From the Judge’s Chair: Evaluating the Spin

Evaluating one of reining’s trademark maneuvers can be dizzying for the person in the judge’s chair.

By Megan Arszman

Do you clearly understand what a judge is looking for in a spin? NRHA Judge Bob Kail helps define the ins and outs of evaluating this maneuver. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

The spin can make or the break a reining pattern, and it can be dizzying for not only the horse and rider, but also the judge.

Like all maneuvers, a spin is specifically defined in the NRHA Handbook. It says:

Spins are a series of 360-degree turns, executed over a stationary (inside) hind leg. Propulsion for the spin is supplied by the outside rear leg and front legs, and contact should be made with the ground and a front leg. The location of the hindquarters should be fixed at the start of the spin and maintained throughout the spins. It is helpful for a judge to watch for the horse to remain in the same location, rather than watching for a stationary inside leg. This allows for easier focus on other elements of the spin (i.e., cadence, attitude, smoothness, finesse and speed).

“When you watch a spin to evaluate it, it’s advised by the NRHA Handbook that the judge doesn’t just watch the hind legs, but also pay attention to the entire spin and the location where the horse stays,” shares Bob Kail, NRHA Judge and member of the NRHA Judge’s Committee. 

Scoring Spins

Kail continues by saying that any time judges are evaluating a maneuver in reining, correctness is the first thing to consider. 

“If a maneuver is not correct, if the horse doesn’t hold that stationary pivot foot or stay in the same area, then that’s a negative,” he says. 

A correct spin, which would receive a maneuver score of 0 is demonstrated when the horse plants his pivot foot, stays on that pivot foot, and has cadence, but might not give a lot of speed or degree of difficulty. 

A good spin, which would receive a maneuver score of +1/2 , stays on the inside pivot foot while the horse uses his front end and outside hind leg to propel himself with a nice cadence. 

“The rider will use a soft, correct rein; however, the horse isn’t over-bent—he stays basically straight with a slight arc in the direction he’s going,” Kail explains. “If the horse exhibits all those qualities, and adds speed, it would be a +1/2  with a nice shutoff. But the spin must have speed and be correct in every way.”

A very good spin, which would receive a maneuver score of +1, exhibits very good position, speed, and cadence, with a big step of the front leg while staying solid on the hind foot. The spin exhibits a lot of speed and a shutoff right in the middle, meaning no slowdown before the stop. 

(Photo by Waltenberry)

“The rider who goes for it, really spins hard while staying in the same geographical spot, and has a big step around in front deserves that point,” Kail says. “That’s a +1 because it’s hard to do with speed and a crisp shutoff.”

An excellent spin, which would receive a maneuver score of +11/2, exhibits excellent position all the way through the spin, holds the pivot foot, and steps with a large step in front with even more speed than the very good spins. 

“Those are very, very hard maneuvers to do with speed and a sharp shutoff,” Kail acknowledges. 

“Many riders might go safe and go for a 0 or +1/2  because they don’t want to make a mistake,” he continues. “But when a rider goes for it and has that correctness and excellent speed, he’s really taking a chance, so it has to be rewarded by getting a +1 or +11/2 maneuver.”

Over-Spin Penalties 

“When we’re evaluating and watching a horse spin, his shutoff is extremely important for the maneuver,” Kail stresses. 

A proper shutoff is right on target—in the middle of the shutoff spot. However, judges do give slight leeway with the shutoff: a shoulder-width on each side of that ideal spot. There’s no penalty for stopping a shoulder’s width either side of the line. But once the horse’s body is past the shoulder-width marker, the penalties start. 

An over-spin stopping past shoulder width, but less than one-eighth of the spin, receives a penalty  1/2. An over spin stopping between one-eighth to one-quarter of a spin receives a penalty 1. 

When a horse spins beyond the one-quarter mark, that horse and rider will receive a penalty score of zero. 

“We only use the shoulder-width leeway when the horse is shutting off in the proper area,” Kail explains. “In other words, if he’s a shoulder width over the line into the zero range [more than one-quarter], he’ll receive a score of zero.”

