How to Train a Reining Horse
Once you have your horse in a position where they are relaxed in an open area, able to work on forward motion, then you’re ready to begin teaching some basic reining maneuvers. Basic skills are needed when learning how to train a reining horse, which means focusing on certain patterns. Spins and stops, small slow circles, and fast large circles should be the first stop on your journey.
Before beginning the training process, your horse needs to be mentally ready for reining. The horse should be confident and quiet with you and its surrounding. For most horses, this process will take a minimum of 30 days.
Here is where you’ll want to begin.
#1. Teach the horse to find its circle.
Once you feel like a horse is ready to begin learning, then the first step is to teach them how to find their circle. Warm up the horse and then begin to lope on either the right or left lead, depending on the direction that you are going. Stay in one end of your arena and steer them with the neck rein. The goal is to help them stay in the circle, so correct them and direct them back into it if they attempt to leave on their own. Once the circle is locked, reward the horse and take a break. Work both directions every day.
You don’t want the horse to wander while finding its circle. If you cross the reins, keeping four fingers between them, then you can maintain this control. It will help the horse to walk with a cadence and rhythm that has a purpose to it. Once comfort is learned with this skill, you’ll be able to have the horse pursue circles of the same size with an equal purpose. Eventually the circle will become locked and the horse will do it on his own.
#2. Teach lateral flexibility from a movement perspective.
Horses tend to respond better to the reining process when they are in movement. If you are asking the horse to begin a spin from a standstill, the need to have lateral flexibility from a dead stop can be difficult to execute. Allow the horse to experience pressure with the basics of the spin with head pressure toward the knee with movement. If all you do is crank the nose around in each direction, the horse isn’t going to learn anything and end up having a sore back and a negative memory of the situation.
Holding the nose as a barrier will allow you to make the circles larger or smaller, depending on what you’re teaching at the moment. You can make the circles smaller while moving forward to take a lateral step instead of a forward step for horses that may resist lateral flexibility. Once you receive the lateral step, reward the horse immediately. Give the horse a release and let him get out of the circle.
#3. Begin the basics of the spin.
You can begin teaching a reining horse the basics of a spin by getting control of their shoulders. With the horse motionless, lay the neck rain and open your inside hand so that you can gently pull the nose of the horse in the direction of the spin. Bump with your outside leg until you receive a step in the direction of the spin that you’re asking the horse to do. Sideways movement from the shoulders is what you’re looking for. Reward the horse for the first step, then repeat. It’s not a natural movement for the horse, so it can take some time for one step to evolve into 2 and then 3 steps.
Once you can achieve lateral steps with consistency, keep asking for an additional step before offering a reward. Keep going until you can achieve a full circle. This will encourage the horse to be held so that lateral steps can continue until you request them to stop. You may need to build up to this point gradually. Once the horse learns the correct move, he will do it for as long as you ask. It’s getting to that point which takes the most time.
#4. Watch for a slackness in the jaw.
As the horse begins to spin, you may experience some pulling. If the horse pulls, there is no need to pull back. Just place your elbow into the ribcage of the horse so that your arm cannot move. This will have the horse pull against it, but continue without pulling back. Once you see the jaw begin to soften, the horse will begin to quit pulling. At this point, you can give a full release because the horse is doing what you’re asking.
Your horse should be able to perform lateral flexibility in either direction without resistance. The response should be soft and responsible every time, with the horse giving the nose willingly without stiffness or hesitation. When this occurs, you’re ready to begin the next step.
#5. Start the teaching process to learn how to stop.
It is more effective to encourage the horse to engage their natural tendency to stop. This makes the learning process in this skill faster for the horse because there isn’t the need to learn an artificial stop. Many reining horses are naturally adapted to the stop almost immediately, but you may need to ask your horse how to slide. Avoid directing the horse to drive hard with the hind quarter to stop without any give. Try working from fence to fence, teaching them not to be afraid of it. Get to the stop at the fence and stay there for some time in a relaxed manner. Then repeat the back and forth until the slide is learned. Release pressure whenever all forward momentum has come to a stop.
The goal with the stop is to teach the movement first, then the reason why second. Horses will stop naturally on their own when they encounter an obstacle they do not like. By associating this mechanism with the command, you can give the horse an ability to immediately recognize what you’re asking. Once this occurs, you’ll need to disassociate any fear from the command by rewarding the horse for the behavior. Encourage stops away from fences or obstacles and heavily reward there as well. This is why stopping can be learned so quickly.
#6. Work on the art of collection.
Collection happens when the horse is able to carry more weight on their hind quarters than their front legs. This causes the forehand and back to become raised. Horses can move with greater accuracy with sudden changes through this process. Ask the horse to move forward, holding your elbows against your ribcage so that the upper body and arms do not move. This stops you from pulling back on the reins, confusing the horse as to what you are asking. Then push the horse forward into the bridle while maintain steady contact. The horse will decide on the weight.
It is not unusual for horses to resist moving in a collected frame. There may be head shaking, pinned ears, and other negative behavior responses. It is important to note that the horse is pushing against their own will at this point. If the neck arches, allow a little slack in the reins, then repeat until the barriers are removed.
#7. Teaching the two-track is usually the simplest component of reining.
Horses that are relaxed and having fun will be naturally encouraged to start when you ask them. Initiate the command and encourage the horse to two-track with slight pressure around the sides. Release the pressure when the forward momentum begins, encouraging the direction with pressure on the outside leg. This leaves the horse with a head and neck that are pointing forward in the direction traveling while the hind quarters are moving in the direction you’ve asked.
Once a horse can get these basics down, he can be taught virtually any additional skill. The basics don’t require the horse to have a specific talent and you don’t need to be a master trainer to get this done. You just need to understand your relationship with the horse and the basics of the skills that you’re attempting to execute.
The more you are consistent with each skill as you execute the basics, the faster the horse will be able to learn what you’re asking of it.
#8. Keep practicing.
Once you get the combinations down, you need to keep practicing them. Enough time must be taken so that the basics are well-established in the mind of the horse. You want the horse comfortable doing only what you ask. If he is comfortable doing it another way, you’re likely to get an unexpected response.
Knowing how to train a reining horse ultimately means having patience in yourself and in the horse as it learns new skills. Take your time, focus on the movements, and be willing to call it a day if you encounter resistance. The horse will follow your lead, so be confident and you will eventually have a successful experience with these steps.