pattern as written would result in a score of zero. If the horse spins 5 times instead of the required 4, or runs circles out of order, this would also result in a score of zero. Other scenarios, such as an equipment failure, changing rein hands, or using two hands on the reins are all causes for a zero score.

There are also instances where a rider will receive a “no score”. This is due to either abuse of the horse or misconduct of the rider and is the equivalent of disqualification.

How many reining patterns are there?

The NRHA has 16 reining patterns that are used in non pro and open classes as well as two patterns that are used for Short Stirrup and Para-reining classes. Different breed associations such as the American Quarter Horse Association and American Paint Horse Association will sometimes utilize their own patterns. These will be published in their breed-specific rulebooks and may change year over year.

It’s important to always double check which association’s pattern a particular horse show is utilizing.

Horse with reins

Photo Cred: Canva

Tips for Beginners

When I first started showing reining horses, my trainer told me to “go into the pen with a goal to score a 70.” By using this mindset, I focused all of my attention on completing the maneuvers as correctly as possible.

As a beginner, this allowed me to set aside the stress of trying to “wow” the judges, and instead focus on clear communication with my horse to complete the pattern as written.

Here are some of the most valuable tips I’ve learned throughout the years:

#1 Watch reining classes

Watching other riders complete reining patterns is one of the easiest ways to learn. By watching classes, you can catch common mistakes and see how riders/trainers handle them in the show pen.

As a bonus, watch paid warmups to get a front row seat to real time training sessions.

# 2 Attend clinics

Whether it be as a participant or an auditor, attending clinics is a great opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers in the industry.

#3 Learn the rulebook

Understanding the sport’s rules and scoring metrics is critical to a successful reining run. Nothing is worse than having a great go and forgetting to run past the last set of cones.

Learn from the mistakes of others and read the rulebook!

#4 It’s okay to be nervous

It is absolutely okay to be nervous before your first reining class! In fact, being a little scared means you truly care about what you’re about to do. Even the most successful reining trainers can get nervous before their big runs. Take your nervous energy and channel it into excitement.

After all, showing horses is supposed to be fun!

The Reining Equine Athlete

As with any discipline, certain breeds excel in reining. Conformation, size, breed, and athletic ability all factor into whether or not your horse will be successful in the sport. Horses born with more natural abilities learn faster and are easier to train.

Reining Horse Conformation

Horses need certain physical characteristics to excel in the sport of reining. A horse that is naturally built for the maneuvers makes training a whole lot easier.

The typical reining horse will have a strong, long sloping hip. This conformation allows the horse to sit deep in sliding stops, spins, and roll backs. The neck should tie into the chest at a lower angle, creating a natural lower head carriage. Look for straight legs as you view the horse from both the front and back—correct legs will ensure straightness through the stops.

An even topline from withers to hip is also ideal for self-carriage. The shoulders should be strong but not too bulky, to allow for finesse and easy movement.

Reining Horse Size

Reining horses tend to be on the smaller side, averaging between 14.2 hands to 15 hands. Their small stature helps keep their center of gravity low to the ground. This low center of gravity helps achieve the quick, sharp movements required by the sport.

Reining Horse Breeds

Generally speaking, stock horse breeds make for the best reining horses. American Quarter Horses, American Paint horses, and Appaloosas all excel in this sport. You may notice the occasional Arabian and Morgan in the show pen as well.

How long does it take to train a horse for reining?

A good rule of thumb is to give your horse a solid 2 years for reining training. Most reining horses are started as 2 years olds and not shown until they are at least 4 years old. This can be seen as controversial in the horse industry, as young horses are still growing and developing during this time.

Extreme care is used with these young horses. Training sessions should be kept brief and to the point. Top show barns will also have monthly check-ins with their vets to ensure their young horses are in tip top shape during this process.

Horses that are transitioning from another discipline may take a little less time to switch to reining based on the horse’s prior training knowledge. However, it’s always good to take it slow and make sure your horse is fully acclimated to the new physical demands of the sport.

Sliding stop

Photo Cred: Canva

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do you start reining?

The best way to start reining is to take lessons from a competent reining trainer! If you do not have a reining horse, or are curious to see if you’d like to take the plunge into the sport, one of the best ways to try it out is to take a lesson. Not only will you have the chance to ride a finished reining horse, you will get first hand experience in the sport.

Q: How long does it take to learn reining?

The amount of time it takes to learn reining can vary dramatically depending on both the horse and rider’s level of experience and ability to pick up on new things. Riders that already have a background in western and western performance may have an easier time transition to reining.

A rider that has grown up riding dressage or jumping (disciplines that require a lot of contact), may take longer to adjust.

Q: Is reining difficult?

Many people compare riding a reining horse to driving a sports car. Reining horses are trained in a way to be extremely sensitive to pressure from your seat, reins, and legs and can be difficult to figure out at first if you aren’t used to their level of reactivity.

Once you learn your horse’s “buttons” they are considered to be some of the easiest horses to ride due to their sensitivity and level-headed attitude.

That being said, reining patterns accommodate a wide array of people and experiences. The scoring system allows you to push your ride as far as you feel comfortable in relation to the difficulty you’d like to showcase.

Parting Thoughts

Some of my fondest memories are the times I’ve spent riding and showing reining horses. Not only are these horses fun to ride, the reining community is very welcoming to newcomers. If you’ve been debating on whether or not to give the sport a try, now is the time! Once you’ve experienced a sliding stop, there’s no going back!

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About the author


Natasha D.

Natasha is a Certified equine massage therapist with experience showing in western pleasure, hunter under saddle, horsemanship, showmanship, and trail. She now focuses on reining horses, but dabbles in dressage training when time allows.