On Pattern, On Target

In a talented field of exhibitors, pattern placement is one way to stand out from the crowd. Get on-point advice for laying down your best pattern from three pros.

Specialization has taken Western events to new levels of expertise, precision, and nuance. Our horses learn one job, and they do it impeccably. While this is excellent in many ways, it can also have drawbacks. One of the biggest detriments of specialization lies in narrowing our spectrum of learning; however, with a little extra effort, you and your horse can become more well-rounded in your education, training, and horsemanship.

Western disciplines typically share a few foundational principles. Three of the most popular areas of focus—reining, ranch riding, and all-around competition—all require precise pattern placement to stand out from the crowd and find yourself at the top of the leaderboard. We spoke with one expert from each of those disciplines to acquire their best pattern-placement tips so you can sharpen your presentation in any pattern-based event.

Meet the Experts

Brad Kearns joined Southern Methodist University in 2021 as the Western coach for its National Collegiate Equestrian Association team. Prior to that, Kearns built a stellar reputation as a trainer, coach, and judge in AQHA, APHA, and NSBA events. He’s earned world championships in trail and Western pleasure, and has coached youth and amateur riders to world, All American Quarter Horse Congress, and all-around year-end titles.

Kari Klingenberg calls Scottsdale, Arizona, home where she trains elite aged-event reining horses, and coaches non-pro and youth riders, as well as managing the breeding career of reining stallion Mr Electric Spark. She’s a regular finalist in major NRHA events, winning the Level 2 NRHA Derby championship and the Level 1 NRHA Derby reserve championship, and rode for Team USA in the 2016 SCAG World Reining Championships in Switzerland.

Shadd Parkinson also lives in Scottsdale. His training program focuses on reined cow horses and ranch riders in all levels, from aged events to seasoned show horses, and he coaches youth and non-pro riders. He holds many titles in AQHA and NRCHA events, including being named the 2020 AQHA World Champion in senior ranch riding. 

The biggest mistake you see in ranch riding is riders tempted to look down at the dirt to see the path a previous competitor made. Looking down isn’t riding, and it affects every part of your pattern. Instead keep your eyes forward and focus on where you want to go. Photo by 2 Diamond Photography, Courtesy of Shadd Parkinson

H&R: First of all, let’s define what pattern placement means in each of your events and how it influences the big picture of an overall performance.

BK: Pattern placement in an all-around context is your interpretation of the written and drawn descriptions of the sum of maneuvers that comprise the test. You’re tasked with knowing your horse, his strengths, and how to best complete the test for a positive outcome.

SP: For ranch riding, pattern placement has to do with how you use the arena to highlight your horse’s strengths and downplay his weaknesses. Ranch riding doesn’t include traditional markers (cones), so a lot of your pattern placement comes in what we call the “transitions,” or the places between maneuvers where you set up your horse for the next requirement.

KK: Reining horses have become so talented, and the sport has become so much more technical, that your degree of difficulty and pattern placement needs to be on point to really get marked when showing. Reining patterns include three markers that dictate where things have to happen—and if they don’t, then you’re penalized. The most critical part in placement is the middle of the arena. Making or missing the middle makes or breaks everything you do from that point on.

H&R: How do you translate the pattern on paper to how you’ll execute it in the arena? What things do you consider, such as arena length and width and how to fit all the maneuvers in the prescribed spots?

BK: Your first consideration is how the pattern is drawn in relation to the written instructions. Does the pattern have a maneuver that occurs in a specific zone, say in the center of the arena or by a cone? Do the words say halfway or one horse length or some distance to be taken into consideration? A maneuver that happens at a cone is self-explanatory, but you can also employ points of reference, such as a banner on fence, a set of bleachers, or a set of stall curtains by the arena—something you can easily reference while riding to find your destination. Then, make sure in practice using that reference point.

