Perfecting Your Pattern

Refine your reining skills and discover how practicing maneuvers at home can transform your performance in the arena with these tips from NRHA Professional Martin Muehlstaetter.

A credit-earning reining pattern in the show pen doesn’t just happen by chance; it’s the culmination of countless hours of practicing each piece of the pattern and better understanding your horse’s strengths and weaknesses so you can improve on them before it’s time to go show.

In this article I’m going to break down different parts of a reining pattern and how you can practice each piece at home. Then I’ll talk about the things to look for when schooling these pieces so you can evaluate what your horse excels at and what you need to spend more time working on. And finally, I’ll go over the importance of knowing your pattern and ways you can work on pattern placement at home to ensure you aren’t leaving any points on the table when it comes time to compete.

Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Warm Up Right

You can’t expect to know what you need to work on with your horse if you don’t give him the opportunity to warm up properly. When you swing your leg over the saddle, take time to walk and trot your horse around for 10 minutes or so.

As you ride around, go to your leg and hand, and see how your horse responds. Is he moving his shoulders the way you would like? Are you able to push his hip around? These are things you need control of before you incorporate reining maneuvers into your routine.

Once you have control of the body at the walk and jog, it’s time to try loping. If you feel like he’s in tune with you, listening to your cues, and is consistent in his speed control, it’s time to move on to maneuver practice. You don’t want to spend half of your riding session pushing his body around if he’s telling you that he’s ready to go to work.

However, if you find him out of sync with what you’re asking of him, slow it back down and go back to the basics. You can’t expect your horse to do a reining pattern if he’s stiff in his body or bracing against the bit at the walk or jog.

Finding the center of your arena is a must when you’re practicing your circles. If you miss your middle marker in the show pen, you’re not going to plus the maneuver. Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Perfect Circles

An easy transition after your warmup is to start with your circles. Once your horse is soft in his face and his body, you can put him into a lope and do a few circles each direction to check in with him.

When you go from a large, fast circle to a small, slow circle, see how he responds. Does he slow down in the center of the pen when you ask for the change in speed? Great! Stay on your circle, but this time instead of slowing down in the middle of the pen like you would in the class, ask for a slowdown in a different part of your circle to see just how in tune he is with you.

Did he try to anticipate your cue and shut down in the center of the pen? Take note and spend more time going past the center of the arena and slowing down elsewhere. And if he completely ignored your cue to slow down, reinforce the slow by breaking him down to a walk, getting him in the bridle and off your leg before asking him to lope back off again.

Having a good start to your spin and good stop to your spin is going to keep you out of the penalty box. This is why it’s very important to practice spin elements at home. Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Change with Precision

Lead changes can make or break your pattern—and affect your overall score. If you don’t have body control when you ask for a change of lead, you’re more likely to drag a lead or not even get changed at all. And if you do get a lead change, even with your horse’s body out of position, it’s probably not going to be a credit-earning change.Lead changes are one of the most common maneuvers horses start to anticipate, and if your horse knows he changes directions when he changes leads in the middle of the arena, there’s a chance he’ll do his change when you come to the center and then immediately dive into the next circle—leaving you behind.

There are a few different ways you can practice your lead change at home. You can ask for a change but continue on the same circle—putting your horse into a counter canter. This forces him to stand his shoulders up and stay straight in his body, while pushing his hip around the circle.

You can also set your horse up to change without actually changing leads to see just how much he’s listening to your cues and moving off your hand and leg. If he changes before you officially cue for it, you know he’s anticipating your next move.

Avoid Anticipation

While it’s extremely important that you’re comfortable changing leads in the center of the arena to avoid losing points because of your pattern placement, it’s also important that you don’t change leads in the center of the arena so often that your horse thinks about the change every time he comes through the middle.

You should also focus on what your horse is doing post lead change. If you’re doing a small, slow circle to a small, slow circle, he should be staying consistent in his speed. Should he surge through the change and tries to speed up, you know to focus on the slow pieces. If he’s with you, you can start to incorporate more difficult speed transitions in your lead change practice. For example, you can practice doing a large, fast circle, a lead change, and then go directly to your small, slow circle. Or you could do a small, slow circle, change leads, and then go into a large, fast circle.

You can’t have a credit-earning sliding stop without a good rundown. Before you say “whoa,” make sure your horse is staying straight and square, and you have control over his speed. Photo by Kirsten Ziegler

Spin Starts and Stops

You can have a plus-one spin but if you can’t get your horse shut off in time, you’re going to end up in the penalty box. That’s why I have my riders focus on the start of their spin and the stop when practicing at home.

When you ask for your spin, your horse should respond to your leg and hand cues. If you find yourself dragging your rein across his neck and he still isn’t turning, or your outside leg is in his side but instead of moving away from the pressure he’s leaning into it, you’re going to struggle getting him to add speed to his spin.

If you’re running into any of those issues, try walking a couple of tight circles to gain control of your horse’s feet, and keep him framed up and in the bridle. You can also incorporate fundamentals like sidepasses, counter-arcs, and forehand turns to help him move off your leg.

Starting and Stopping

If your horse is listening to your cues, it’s time to practice your start and stop. As you start your spin, don’t try to go from zero to 100 in two steps. Give your horse the opportunity to get comfortable in the spin before asking him to add speed. If you’re trying to gain full momentum in the first step or two, your horse has a good chance of getting his feet tangled up and fumbling through the turn. Once you feel he
has a good rhythm going, you can ask for more speed.

To prevent anticipation, ask your horse to spin a couple more rotations than you would in the show pen.
This means turning your horse five or six times before stopping instead of the four you see riders do in the show arena.

You also need to be able to accurately shut off your horse’s turn. This means ensuring your horse is listening to your leg, hand, and vocal cues.

Rollback Right

In the show pen, there are a few things that can go wrong in the rollback. One problem you can come across is having your horse try to turn before you’re fully stopped, leaving you behind the motion. Another problem you can run into is having your horse trot out of a rollback before loping off.

Don’t overcomplicate practicing this maneuver when you’re at home. Start slow and build speed as you progress. Back up a step or two, complete your 180- degree rollback, and then walk out of it.

Once you master it at a slow pace, you can test out his responsiveness at a trot. If you’re happy with the way he’s responding to your cues, you can then move up to a lope and see how he does.

[Read: Nail the Forehand Turn]

Rundowns and Stops

The sliding stop is definitely one of the most exciting parts of a reining pattern. But you can’t expect to have a great stop if you don’t focus on all the other parts of the rundown that happen before saying whoa.

Your horse should be able to stop when you use your vocal, hand, and leg cues individually and all at once. Test them individually and see how your horse responds. If he stops, then you can move on to practicing your stop with more speed. If he ignores any of the cues individually, you know where your hole is and what you need to practice more of.

The rundown is also going to dictate whether you have a good stop or not. When you turn the corner to head straight down the pen, your horse should be straight and square in his shoulders.

If he’s not, you can break him down to the trot and work on keeping his shoulders square as you do transitions from lope to trot, and trot to lope. If you can’t keep him square in his shoulders when you ask him to break to a trot, you’re not going to have his shoulders square when you ask for a stop.

Control the Speed

He should also be listening to what speed you want him to move at. If you turn the corner to complete your rundown and he wants to shoot out of that turn and run full speed toward the other end of the arena, you don’t want to reward him by stopping. Continue loping him around until he wants to soften.

You can also break him down to a walk or trot to gain control of his body before asking him to lope again. By practicing these maneuvers and pattern elements at home and coming up with your game plan before you head to a horse show, you’re setting yourself up to have a successful and fun time in the show pen.

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