Reining Horses

By Linda White

Hillbilly Quixote at the 2011<br>
Scottsdale show
Hillbilly Quixote at the 2011
Scottsdale show
Reining brings cheering crowds to their feet at every horse show that offers the thrillingspectacle. A modern version of the contest cowboys invented on the open range of yesteryear, reining today is a crowd-pleasing demonstration of skill and agility that is unlike any other discipline in the equine lexicon.

Any breed of horse can succeed in reining, but since 1940, when the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) registry was formed, Quarter Horse devotees have selectively bred nearly five million horses that are mentally and physically suited for reining, cutting, and other working western disciplines. Quarter Horse breeders formed the NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) in 1966.

Arabian horses are no strangers to ranch work, but until the last three decades, only a small number of Arabians and Half-Arabians were bred specifically for the working western disciplines. As interest in reining grew, increasingly talented Arabian and Half-Arabian reining prospects began to appear. The Arabian Reining Horse Association (ARHA) was incorporated in 1998.

“It’s exciting to see the Arabian influence in reining,” says NRHA Commissioner Gary Carpenter. “Arabians and Half-Arabians in reining brings in a whole new group of people, with a fresh outlook, and new enthusiasm. Each discipline is an entity that generates its own strength; its own energy. Reining today is so much more refined – so much more specialized – than it was, just a few years ago. The old wisdom was that for reining, ‘All you need is a horse, and a patch of ground.’ Well, it’s not that way anymore.

Lil Stopper
Lil Stopper

“There is so much more skill and knowledge, and so much more devotion required these days to besuccessful. And every day, more people are discovering that reining is fun. There’s prize money to be won, but most competitors’ incentive is to improve their performances. Our judging system is very straightforward. And competitors are very generous about helping each other – because they’re not competing against each other; they’re competing against themselves.”

Reining has wide appeal because like horse racing, reining is objective, rather than subjective. Personal opinion doesn’t weigh in the outcome. Eleanor Hamilton is a lifelong horsewoman whose involvement in reining began in her 50s. Hamilton grew up on a working ranch in Nebraska, where she reflects that the horse who pulled the hay rake in the morning, was the same horse she wrangled cattle with in the afternoon. Trainer Rod Matthieson introduced her to reining for Eleanor’s Arabians in 1988.

“Rod started out with Quarter Horses reiners 40 years ago,” Hamilton explains. “When he came here, he had to make reining horses out of whatever we had. It soon became apparent that we had to turn our program in a different direction.

“Crown Musc, a *Muscat son I bought from Karho in 1990, was my first Arabian reiner. I showed and won with him in AOTR reining and amateur western pleasure, and he sired national winners in western pleasure, reining and stock set equitation.”

In 1995, the year he was named Canadian National Reserve Champion Reining Horse, Hamilton added stallion Hesa Zee to her Eleanor’s Arabians breeding program. The Xenophonn son went on to win multiple US and Canadian National Top 10s, and many Regional and Class “A” titles in a 12-year performance career. As a sire of reining champions, Hesa Zee has no equal.

“He really shot our program through the ceiling,” says Hamilton. “We bred our Xenophonn daughters to Crown Musc, and we bred Hesa Zee to a variety of mares, to discover which crosses produced what we were after. My goal has always been to produce extremely athletic, right-minded horses that women and juniors can ride, and Hesa Zee does exactly that.” Hesa Zee, now 26, was 2014 Leading Reining Futurity Sire. Eleanor’s Arabians will host a Hesa Zee Celebration at the 2015 U.S. National Show in Tulsa. If all goes well, Hesa Zee will be there for the festivities.

Gordon Potts saw his first reiners when he was grooming for David Gardner at Bentwood Farm, in Waco, Texas. “We had only halter horses, but I’d go up on a hill overlooking a neighboring ranch, and watch their reining horses working,” he remembers. “It was all so soft, yet so physical. It was about control – and responsiveness, and the cues were so subtle that it looked like the rider wasn’t asking the horse to do anything.

“In reining, the horse-and-rider partnership is dialed up considerably,” he notes. “The horse’s learned response to your cues: softening in the face, collecting himself, and using his hindquarters, gives the horse good body control, and a good foundation for what he’s going to be doing.

“In a rail class, there are a lot of other horses in the ring with you, so you can fudge a little, and the judges may not see a mistake … but with reining, you’re out there alone. There is no bluffing, no place to hide.

“Horses are a herd animal,” he reminds us. “In a rail class, they’re surrounded by other horses – unfamiliar horses, but horses all the same. Being out there all by themselves is as disconcerting to them as it is to us. You want a quiet horse with a lot of grit, who can handle the pressure and physicality of reining. You also need a horse with a strong loin, a good hind end, and well let-down hocks; a horse that carries himself lower, so he can roll back, get in the ground, and hold that position. Quarter Horses are bigger, stouter, and stronger – but Arabs have more energy,” he adds. “They know what they’re supposed to do.