Arena size is an indisputable part of pattern placement. Smaller arenas may need adjustments and thoughtful use of a horse’s abilities. An extended-lope circle that’s confined to a 20-meter diameter might not reach the same extension as a 50-meter diameter circle in a bigger arena, but it can still look smooth. Find and practice what works for the given arena space and shows your horse’s best attributes.

Read More: Help a Nervous Pattern Horse

SP: The first thing I emphasize in my placement is to stay off the walls. I like to be 20 feet off the walls, if possible, so my horse doesn’t use them as a crutch. This demonstrates more control. When I look at the arena as a whole, I break it into four quadrants and know which elements go in each section. For example, I know I need to be trotting in the top-left quadrant, then I have a reference point for the next maneuver. It’s easy to get out in the arena and get lost. It’s helpful to figure out different landmarks to help remember where you need to perform a maneuver. For example, a lot of ranch riding patterns have a log, which can work as a reference point, and so can banners and light poles.

KK: You get used to what you ride in, so it’s important to remember that your pattern will look and feel different in arenas of varying dimensions. Early in my career in Washington, all the arenas were small. I wanted to get every inch I could out of that arena, so I went deep into my corners and really ran as long as I feasibly could to my stops. But if you show like that in a big arena, as we reiners do in Katy, Texas, for the National Reining Breeders Classic, your horse will run out of gas if you use that entire arena. Sit in the middle of the arena and get a feel for where your markers are so you can keep your circles round instead of oval, and you don’t miss any markers in your stops and backup. 

H&R: How can the landmarks you identify in your pattern play a role in your visualization before your run?

BK: Pattern placement is a little more challenging for those under 35 years old—members of the GPS age.
We, the upperclassmen, used directions such as, “turn left at the elementary school, right at the road after the bridge, and left at the house with the gnome in the yard” just to get to our best friend’s house. I like to apply old-school directions to modern-day equine exhibition. Trot down the middle and stop even with the red tape on the wall, make the top of the circle at Trainer X’s stall curtains, and make the bottom come in even with the blue trash can. Use landmarks in the arena, and make them part of your practice. You can tell yourself that you can find Starbucks without a GPS, but it’s much easier if you’ve already been there several times.

It’s important to remember that your pattern will look and feel different in arenas of varying dimensions. Some arenas will be tighter, requiring you to use every inch of the arena to perform a pattern, while in larger arenas your horse might run out of a gas if you try to use every inch. Photo Courtesy of Kari Klingenberg

H&R: Is there a way to manage your pattern placement to show your horse’s strengths or hide his weaknesses?

SP: That’s a big part of why I try to stay 20 feet off the arena wall—it shows that my horse is in control and guides well. You can highlight guide and his gait extensions during transitions from one maneuver to the next, too, so plan to give yourself plenty of space to show your horse’s strengths.

KK: Depending on the size of the arena, if your horse circles really well, nail that middle and his ability to stay straight as you slow down or change leads. Show that your horse sticks with you. A lot of riders have a hard time getting past the middle marker for their stops, which is a penalty and changes the pace of your whole pattern. On the rider’s side, you might lose track of where you are, so you have to know where that marker is. On your horse’s side, he isn’t stupid. He knows he gets to stop somewhere around that middle spot on the fence, so he can cheat you. Whenever you have a rundown, always run long. Think about there being a magnet at the end of the arena that’s pulling you to it. Leaning can also impact your pattern placement, because if your horse is leaning in his circles, he can’t stay straight through the middle. If this is your horse’s tendency, keep it in mind and gently guide him back and straighten his body.

BK: So many exhibitors have a “monkey see monkey do” attitude. They see exhibitor A win after doing an extended lope circle that was huge and 100 mph, therefore they assume exhibitor A won because they went 100 mph and used the whole arena. Factually, exhibitor A may have received zero points for that circle because it may have been out of control or exhibitor A was out of balance, but somehow had an extraordinary pattern on all the other maneuvers. Don’t try to outdo anyone. Make a plan for your equine partner to show his best attributes. If your horse has a shorter stride, don’t use the entire arena for an extended lope circle. Unless the pattern specifies a size, customize circles or squares to fit your horse’s stride. By knowing your horse’s strengths and weaknesses outside the pattern, you’ll know what areas of the pattern you can show off. If your horse has an area of weakness, remember that correctness is the priority.

