Kristen Kovatch, coach of the Alfred University western team, just returned to New York from the IHSA Semifinal Championships in L.A. She reports on differences in reining style between the two coasts.
By the time you’re reading this article, the Alfred University western team will have returned to the perpetually-snowy, never-springtime western New York state after a series of cross-country flights from Los Angeles, California, the land of seemingly perpetual summer. We’re sunburnt, sandy and a little tired, but happy to have had the opportunity to compete at the IHSA Semifinal Championships.
This year we qualified two individual riders in the open reining to compete and Saturday afternoon found us standing ringside at the Los Angeles Fairplex, baking slowly in the sun we hadn’t seen in weeks, watching the reiners warming up, wondering which ones our riders would draw. For the most part, the beautiful selection of horses looked pretty similar to our own; they were all well-broke and soft in the bridle, sitting down hard for their sliding stops and circling beautifully with minimal guidance from the riders.
My riders had practiced hard in the past few weeks, scheduling extra lessons and practices and getting on as many horses as possible to prepare for a cold draw, getting on an unknown horse and taking it out to perform a precise and high-speed pattern before two judges all the way across the country. We had done our homework. We were prepared. We were confident. After all, a reining horse was a reining horse.
Except, apparently, not quite.
“You’re east coast reiners,” mentioned the assistant trainer of one of our draws. “This might not make sense to you, but you’re in California now… we ride west coast style.”
We glanced at each other, sharing a look before the head coach spoke up.
“Well, we all ride cowhorse.”
“Oh. Well then, you’ll be just fine. Have a good ride.”
Some sort of reining-horse smack-talk? Not exactly. The assistant trainer brought up a very interesting point in his single comment that called attention to the heritage of reining horses and the development of reining as a sport in this country—most equestrians probably know that the sport of reining traces its roots back to working cow horses and the maneuvers that a stock horse would have to make in its daily job—circles at varying speeds, lead changes, stops and rollbacks, quick turns on the haunches to follow the rapid and unpredictable movements of cattle.
Delving deeper into this history, however, we have to credit the vaqueros of the west coast with developing the finest-broke cowhorses in the world, training the young horse first in a bosal hackamore, then developing the horse into a full curb bridle with romel reins. These highly-trained cowhorses, while feather-soft in the bridle and finely-tuned to the leg, typically carried their heads higher than what we see in the modern-style reiner, necks arched in the style that’s become what we call “in the bridle.”
Reining started to develop on the west coast as a natural offshoot of working cow horses. When the sport started to become popular on the east coast, however, the style began to change—east coast horses now tend to travel with their heads quite low, reins pitched away loose, the rider’s arm extended to let the horse move freely almost without contact. These riders developed the sport of reining into what we see today—the sliding stops with the curved topline, horses’ noses nearly touching the dirt as they slide twenty or thirty feet. While the basic maneuvers are still the same, the style is drastically different.
But reined cowhorse, the sport developed directly from the bridle style of the vaqueros, has maintained a more traditional way of going as well as the equipment requirements; cowhorses will tend to travel more compact and collected, not as flashy in their maneuvers but quietly powerful. The rider will keep the horse in the bridle, harnessing the energy and packaging the horse together. The cowhorse rider is accustomed to bridling up his reining horse rather than pitching him the reins.
West coast reining seems to have taken a more middle road, combining aspects of both—the horses will travel like modern reiners but the riders do not “pitch them away” as drastically as their eastern relatives. Coming from a cowhorse background, our riders were in good shape to adjust to the regional difference. After the dust had settled, we took home second and third place—not bad for a couple of cowboy kids from New York.
Todd Crawford explains his thoughts on west coast influence in this video.
About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny any more. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at thewesternlife.wordpress.com. She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.
Kristen & her horse Playgirl