Despite the seemingly relaxed attitude of both horse and rider and the loose reins typical of the discipline, reining is a high-level competition sport requiring concentration and high riding competence.
As Dusty Kirby, a reining and western competitor and instructor explains, reining is the western equivalent of dressage.
"Reining is all about control, training the horse to be willingly guided through a series of high-speed manoeuvres," he says.
"Forget about the John Wayne or Clint Eastwood style of riding, reining is about discipline and a high level of horsemanship."
Based at the Drumcoura Lake Resort in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Dusty and his wife, Yasmine, train riders in all western disciplines, ranging from western pleasure riding to reining and working cow horses.
The equestrian centre at Drumcoura has just become the first facility in Ireland to install the specialised surface required for reining. The mix of sand and silt layered on top of a hard surface is designed to allow the spectactular sliding stops that are characteristic of the sport.
Often compared to top-level dressage, reining is an extremely specialised sport that requires subtle movements from the rider and utter wilingness from the horse.
A horse that pins his ears, conveying a threat to his rider, refuses to go forward, runs sideways, bounces his rear, wrings his tail in irritation or displays an overall poor attitude is not being guided willingly, and is judged accordingly.
There are several required movements in the sport, including:
- Walk-in -- brings the horse from the gate to the centre 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 hind quarters 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 -- demonstrates the horse's ability to stand in a relaxed manner at a designated time in the pattern; the 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.
Reining horses are judged individually and each horse automatically begins the required pattern with a score of 70. One or half-points are given or taken away for each manoeuvre.
Credit is given for smoothness, finesse, attitude, speed and authority. Controlled speed in the pattern raises the level of difficulty and makes the reining horse exciting to watch.
A score of 70 is considered an average score for a horse that made no errors but also did not perform with any particularly exceptional ability. A score below 70 reflects deductions for incorrectly performed movements or misbehaviour of the horse, while a score above 70 reflects that some -- or all -- movements were above average.
For spectators, freestyle reining is a popular class. Basically, freestyle reining is choreographed reining done to music, where competitors are required to use musical scores, which permit them to show the athletic ability of the horse in a crowd-appealing way.
Each horse and rider team incorporates reining movements into a three-and-a-half minute musical routine, not unlike the Kur Freestyle competition in dressage, but with elements that resemble the freestyle events in human competitions such as figure skating.
The rider must include a specified number of spins, stops and flying-lead changes in a performance. Rollbacks, rein-backs and dressage-type manoeuvres, such as the half-pass, may be added and scored.
However, western riding is not confined to reining and there are numerous classes within the sport.
In western pleasure riding, the rider must show the horse alongside other horses in an arena at a walk, jog and lope. In some breed competitions, a judge may ask for an extended canter and/or a hand gallop, and, less often, an extension of the jog. The horse must remain under control on a loose rein, with low head carriage, and the rider directing the horse with nearly invisible aids and minimal interference.
Cutting is the class that highlights the 'cow sense' that is so sought-after in stock horses. The horse and rider select and separate a cow out of a small herd of 10-20 animals. When the cow tries to return to the herd, the rider relaxes the reins and leaves it entirely to the horse to keep the cow from returning to the herd.
The working cow horse is a competition that is a cross between cutting and reining. A horse and rider team work a single cow in an arena, making the cow move in a directed fashion via several manoeuvres.
The ranch horse class tests multiple categories used by working ranch horses: ranch riding (which is similar to western pleasure); ranch trail (testing tasks performed during ranch work, often judged on natural terrain rather than in an arena) and ranch cutting, judged the same as a cutting event.
The working ranch horse class combines reining, roping and working cow horse, as well as ranch conformation.
However, the adrenaline junkies among us will perhaps be most interested in rodeo events such as barrel racing, where a horse and rider attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around pre-set barrels in the fastest time.
The aim is to make a run as fast as possible, while the time is being clocked either by a laser device or an arena judge.
The timer begins when the horse and rider cross the start line, and ends when the barrel pattern has been successfully executed and the horse and rider cross the finish line.
The rider's time depends on several factors, most commonly the horse's physical and mental condition, the rider's horsemanship abilities and the type of ground or footing (the quality, depth, content, etc, of the sand or dirt in the arena).