Friday, October 1, 2010

Reining Rocks!

OK, I'm hanging up my Prince of Wales spurs and my dress boots and gettin' me some hand-tooled leather and a big old pair of rowels.

Well, maybe not really, but after yesterday's individual reining final and freestyle reining exhibition at the 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, I'm sorely tempted.

We dressage types like to refer to reining as "Western dressage." Is it, and how similar are these two equestrian disciplines? That's what I set out to learn when I headed for the new indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park and the individual reining medal final yesterday afternoon.
Sellout crowd for the WEG reining individual final
The din emanating from the sold-out arena was the first clue that a reining competition has a different atmosphere than that of the usual staid dressage show. Loud pop music blared from the loudspeakers, and the announcer was exhorting the crowd to get pumped up and make some noise -- something they didn't seem to need a lot of encouragement to do.

As in dressage, each competitor enters the arena separately and (with the exception of freestyle) rides a designated pattern (what we call a test) -- accompanied by yet another uptempo soundtrack. I was surprised not to hear much country & Western music; the songs ranged from Euro-pop and Lady Gaga to "Beat It" and a mashup of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." Definitely not the hushed classical or Latin tunes that seem to play under one's breath at the big dressage shows.

Adding to the rowdy atmosphere is the audience. Fans let out catcalls, wolf whistles, and lots of "yee-hahs" (kind of funny coming from the European contingents) when their favorite competitors do something impressive. The arena feels like a competition but also like a big party.

And in the midst of all this, the horses, which have to do several halts (called "hesitating" in reining lingo) during their patterns, stand quietly on a loose rein. I saw a number of horses do that I'm-relaxed lick-and-chew move during their halts. One scratched his head on his leg. Another turned his head to regard the phalanx of photographers with calm interest. The hesitations aren't momentary, either: I clocked a few with my stopwatch. The shorter ones were around 4 seconds in duration, and the longest one I observed lasted 17 seconds. Eight seconds was about average.

Now, on to the maneuvers (movements) themselves. I bounced my impressions off my colleague Holly Clanahan at the American Quarter Horse Association to make sure I wasn't saying anything too ignorant. With thanks to Holly for correcting my jargon gaffes before I made them in print, here's what I saw.
Sliding stop: Individual reining gold medalists Tom McCutcheon and Gunners Special Nite of the USA
Competitors loped (cantered) into the arena, then performed a sliding stop: They literally sit down behind, and their special shoes allow their hind feet to slide while the front legs keep moving until friction and gravity bring them to a complete stop. They then back up to the middle of the ring  ("Don't say rein back!" begged Holly) as quickly as possible. There's a hesitation, followed by a spin clockwise and then one counterclockwise. Unlike in a dressage pirouette, the inside hind leg stays almost entirely grounded and pivots as the horse turns. And the spin is really fast: Someone told me the horses literally get dizzy, thus the halts (sorry, hesitations).

Then the reining horses take off like bats out of hell into "large, fast" circles at a lope (I'd call it a gallop at a good clip). Oddly, the depart is through the walk. On crossing the center line, the riders sit tall and half-halt into a "small, slow" circle. They're still loping, although it's a draggy four-beat canter to my eye. The objective, said Holly, is to the show the five-member judge panel that you can lope as fast as possible and then as slow as possible, and not break gait entirely.

Swapping leads on the center line, it's off in circle pairs in the opposite direction. The pattern concludes with a series of dramatic sliding stops and rollbacks (super-quick half-pirouettes of sorts). The footing sprays up during the sliding stops like snow under a skier, and the audience screams and cheers. The riders pat their horses, get off in the ring, unclip one side of the reins from the bit, and lead their mounts out the gate like ranch horses going off to water.

There's more than one road to self-carriage

Dressage self-carriage means balance in contact, without the horse's leaning on the reins. In reining, it's all about the horse maintaining a more or less level balance on a loose, looped rein. The riders even lean forward (quite far, to my way of thinking) and reach forward in an exaggerated manner, seemingly to show the judges that they're not using the reins.
Reining self-carriage: Legendary US reiner Tim McQuay on Hollywoodtinseltown
The fact that reiners' main cues (aids) are the seat and legs comes as no surprise to those of us in dressage; but Holly at the AQHA tells me that a lot of Western riders balance on the reins, so the independent seat and legs and the self-balanced horse is a big deal. Ditto the flying change, performed without breaking rhythm at a fast lope.
Rollback: Looks kind of like a canter pirouette, doesn't it?
Two great things about reining are the displays of horsemanship and the fun competition atmosphere. One not-so-great thing is the stress on the horses. The strain on the hocks and the hindquarters is obvious in the rollbacks and, of course, in the sliding stops. It is no accident that most of the WEG reining horses are in the range of six years old. Holly told me that six is old for a reiner. And to think that we're having "young horse" classes for our six-year-olds in dressage! Quite the contrast.

The icing on the cake

Reining met dressage (literally!) when the dressage superstar Anky van Grunsven, who competed at the WEG on the Dutch reining team (they finished eighth), provided the finale to last night's reining freestyle exhibition. Riding her competition mount, the American Quarter Horse Whizashiningwalla BB, Anky brought her best showmanship skills to a spirited freestyle set to "America" from West Side Story.

Besides the standard reining maneuvers, Anky threw in a good measure of dressage movements: canter pirouettes (real ones), tempi changes, half-pass. And the crowd went wild, as they say. The revved-up crowd went wild for the displays of advanced horsemanship, and I got the impression it was the first taste of dressage for a number of the reining fans in attendance. It was a great crossover moment for both sports.

Don't believe me? Have a look for yourself. Please forgive the camcorder quality. Hope you enjoy Anky's reining freestyle!

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