H&R: What common mistakes do you see riders make with pattern placement? How can we avoid them or fix them mid-pattern?

SP: The biggest you see in ranch riding is that there’s a path made after the first few horses go. Don’t be tempted to look down at the dirt. Looking down isn’t riding, and it affects every part of your pattern. When you look down at that dirt track, your horse is more likely to slow down and break gait, or when you go to change leads and look down, you lose momentum. When you have 50 head of ranch riders on the same dirt (because we don’t drag the ground as in the reining), don’t worry about the path they took. Take your own.

BK: Square corners can really trouble riders and put their pattern placement off track. Whether you’re trotting or loping a square or it’s a stand-alone maneuver, you might get caught up in the sharpness of the turn, and forget the straight lines prior to and after the corner. I see a lot of riders whoosh out to a hard cutback to an, “Oops, I overshot,” all of which results in snaky line to snaky line. Straight lines might seem so easy you don’t need to practice them, but it takes hours of repetition to master a straight line. 

A maneuver that happens at a cone is self-explanatory, but you can also employ points of reference, such as a banner on an arena wall. Photo by Shane Rux Photography

H&R: How do you practice pattern placement at home so arena awareness becomes second nature?

BK: There’s no substitute for practice, so practice trotting and loping straight lines in your arena, in your field, wherever you practice at home. Practice looking straight down the arena. Find a point of reference to go, and drive your horse to that destination. When you get one perfect line, do one more perfect line, which usually ends up being 30 minutes later. Remember, you either take what you get or get what you take. The riders in the winner’s circle aren’t watching each other on social media. They don’t have time for that because they’re practicing.

SP: I try to teach patience so my riders know how to build into something as they execute their pattern. Don’t be aggressive at the beginning and weak at the end—build it. Use the entire arena. We talk a lot about riding all the way through it to the finish of a maneuver instead of seeing your landmark and relaxing. You might struggle to get somewhere and want to relax when you make it. Don’t do that; ride all the way through to the end of your pattern.

KK: Always have markers in your arena. We work on knowing where markers are at home all the time. The age of rider doesn’t matter—myself included—we’re always working on it. I do something I call freestyle. I mix it up and counter canter, do serpentines, and keep my horse thinking. When you do this, you have to set up your horse rather than be on autopilot. Go everywhere around your arena—steer, counter canter, lope triangles. Then when you ask your horse to be on point and execute the pattern as you direct, he’ll listen.

H&R: If you find your placement out of whack, what can you do to get back on track?

BK: Go to Plan B. Always have a few backup plans. Part of practicing patterns is messing up. You’re going to deviate from Plan A in practice, so remember how you corrected yourself. Pay attention to how to adjust your pattern pieces by making arcs larger or lines longer to make your pattern layout match the printed pattern. If you planned for your circle to be a 10-meter circle and now it’s a 15-meter circle, guess what, if not specified in the pattern, the judge will never know your Plan A so keep showing!

KK: If you have one circle where your horse leaned or you didn’t focus, don’t weaken. Try to make up for where you lacked. Get your horse back on track and listening to you—that’s part of being a good rider. No matter what, it’s going to happen. You’re going to have a horse that leans and goes off the straight line, but you can make up for mistakes. Look up, find your next cone, and keep showing.

SP: Think about where you’re going, not what you’re doing. The minute you think in the moment, you lose perspective of where you need to be. Ride two strides ahead of everything. It’s hard to come back when you get lost. You tend to panic. If you can ride it out a couple strides and get your bearings, you might pull it off. Don’t get stuck or overthink.

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