What is Reining?

Man Riding Horse In Western Style Reining Competition

What is the Origin of Western Reining?

The western riding sport known as reining has its roots in the tradition of the early American Southwest and northern Mexico. Ranchers and their hired cowboys (or Spanish vaqueros) managed their cattle herds on horseback. The skills necessary for both horse and rider to move and sort cattle have evolved into the modern-day sport of reining. On the range, a cowboy needed his hands to be free to handle ropes, open gates, etc., so cow horses were trained to respond mainly to the rider’s legs and weight, while the ride kept a light, one-handed handle of the reins. Other countries with strong traditions of herding livestock on horseback include Argentina and Australia. These nations’ traditional styles of riding have been incorporated into the modern style of western reining, as it has gained international popularity.

What is a Western Reining Competition?

In western reining competitions, horse and rider pairs must ride a specific pattern and execute an average of eight to twelve of the following movements:

360-degree Spins or Turnarounds

Starting at a standstill, the horse spins 360 degrees or more, spinning around its inside hind leg, which remains in the same place, only being picked up and put down on the spot while spinning. In a competition, the pattern ridden must contain at least one spin in each direction. This movement is judged on cadence, smoothness, correctness, and accuracy. For example, the spin must stop at a specific point in the rotation, or else there will be a penalty for over or under-spinning. 

Flying Lead Changes

Similar to the flying lead change performed in a dressage test, though in this sport, the canter is called a lope, a much slower and flatter gait when compared with its dressage counterpart. To perform this movement, the horse changes its leading front and hind legs mid-stride. Because this switch is performed in the suspension phase of the gait, it gives the impression of flying. Accuracy and precision are critical here. A rider who pushes for speed at the expense of correctness will lose points. If the movement can be performed accurately at higher speeds, a higher score should be expected. 

Small Slow Circles and Large Fast Circles

Circles are performed at a slow lope, up to a fast, near gallop. Circles will be judged for being perfectly round, for how the rider controls the horse’s speed, and for a distinct difference in the two speeds. 

Sliding Stop

The horse gains speed on a straight trajectory, up to an all-out gallop, before suddenly coming to a complete stop by planting its hind legs in the dirt and allowing them to slide for several feet. In doing so, the horse’s hind end drops, almost like it’s about to sit down.


From a sliding stop, the horse immediately spins 180 degrees on its haunches and then takes off again at the lope.


The horse gallops down the long side of the arena, at least 20 feet from the rail. This is the setup for a rollback or sliding stop.


The horse backs up swiftly and in a straight line for at least 10 feet. The horse should hesitate a moment after the backup before taking off again.  

Pause or Hesitate

 The rider asks their horse to pause after a spin or between two other movements to “settle.” This is not judged as a movement in itself, but if the horse is disobedient or impatient with the pause, it may lose points. 

How is a Reining Competition Scored?

Each rider starts with a default score of 70, which represents an average performance. From there, each movement is an opportunity to either gain or lose points, up to +1.5 (excellent) or -1.5 (extremely poor). Points are gained for the level of difficulty and style. Points are lost for deviating from the pattern or losing control of the horse. If the move is performed correctly, with no degree of difficulty, no points will be given. This is why increasing speed with control will gain points while increased speed that gets sloppy will lose points. 

What Breeds are Best for Reining?

Any breed of horse can practice the skills of a western reining horse. However, when it comes to competition, stock breeds such as Appaloosas, American Quarter Horses, and American Paint Horses. Quarter Horses dominate the sport and are the most popular choice among competitive riders. 

Is Reining the Dressage of the Western Sports?

Comparison is often made between a reining competition and a dressage competition because of the similar format: riding a prescribed pattern and being scored on each required movement. Of these two disciplines, reining is more explosive, adrenaline-pumping, and dirt-flinging. Whereas dressage is rooted in control and refinement. Both disciplines are challenging and require a horse and rider to dedicate countless hours to consistent training. High scores are not easily earned, and the skills required to excel in the sport of western reining will make both horse and rider versatile performers, should they choose to explore other disciplines as well.