My sandbox is often 100 feet wide and 300 feet long. And on any given day, there may be another fifty people in there with me—dirty, gritty, sweaty, and very happy. Today, I’m playing in the dirt at the Horse Park of New Jersey at Stone Tavern, just down the road from Great Adventure.
I’m getting ready to show my mare, Spot (her real name is Briannes Final Print), later in the day. The riding arena is my sandbox. Horse shows, and being around horses in general, provide me with R&R, a rush of excitement, the opportunity to see friends, and the chance to challenge myself in pursuit of perfection.
Right now, it’s 5 a.m. and the sandbox is crowded. There are children, teenagers, young professionals, blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, CEOs, housewives, grandmothers, and grandfathers—the riders come in all sizes and shapes. But everyone has a common goal: to ready our horses to show and hopefully win later in the day.
I stand out in the crowd. While most people ride little bay, buckskin, or sorrel horses, I am on a big brown and white tobiano-paint with markings you can’t miss. I often joke that, on a horse like mine, people remember you if you do well, and also if you don’t.
The sport I do is as unique as my mare. Called “reining,” it’s derived from the ranch work of the old West. The movements performed by horse and rider are highly stylized modern recreations of the maneuvers originally used to herd cattle. The cardinal rule is that the horse is “willingly guided,” responding to light pressure of the rein against his neck, or to small shifts in the rider’s body position, seat, and legs. The trademark maneuvers are:
Spins: From a standstill, and with the inside hind leg serving as a pivot foot, the horse crosses one front leg in front of the other and makes a specific number of revolutions, mimicking the quick turns required of a ranch horse.
Sliding Stops: For this maneuver, the horses wear special hind shoes, very slick with small extensions, like tiny skis. Starting at a gallop, the horse gradually locks his hind legs, and slides with his hind legs, leaving two long parallel tracks (like ski tracks). Meanwhile, the front legs walk forward. In the old West, a horse would have had to pick up speed, cut a cow off quickly, and then stop immediately if the rider roped the cow.
Rollbacks: After the sliding stop, the horse gathers himself and lifts his front end, making a quick 180-degree turn, prior to galloping off (ideally in the slide tracks he just made). Again, think chasing cows.
Circles: Large circles at the gallop are preceded or followed by instant slow downs, still at the lope (or canter) and on a loose rein, to demonstrate how well trained the horse is. When the horse changes direction in his circles, he changes leads, as well, shifting his balance so that he “leads” with the left front leg on a circle to the left, or the right front leg on a circle to the right.
There are classes for all ages and levels of experience. Kids often compete against adults in other divisions and can kick butt (and so can some geriatric competitors). Along the way, the kids learn a lot of valuable lessons: responsibility, caring for their animals, how to win and lose gracefully and to congratulate the person who did well, interact socially with adults, and have fun. Plus, these parents all know where their children are! If you are lucky enough to have horse-crazy kids, riding also tends to be an ultimate weapon.
I have been involved with horse activities for most of my life, but I like this one so much because of the precision it requires, and how the communication between you and your horse has to be instantaneous. A second of inattention in the show ring will be the difference between getting a paycheck and donating to someone else’s. But on the days you get it right, it is a wonderful feeling to be really in sync and communicating with a horse that is going very fast, on a totally loose rein, and responding to the slightest cues.
Surprisingly, this Western sport—and yes, we wear cowboy hats, jeans, chaps, and ride in Western saddles—was born in Ohio in the mid 1960s. It is one of the elite horse sports of the U.S. Equestrian Team and the Federation Equestre Internationale (the only Western one) and is part of the World Equestrian Games, Pan Am Games, and other international events. It’s not, however, an Olympic sport—yet.
A number of facilities in the New York area specialize in this sport. I ride with trainer Jeremy Gates at Stonyford Ranch in Campbell Hall, NY, but there are several other barns in the area, as well as in New Jersey.
I didn’t start out riding Western. I used to do dressage and eventing, but reining intrigued me—it exacts the precision of dressage and provides the adrenalin rush of a cross-country event course. But the best part is being able to let your hair down, play in the dirt, and just have fun with your horse!