At one arena at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, whooping and hollering will be encouraged, and no one will need an excuse to don a cowboy hat and blue jeans. I’d be willing to bet that the reining competition at this year’s WEG is going to be the loudest and proudest. In fact, the tickets to the reining individual final are the only event so far to sell out.
Of course, it helps that reining, and western riding in general, is as American as horse sports get. Horses were re-introduced to the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s (an equine ancestor existed in the Americas until about 10,000 years ago and then disappeared, so the indigenous American people had never seen horses when the Conquistadors arrived.) These European soldiers also brought cattle working and military practices that eventually became the basis of western riding.
While many of the first cowboys were actually American Indians, the cattle ranching that eventually emerged in the West was a mix of Mexican and Anglo-American practices. However, many of the terms and techniques that evolved into American cowboy culture came from the Spanish.
“The Cow Boy” taken by John C. H. Grabill in 1887. The Grabill Collection is now in the Library of Congress.
Because of the extensive rangeland and massive cattle herds that dominated the West, American cowboys had to work long hours in the saddle, and their riding style and equipment had to be functional in order to control the herds. The horses needed to be agile and quick, and they were trained to respond to the lightest pressure on their necks with the rein. Neck reining proved to be a valuable tool for the cowboys, who often rode one handed while working the cattle.
The equipment also needed to help protect riders, who often worked far away from any sort of help. The development of the western saddle allowed cowboys a secure seat and provided a necessary tool for the job with the saddle horn.
Even a cowboy’s clothing developed from a need for protection while working the cattle. The pointed toes and big heels on cowboy boots kept them from getting caught in the stirrups. Chaps protected legs while riding through brush, and of course, the cowboy hat shaded the face from the sun (since sunscreen wasn’t even a thought at that point in time). Almost everything associated with western riding today was developed because of a need for protection, safety or comfort while out on the range.
Over time, competitions between cowboys or neighboring ranches became more and more common. The riders would put their horses through their paces, displaying stops and turns, and the crowd chose the winner. These competitions eventually became the rodeos we know today. Reining, cutting, western pleasure, halter and working cowhorse competitions all developed from these friendly contests in the Old West.
The American Quarter Horse Association first recognized reining as a sport in 1949. The AQHA’s members greatly contributed to the current international popularity of the working cow horse. In 1966, the National Reining Horse Association was founded.
The NRHA is dedicated to “promoting and encouraging the development of and public interest in the sport of reining.” From 1997-2007, the NRHA saw a 40 percent increase in membership and added more than 450 competitions to their schedule. Reining was also accepted as the first western discipline of the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1998. In 2009, the NRHA paid out more than $11 million in prize money.
In 2000, the Fédération Equestre Internationale added reining to the roster of equestrian disciplines the international organization oversees. It became the seventh discipline, and only western sport, to become a part of the World Equestrian Games in 2002. Organizers, participants and reining enthusiasts are hopeful that reining will make the leap into Olympic competition in the future.
So, what is reining, anyway? Many refer to it as “dressage in a western saddle.”
- Walk-in: brings the horse from the gate to the center of the arena to begin its pattern; should appear relaxed and confident.
- Stop: the act of slowing the horse from a lope to a stop position by bringing the hind legs under the horse in a locked position sliding on the hind feet.
- Spin: a series of 360-degree turns, executed over a stationary (inside) hind leg; location of hindquarters should be fixed at the start and maintained throughout the spin.
- Rollback: a 180-degree reversal of forward motion completed by running to a stop, turning the shoulders back to the opposite direction and departing at a canter, as a continuous motion.
- Circle: done at the lope, of designated size and speed; demonstrates control, willingness to guide and degree of difficulty in speed and speed changes.
- Hesitate: act of demonstrating horse’s ability to stand in a relaxed manner at a designated time in the pattern; horse should be motionless and relaxed.
- Lead change: act of changing the leading legs of the front and rear pairs, at a lope, when changing direction.
- Run-down and Run-around: demonstrate control and gradual increase of speed to the stop.
Each combination automatically begins at a score of 70. One or half points are given or taken away for each movement. Smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness and authority are all rewarded, and controlled speed in the pattern raises the level of difficulty.
Reining at the WEG will take place from Saturday, Sept. 25 – Thursday, Sept. 30. Don’t be afraid to don your hat and add a bit of whooping and hollering to this years’ event. The cowboys and cowgirls will certainly appreciate it!
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.
Curious about anything in particular? Have a question or an interesting topic? Please e-mail Coree, she'd love to hear from you!