“Because reining is so physical, it’s important to give reining horses some down time. My horses may get a month or two off at the end of the season, to just go out and play. They’re not going to forget what they’ve learned. And Arabians naturally keep themselves fit; they retain their muscle tone.”

“I’m accountable to my horse, and he is accountable to me,” offers trainer Crystal McNutt. “We are a team. It’s important to build the horse’s confidence as you train him, because when he’s confident, he will put heart and soul into doing the job.

“Each horse is different,” says McNutt, “and I try to be really fair. I don’t look at their papers beforehand, so I have no expectations. As I start to put the pieces together, if the horse isn’t enjoying what he’s doing, I try to find another spot for him right away. I don’t wait ‘til the last minute to decide that this horse would be happier, doing something else. A horse should have a fun, happy, many-faceted life.

“I try not to let people’s expectations get too high: to keep them at a level where they can succeed, because disappointments are no fun for the rider or the horse. I’m persistent, and consistent,” she adds. “I may only work a horse for 20 minutes, so that he doesn’t get bored, because horses are like children. Some come around fast, and some take longer. You don’t want to bring them along too fast, or put pressure on them, until they’re ready. I may take a horse to a show, not to show it, just to ride it around, to get used to what’s going on.

“I always try to match people with the right horse,” she continues. “I try to learn people’s goals and expectations, and if the horse they bring me is never going to be what they want, I try to be brutally honest. That may not be what they wanted to hear, but honesty is best in the long run. And when an amateur lights up when he does a maneuver correctly, or an owner is really proud of his horse, that’s my reward. That’s it!”

National championship-winning amateur reining enthusiast Katie Harvey found herself drawn to reining about 10 years ago. “Reining is very fair,” she explains. “I first was intrigued that every entry walks into the show pen with an automatic score of 70.” Harvey grew up a horse trainer’s daughter.

“My dad encouraged my riding and showing, and horses became a huge part of my childhood. I believe that horses teach children discipline, competitiveness and responsibility. They also teach things like winning gracefully, and coping with failure.

“I think the disappointments I experience are those that I create,” she admits. “If I make a mistake on a pattern it’s usually because I got ahead of myself, or rushed a maneuver.
My biggest thrill has probably been seeing my son run down the arena and do a sliding stop - or watching him take one of my horses and turn him like a champ!”

La Rae Fletcher Powell is also a horse trainer’s daughter. She grew up with Quarter Horses, and
first showed when she was two. When she was 11, her parents bought her a buckskin Quarter Horse gelding that had been a stock and cow horse, who was nice enough to compete in American Horse Shows Association (now United States Equestrian Federation) competition. Powell began training reining horses in her early 20s.

“The first purebred Arabian I trained became a 1984 Canadian Top 10 and 1987 U.S. Top 10 Reining Horse,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to train horses, but watching other trainers move from barn to barn, I knew I didn’t want to do that - so I made a deal with my dad. He signed a loan with me, and I made the payments with money I earned from the five to 10 horses I trained on the side, while I was in college.” Powell met her husband Rod during that time. He had his own barn and business, training Quarter Horses and Appaloosas, so they joined forces, professionally and personally. Their three sons have been raised in the business.

“Our eldest son knew from a lifetime of going to shows that he wanted to train,” says Powell, “but first, we had him earn a 2-year business degree, like I had. I told him I’ve used every course I took, running this business.

“We have very little client turnover,” she volunteers. “One lady, who knew my mom when she was pregnant with me, has ridden with me since 1983! When somebody brings us a horse, we put 30 days on it, and let the horse tell us what it wants to do. If the owner has a different objective, we tell them they’ll have to change their goals - or find a different horse. We tell it like it is. We’ve lost very few clients by being honest with them.

“I start my young horses in the round pen. A lot are athletic, but only when you get on them do you find out how much ‘try’ they have. Sometimes a young horse will get a little scared, so you have to teach him confidence. Confident, yes, but I don’t want the horse to anticipate the pattern, or anticipate the moves. The horse should stay with the rider, regardless of the pattern.

Arabians are very quick to learn, so the rider has to learn to stay ahead of the horse. We also tell our western pleasure riders always to reverse their horse into the rail before a lineup, so he doesn’t learn to turn toward center ring. Turning him to the rail will keep him from trying to line up on the final jog.

“Sometimes, you’re not really teaching the horse; you’re teaching the rider.” She laughs.

“All things being equal,” adds Gordon Potts, “reining – even the day-to-day training process - is fun! It’s intoxicating. We’re getting more kids; my kids started last year, and we get new converts all the time.”

Be sure to visit the Arabian Reining Horse Association (ARHA) and National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) websites; and Arabian reining trainers’ websites for exciting visuals and more information about reining.