In the November '09 issue of Horse & Rider, reining trainer and National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) judge Dave Moore shared strategies for teaching your horse to wait on you for instruction, instead of anticipating the next move. While insisting your horse wait for your instruction is important in all pattern classes, it's particularly critical in reining.
Here, Dave explains why establishing and maintaining your horse's "wait" is crucial to upping your reining scores; plus, he offers further tips on teaching your reiner to wait on you.
Why Horses Lose Their Wait
The first rule in the NRHA and other reining rulebooks states that to rein a horse is not just to guide him, but also to control his every move. Whether it's because of a lack of confidence, lack of coaching (or poor coaching), or show anxiety, many beginner and novice reiners loose control of their horses' movements, ultimately giving their horses the decision-making power.
The problem of your horse "losing his wait" often begins in the training pen and is compounded with mistakes in the show ring. In practice, poor, repetitive training methods teach a horse to anticipate each maneuver (essentially memorizing the pattern). In the show ring, riders often provide their horses with little or no leadership, while rushing through the pattern--both of which reinforce these bad behaviors.
When a rider rushes through a pattern, giving her horse hurried commands without maintaining control, she sacrifices her role as leader--thus, her horse gets ahead of her and does whatever maneuver he thinks should come next. When this occurs, the maneuvers are less controlled and appear sloppy, and worse, the rider's scores plummet and the long-term quality of her horse is diminished.
To prevent your reining horse from losing his wait, follow these at-home and at-the-show strategies.
Center of it All
The majority of reining patterns begin in the center of the arena. From the center point, the pattern usually next calls for a spin series or a lope off. During training, your job is to teach your horse to wait for your cues to prevent him from walking to the center of show ring, thinking, "Oh, I know what's next!"--then leaping into a maneuver without your command.
This is why you should not practice spins, lope-offs, or lead changes (which are also called for in the center of the arena in most reining patterns) in the center of the training pen. Instead, practice them anywhere else in the arena--along the fence line, the corners, the sides of the arena, and so on. This way, your horse won't come to associate these maneuvers with only the ring's center, and jump to execute them before you've asked him to do so.
Because the center of the ring is so crucial in reining patterns, and you'll use it over and over again while showing, you want your horse to feel comfortable and willing there. For this reason, never punish your horse in the ring's center during practice. If you get in the habit of punishing or over-schooling him there, he ultimately won't perform maneuvers well there. He'll constantly be thinking, "The last 10 times I was here, I got spurred, pulled on, and was made to do work that was difficult and uncomfortable. So, oh no--here it comes again!" He'll likely become agitated, tense, or try to rush through the center to brace for (or avoid) the discomfort he associates with it.
To instill confidence and quietness in the center, take your breaks there in the practice pen. Make the center a "happy place," and your horse will be more likely to perform well there at show time.
Speed is also a factor to consider when practicing several reining maneuvers, including those ubiquitous spins. You can greatly reduce the quality of a high-energy horse with a great spinning ability by drilling him in the center of the practice pen--over and over at full speed. Save your horse's steam for your priority show classes; otherwise practice your turns at less than full power.
Similar to other reining maneuvers, you don't want your horse to associate spinning with the discomfort of a heavy leg or harsh spurring. You also don't want him to rush ahead and begin spinning the moment you stop in the center of the ring. That might be the rare occasion when a particular pattern calls for another maneuver--so it's essential he learns to wait for your instructions.
Build pauses and actual wait times into your practice turns and those in your in your non-priority classes. Make your horse stand still until he's calm before you ask him to turn, and insist that he pause again before changing directions.
Reining stops have a high degree of difficulty. Your horse must be going faster at the end of the run-up to the stop than he was at the beginning for the stop to be executed correctly and yield high marks. Stopping from an accelerating speed causes the horse to stop correctly with his weight transferred to his hind end and his back legs tucked underneath him. You can't execute a quality reining stop when decelerating. If you slow down as you head down the arena, your horse will stop on his front end with his head down and his hind end up in the air. Not only will you receive poor scores, but you'll be lucky if you're not ejected from the saddle.
From a judge's perspective, a stop is composed of three elements: the approach, the stop, and the maneuver called for directly after the stop (usually a rollback). Judges evaluate each element separately, and then total the points. The approach begins directly after the previous maneuver is executed. For example, as soon as you release from a previous rollback, you'll begin your approach and your new stop score begins.
Your approach is important for two reasons: The speed of your approach affects the quality of your stop, and the judge evaluates the approach itself on its own merit. Your horse's ability to wait on you for the cue to accelerate is crucial to a good approach, and subsequently a good stop.
If your horse rushes ahead of you, accelerating too early during the approach without your cueing him to do so, there's little chance he'll be at his top speed when it's time to stop. Because he increased his speed too soon, he'll likely be burned out by the time he stops. When his speed decreases, his stop will likely be sloppy and he'll end up over his front end--resulting in low marks for this part of the maneuver.
The judge will also notice that your horse took off without your cue and appears out of your control. Whether you let him go on or try to rein him in, you'll still receive poor marks for the approach.
Don't let your horse anticipate that it's time to go and take off at full speed. You can prevent this by practicing the deconstructed stops I discussed in November's article, "Wait on Me." Practicing those stops will teach your horse that you're in control of all aspects of the maneuver, especially when to go and when to wait. In the show ring, you'll be able to build speed gradually, constantly accelerating, and when you take your leg off your horse, he'll melt into the ground for a correct stop.
Dave Moore trains reiners and coaches non-pros at his Moore Performance Horses in Southwest Ranches, Fla. Before specializing in reining, Moore trained and showed Appaloosas in many events, including Western riding and trail. With his wife, Kim, he's produced more than 150 national and world champions. Moore is also a judge with the NRHA and Appaloosa Horse Club.