From Starter to Step-Up

As you advance in your reining career, you’ll eventually outgrow your mount. If you want to be competitive, you’ll need to find a ‘step-up horse.’

By Kristin Pitzer

As your reining skills improve, you’ll need a new mount to help you move up the levels of NRHA competition. These tips will help you choose your next partner. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

Whether you’re just getting started in reining or have lofty goals, such as showing a horse at the futurity level, the time will come when you’ll need to purchase a more advanced “step-up horse” to progress through your career. Knowing where to look for that horse, what traits he should have, and whether he’s The One can make the horse-buying process simpler. Three NRHA Professionals offer their best tips for finding your next-level reiner here.

Starting Off Right

When you started reining, you probably began by taking lessons on someone else’s horse. You don’t need to own a  horse to compete in NRHA’s entry-level program, and having a steady, consistent mount can be a big confidence booster when you’re starting out in the show pen. But eventually, you’ll need to purchase your own as you level-up.

According to NRHA Professional Mike Boyle, finding the right step-up horse isn’t always easy, but it’s a worthwhile investment to bolster your show career.

“A lot of times, people who are starting reining begin with that sort of lower-end horse,” Boyle said. “This is a horse that we expect to mark a 70, provided everything is good. We always say if we do our job right, they’ll only be with that horse for two years, and then we’ll need to look at an upgrade.”

The best starter horses have been there and done that, said NRHA Professional Mike McEntire. They’re usually beyond their derby years in age but are still sound and healthy, and can perform all the maneuvers with ease.

“He needs to be a fairly nice horse—one that’s old enough to understand what he’s doing, but not a horse that doesn’t want to show anymore or that’s ring-sour,” McEntire continued. “Those horses usually think ahead of the rider so much, we can’t control them through the pattern in the show pen. The best starter horses can teach somebody who’s learning to do their pattern in a pleasant way and not cause a bad experience for a new rider.”

While a borrowed horse with years of experience can give you the confidence you need to take your first step into the show pen, you’ll need to purchase a partner of your own as you move up in the levels of NRHA competition.  (Photo by Abigail Boatwright)

Unlike a stereotypical lesson horse, a starter horse shouldn’t be lazy and hard-sided, cautioned NRHA Professional Dutch Chapman. Beginner riders tend to log long practice sessions while they’re learning, so he prefers a horse that has some pick-up-and-go.

“They need to be able to concentrate on riding that horse—learning how to steer and guide—rather than having to fight with the horse to keep him going all the time,” Chapman said.

The starter horse generally runs $15,000 to $17,500, Boyle said, although a rider can technically spend as much as they want. Boyle tries to stay in that range with his newer riders, though, since it’s their first horse and the start of their reining career.

“We want to ensure that they, one, have success, and two, don’t get so deep financially that they go, ‘This is a financial drain,’” Boyle said. “We’re trying to get them in the sport, help them find the passion, and understand what we’re doing. If we do it right, and we can get them into it at a reasonable amount, then we know that they’ll love it, and they’ll get hooked on it.”

After a couple years, you’ll probably be ready to advance to the next level. At that point, it’s time to step up to a more advanced horse.

Step Carefully

Leaving behind the starter horse to level-up may sound harsh, but it’s for the good of the horse as much as it is for the rider, Boyle said. It may be possible to push the horse a little to mark higher scores, but at some point, the horse will no longer be performing at his comfort level.

“We risk possible injury and anxiety pushing him past his normal level of performance,” Boyle said of the starter horse. “We’d rather sell that horse, and nine times out of 10, we have somebody in the barn who’s going to buy him. That money can then become seed money to purchase the next horse.”

Obviously, budget is a big consideration when making the decision to purchase a new horse. To advance from a starter horse to a horse that can navigate the Rookie classes, or even run for the Toyon Ranch Rookie of the Year title, a rider should expect to pay $25,000-plus.

“Budget is everything, I think,” McEntire said. “If we can’t afford it, we obviously can’t buy the horse.”

Where you want to show will also affect how much horse you should be prepared to buy, Chapman added.

“If you want to go be competitive at the NRBC or the NRHA Futurity and Derby, you’re looking at a totally different horse than if you just want to go to a weekend show once a month,” Chapman said.

Don’t risk causing an injury or anxiety by pushing your entry-level horse beyond his comfort level. Instead, step up to a horse with the talent and desire to match your skill level. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

Even though talent is a necessity when looking for a horse suitable for more advanced competition, McEntire believes a horse that’s unwilling to do his job is akin to one that cannot physically perform the maneuvers. Stay away from both of those horses when searching for a step-up horse, he cautioned.

Chapman acknowledged that a horse should be good-leaded, have a good stop, and be able to turn, but added if a horse doesn’t perform at a show the way he does at home, it doesn’t do you much good.

“The biggest thing he [the horse] needs to be is showable,” Chapman said. “To me, showable is more important than talent, because I’ve had horses that could +1 every maneuver but couldn’t mark a 65 in the show pen. They just wouldn’t do their job when they got in there.”