Under-Spin Penalties

The shoulder-width allowance also applies for under-spins. And, as with over-spins, once the horse’s body has stopped before the shoulder-width location, penalties occur. 

A spin stopping prior to the optimum shut-off spot more than shoulder-width, but less than one-eighth, will receive a penalty 1/2. An under-spin of more than one-eighth to one-quarter of a spin will receive a  penalty 1. 

An under spin that freezes up prior to the optimum shut-off spot of more than one-quarter, but demonstrates completion of the maneuver, will receive a penalty 2. 

What’s a freeze-up? NRHA defines it as, “A brief but obvious refusal to start a spin or rollback, or any complete stoppage of a horse’s lateral shoulder movement, which delays the execution of a spin or rollback. A judge thus must determine whether there was a momentary complete stoppage of lateral shoulder movement in a spin or rollback.” 

Kail explains a freeze-up in a spin, saying, “Let’s say a horse is spinning and he shuts off more than a quarter before the completion spot, but the rider realizes it and realigns his horse to the spot he was supposed to stop at originally—that is a two-point penalty.” 

In addition to the two-point penalty, there’s a reduction in the maneuver score. “Most of the time, if they’re going to make that mistake, then we’ll reduce the maneuver score and also give the two-point penalty,” Kail continues. 

Hesitate With Patience

In the description of each pattern, the word “hesitate” appears between the sets of spins and the next maneuver. It’s an important part of the pattern that riders might miss and that can cost them in the overall appeal of the maneuver. 

A correct spin has cadence and a planted pivot foot. The degree of difficulty rises when you add speed and a big step while staying correct. (Photo by Waltenberry)

“We do have riders who will spin and, without any hesitation, go back the other way, but they’re not following the pattern,” Kail cautions. “A judge will not go to the extent of giving that horse’s run a zero, but there will be  a maneuver deduction because the maneuver isn’t being completed correctly.” 

This means if a rider’s spins to the left were to be scored +1/2 , but there was a failure to hesitate, the maneuver deduction can take that +1/2 to a 0 or a –1/2

The hesitation is an important part of the pattern because, as Kail explains, it demonstrates the horse’s ability to be willingly guided through the pattern. If the horse can’t stand with all four feet flat on the ground, there’s a maneuver deduction for that set of spins. 

“If the horse can’t shut off and stand still, meaning he wiggles around, moves sideways, or just looks uncomfortable, then that’s not correct. He needs to spin, stop, and wait,” Kail says. 

If a horse backs up more than four steps consecutively anywhere in the pattern where it’s not warranted, that’s a penalty score 0 for the pattern. Kail points out that has happened in spins before, so it’s important for the judge to watch the front feet to count the steps on a back up. 

Spinning on Solid Ground

If a horse loses his back feet from spinning too fast, his hocks might slip and touch the ground. That’s a five-point penalty. However, if the momentum of that slip causes the horse and rider to be carried out of position, thus causing the horse to go all the way down, it can result in a penalty score 0. 

“Any deviation from the pattern is considered a lack of control and is a maneuver deduction in reining,” Kail says. “It all goes back to A. General in our rulebook.”

Don’t Stomp on the Gas

NRHA Judge Bob Kail has stressed the importance of judging spins according to the NRHA Handbook and ensuring the continued adherence to A. General—that a horse is willingly guided throughout the pattern. This especially includes the spins. 

“If a horse and rider try to start their spin too hard and too fast from the first step, it can turn into a floppy spin that can lose its position and cadence,” he explains. 

This could cause a gaping mouth or a jerk of the head, definitely not exhibiting the willingness to be guided. 

“I think the very best riders start their spin a little slow, then build that speed as they get into the spin. Then they show the ability to build that speed fast, hold it all together, then shut off right on the button,” Kail points out. “I’m not critical of a horse that starts their spin with a little caution then builds up speed.”


Bob Kail is a member of the NRHA Judge’s Committee and is a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona. He currently holds a judge’s card for NRHA, AQHA, NRCHA, National Snaffle Bit Association, and World Conformation Horse Association.