How do you judge reining?

Wondering why you placed the way you did? Discover what judges are looking for when they’re judging horse reining classes.

It’s becoming increasingly popular for exhibitors to show in pattern classes. More often than not, many of these patterns may be known far in advance. This provides opportunity for studying, learning and practice. Show day is here, you get to the show, perform for the judge, and it goes wonderfully. Then you hear your placing and it’s not quite what you expected. You wonder what went through that judges head. Well, read on to discover just that! In this article, we will discuss reining.

Reining is a scored class based on a scoring system established by the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA). Every horse and rider combination starts with a score of 70, and for each maneuver they can receive positive or negative maneuver points. There is also the possibility for them to incur penalty points. Reining is judged on three main concepts: functional correctness, maneuvers and attitude.

Functional correctness

According to the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations page 159 Rule 480, “To rein a horse is not only to guide him, but also to control his every movement. The best reined horse should be willfully guided or controlled with little or no apparent resistance and dictated to completely. Any movement on his own must be considered a lack of control. All deviations from the exact written pattern must be considered a lack of or temporary loss of control and therefore faulted according to severity of deviation. Credit will be given for smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness and authority in performing the various maneuvers while using controlled speed.”


For complete definitions set forth by the National Reining Horse Association, view their NRHA 2016 Handbook, pages 160-162.

  • Stops: Controlled. Horse should “mold” into the ground, digging in deep while breaking at the loin, lowering his head and neck and staying mobile in the front creating the “slide” on the hind legs. Faults against the horse to be scored accordingly, but not to cause disqualification if displays of excessive jawing, opening mouth or head raising on stop or lack of smooth, straight stop on haunches, bouncing or sideways stop.
  • Spins: Horse should spin low to the ground with a stationary rear pivot foot, crossing over in the front with moderate to fast speed, and stop precisely where the pattern calls for. An over or under spin of an eighth of a turn will result in a 0.5 point penalty. An over or under spin of one-eighth to one-quarter turn will result in a 1 point penalty. An over spin of more than one-quarter turn will result in a disqualification.
  • Circles: In the large, fast circle the horse should run with speed and authority, looking straight through the bridle with his body arching inward on light contact. In the slow, small circle the horse should come back soft, slow and collected to a lope with same body position and circle being significantly smaller.
  • Rollbacks: The horse should accelerate into a stop, drop its haunches into the groups and then immediately snap back over the hocks and lope off; it should be fluid and in one continuous motion.
  • Lead changes: All lead changes are to be flying and made within the designated changing area. Simple and late changes will be penalized. A change is not complete until the front and hind legs have changed leads. Credit will be given to flat, fluid and simultaneous changes.


Should be aggressive yet willing and perfectly controlled on light rein. Relatively quiet mouth and tail with impeccable manners. Any “free thinking” shall be penalized.


According to the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations Rule 481, “Scoring will be on the basis of 0-infinity, with 70 denoting an average performance. Points will be added or subtracted from the maneuvers on the following bases, ranging from plus 1.5 to minus 1.5 : -1.5 extremely poor, -1 very poor, -0.5 poor, 0 average, +0.5 good, +1 very good, +1.5 excellent. Maneuver scores are to be determined independently of penalty points.”

No score

This type of score will result in the contestant being disqualified and unable to perform in their remaining classes of the day.

  • Infraction of state or federal law pertaining to the exhibition, care and custody of horses within state where event is held.
  • Abuse of animal in ring and/or evidence that abuse has occurred prior to or during competition.
  • Use of illegal equipment.
  • Attachment which alters the movement of or circulation to the tail.
  • Failure to dismount and present the horse and equipment for inspection by the judge.
  • Disrespect or misconduct by the exhibitor.

Penalty scores

With a penalty score zero or disqualification, the rider will be unable to be used for the class, but will be able to compete in remaining classes of the day.

  • 0 or “DQ” or disqualification
    • More than index finger between reins.
    • Use of two hands (except in a snaffle).
    • Failure to complete the pattern as written.
    • Jogging in excess of half circle or half the length of the arena.
    • Over spins of more than one-quarter turn.
    • Fall to the ground by horse or rider. Fall of horse is defined as shoulder and/or hip and/or underline touches the ground.
    • Dropping a rein that contacts the ground while the horse is in motion.
    • Failure to wear appropriate western attire.
  • 5 point penalties
    • Spurring in front of the cinch.
    • Use of either hand to instill fear or praise.
    • Holding saddle horn.
    • Blatant disobedience including kicking, biting, bucking rearing and striking.
  • 2 point penalties
    • Break of gait.
    • Freeze up in spin or rollback.
    • On walk in patterns, cantering prior to reaching the center of the arena and/or failure to stop or walk before executing a canter departure.
    • On run in patterns, failure to be in a canter prior to reaching first marker.
    • If a horse does not completely pass the specified marker before initiating the stop position.

Maneuver scores

As stated above, maneuver scores are given separately from penalty scores. The horse can receive penalties, but if the horse looked good while doing it they can receive a positive maneuver score of 0.5 to 15.

You can see an example of a judge’s card on the 100 Mile Sliders Reining Club website, and watch a complete pattern on YouTube.

I hope this information is useful when you are preparing your reining pattern for the show, and that you are able to better understand the placings and score sheets at the end of the day. Understanding how your classes are evaluated is crucial to becoming an informed, successful exhibitor.

For more information on similar topics, see my other Michigan State University Extension articles on “Tips for perfecting your pattern” and “Tips from a judge’s perspective.”

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