Boyle agreed, saying that he looks for two things—mind and athletic ability—when searching for step-up horses. A horse without the desire to show wastes his talent.

“I separate those horses into show horses and non-show horses,” Boyle said. “A show horse, when you get to a horse show, will do at least as well as he does on a day-to-day basis. A non-show horse knows that he needs to be good at home or when he’s being schooled, but given the opportunity, he’d rather not put forth the effort, so he tends to slack off a bit [in the show pen]. I don’t want that horse for my client.”

All three trainers agree: If possible, watch a horse in the show pen before purchasing him. 

“There’s no perfect horse—they’re all going to have a little quirk here and there—but if you make a mistake, the horse shouldn’t lose his mind. He should just stay with you,” Chapman continued. “I don’t care if you’re trying to win the open finals of the NRHA Futurity or a green reiner class; you need a horse with that same mentality.”

Advancing through the ranks in NRHA competition will require multiple purchases of new horses, and your budget and time constraints matter every time. If you make your way to competing in aged events, you’ll find those horses cost $35,000-plus, which can be a large investment. Therefore, it’s helpful to have someone you trust who can help you through the process.

Make arrangements for you and your trainer to go see your prospective new horse in person. Videos can give you an idea of what the horse has to offer, but it’s important to ride the horse yourself before making a purchase. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

Finding a Unicorn

Knowing where to look for a new equine partner can be challenging. Boyle likes to watch horses that are currently showing and keep a mental log in case they come up for sale down the road. Even if they’ve retired from their limited-age career by that point, they might make a good starter horse later in their career.

Boyle also advises his clients to use the internet to find available horses. Once they’ve found a horse they’re interested in, he’ll check out the horse’s sale ad and videos, then do a background check on him by calling pros who live in the area where the horse is located to ask if they’ve seen the horse ride or show. Boyle will also check the horse’s show record, if the horse has one. If Boyle finds anything that gives him pause, he’ll do his best to follow-up on it.

“If [the horse has] won several checks in a row and then suddenly has six months where he didn’t get shown, and then he was offered for sale, I’m going to ask why,” Boyle said.

If, after all of that, the horse seems to vet, Boyle will arrange to go see the horse in person, since videos are no substitute for actually riding. But, he’ll only book a flight to visit out-of-state horses with a guarantee they won’t be sold before he gets there.

Sometimes, especially for prospects, a horse doesn’t have a show record to prove his value. In those cases, pedigree can be useful, but it still shouldn’t be the main determination.

“I think pedigree is a guide to say if the horse could be good, but we’ve seen full brothers and sisters where one’s a world champion and the other can’t even compete in the green reiner,” Boyle said. “You can’t get by on straight lineage, but it can be a helpful guideline.”

McEntire added that breeding is now so specialized, horses currently competing are usually going to have good reining pedigrees. But when he’s shopping for a non pro, he’s generally not as worried about the horse’s breeding.

“I want to see how that horse shows and how it rides for someone,” McEntire said. “That’s the most important thing.”

It’s okay to have certain qualities—like pedigree, look, and talent—you want in a horse, but above all else, find a horse that fits your goals at that time.

“You go through this laundry list of things that you’re looking at, but to be honest, not all horses are going to check all of those boxes,” Boyle said. “At the end of the day, I’m looking at what’s going to be suitable for my rider—is this a show horse? Does he mentally want to go in the show pen and be a good horse? And will he be suitable for this stage of this rider’s career?”

It certainly helps to have a trainer you trust assist in the process, but even if you’re on your own, you can solicit the aid of a local, respected NRHA Professional.

Seek guidance from a trusted NRHA Professional to help you make the best selection of a horse that suits your skill level, current goals,  and budget. (Photo by Abigail Boatwright)

“I’d recommend going to a trainer in the area and starting from there,” McEntire said. “Most trainers are more than willing to help somebody find the right horse.”

Although it may be tempting to only look at the top 10 or 20 trainers, Chapman said not to limit your search. Other professionals can offer valuable insight, too.

“Don’t be afraid to look at your younger trainers or your local trainers, because a lot of times they may have good horses that they’ve put a lot of time on riding themselves,” Chapman said. “Maybe it might not be quite as fancy of a horse as you’d get from the top 10 trainers, but you’ll find a horse that’s sound, really well taken care of, and really well trained because it’s the professional’s career on the line. That horse is going to go out there in public and make the decision on how the trainer’s business goes by how the horse performs.”

At the end of the day, Boyle said it’s up to the trainers, as agents for buyers, to help clients find their dream step-up horses. That’s job security for the industry, he added.

“If we find a horse that’s right for the rider’s level and goals, I feel that offers as much security that the buyer will want to continue in our horse business,” Boyle said. “I’ve heard stories of people who said, ‘I just couldn’t do it. I lost money, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to waste any more,’ and they left the reining industry or the horse industry in general. 

“We don’t want to see that,” he continued. “To be healthy, we need to get the right commodity into the right hands, and then our sport will do the rest.”