Work Your Reiner, Without Good Ground

Use these exercises if you don’t have access to an arena with good ground at home.

By Kristin Pitzer

Horse's legs loping on dirt
It’s an unfortunate fact: you might not always have great ground when you ride. But there are things you can practice in dirt that doesn’t suit a sliding stop. (Photo by Jennifer Paulson)

Good ground is an essential component for training and showing reining horses. But sometimes, you just don’t have access to it when you need to ride. Maybe you’re traveling with your horse or your arena is a muddy mess. Either way, there are plenty of things you can do with your reiner—even in less-than-desirable ground.

What’s Good Stopping Ground?

A reining horse can’t—and shouldn’t, to protect his soundness—perform a sliding stop on just any type of ground. He needs good ground to push on that’s not too slick, but still allows him to paddle and slide. Ground that’s too slippery can cause a wreck, and footing that’s too deep might create an injury.

Bad ground will also discourage a horse, says NRHA Professional Shane Brown, from Elbert, Colorado. If something painful happens to the horse or he falls down, he could lose his confidence and no longer want to do his job.

“If it’s painful or hard on a horse, he’s going to quit wanting to do it,” Brown cautions. “If it’s almost impossible to do his job, then he’s going to give up.”

NRHA Professional Kari Klingenberg, who trains out of Pinnacle Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, added that trying to stop on bad ground will result in frustration for the rider, too. She says stopping and changing leads tend to be the hardest maneuvers for non pros, as there are so many things that can go wrong. Trying to ride to a sliding stop on improper footing only compounds those issues.

“I think, especially with bad ground, if your horse hits the ground and kind of stings himself, or if it’s sticky ground that he’s not going to be able to stop in really well, he might get a little intimidated and not want to stop if he’s jamming himself in the ground,” she shares. “Then it’s hard for you. You get yourself in the wrong position, and it’s hard on your timing.”

Female rider on bay horse loping through grass in pasture
When riding on less-than-optimal ground, put safety first. Scope out the surface for holes to avoid and other hazards. Then focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t. This will help you make the most out of every ride. (Photo by Kaycie Timm)

Being familiar with the type of ground you have before you try to stop on it is the best way to prevent putting your horse in a bad situation and setting him up for failure. While not everyone has access to a covered pen, which is ideal for reining, many people have an outdoor space where they can ride. But outdoor reining arenas are the most difficult to construct due to the variety and intensity of the maneuvers required for the sport, according to arena footing specialist Bob Kiser.

Most disciplines require ground that will simply hold a horse up and keep him from getting in too deep and falling. Reining, on the other hand, needs ground that allows a horse to slide, but also isn’t so slick he falls down in his circles, for example. The type of material needed also can’t be so abrasive it burns the horses as they stop.

“The stopping part is where it gets tough,” warns Kiser, whose company is based in Gainesville, Texas, but does business worldwide. “I could build an outdoor jumping arena, 

and you could do anything—except stop—in that arena safely, and your horse will stay sound.”

No matter where you live, it’s important to talk to a knowledgeable footing specialist before staking out your riding space, especially if you want to slide. Kiser has seen many arenas ruined over the years because the wrong base or fill was used, and people lose thousands of dollars fixing arenas put in by contractors who didn’t know what they were doing.

It might seem like dragging bad footing would improve it, but having the wrong drag for a reining arena, especially one that’s outdoors, can cause more harm than good.

“There’s so much emphasis put on equipment to protect your horse and his feeding, care, and training,” Kiser says. “No matter what you do there, if you don’t have the right equipment to maintain that arena, that’s not going to help you.

“There are some drags that aren’t suited to an outdoor reining arena or even an indoor one,” he continues. “Some people buy them just because they’re less money. That’s money foolishly spent.”

When You Can’t Slide

Just because you don’t have access to good ground doesn’t mean all hope is lost. While not being able to practice sliding stops regularly can be a disadvantage, there are other exercises that allow you to break down the separate components of it.

“You can still work on going around the rectangle, working on your corners, and making sure your horse will rate if you slow down before you get to the end of the arena,” Klingenberg says. “Focus on your running. Really good-stopping horses run really free. You can go around your corner, make him wait for you to start building, then take hold and make sure he stays soft.”

Even though she has great ground at her facility, Klingenberg says she works on those things more than stopping. She checks her brakes, but focuses more on running straight and keeping her horses honest so they don’t anticipate the stop.

Another thing to practice is body language, including how you communicate the stop cue to your horse by sitting back on your pockets, keeping your eyes up, and being slow with your hands. You can do all this without the actual slide.

“You can practice that in lower gears where you’re not having to run and slide,” Brown shares. “Practice slowing your body language down and not throwing yourself back or throwing your legs off. You can slow that down and build your muscle memory.”

“Do those things at a lower speed, whatever your ground will let you do,” he continues. “If it’s really bad ground, do it at a walk or a trot; if it’s just not that ‘slidey’ but not going to be hard on my horse, I’ll do it at a lope. We all know our approach makes our stop anyway, so work on that approach.”

Brown says it’s also important to teach your horse how to transition down in his front end to do a sliding stop. That can be done be taking him from a rundown through each gait slowly, all the way to a “whoa.”

“You can work on your horse’s response to when you relax and start to move your legs to show him how to transition down,” Brown says. “I think that’s something most riders don’t do enough.”

Brown added it’s not necessary to practice stopping every day. He says non pros feel like they need to work on every maneuver every day, but
that can sometimes cause problems.

“Focus on the different maneuvers on different days, versus thinking every time you ride you’ve got to run and stop, change leads, turnaround, run fast, go slow,” Brown advises. “Sometimes you might make the mistake of thinking you’ve got to do all the maneuvers every time you ride. There are a lot of things you can do stopping-wise that don’t mean you’ve got to run and stop.”

He often sees seasoned horses that were kept fit but didn’t have access to good stopping ground all winter return to the show pen in the spring. The rider gives the horse a refresher on stopping the night before, and the next day they can go and be successful. To him, that proves that finished reiners don’t have to run and stop every day.

Beyond the Stop

The sliding stop and other maneuvers are very important for reining, but even more vital is keeping your horse in shape, both physically and mentally. That can be very difficult when you have poor ground to work with, but there are still steps you can take.

“Collection is a big part—making sure you’re able to drive your horse in a compact mass while he respects the pressure of your leg, the release of your leg, and the restriction or confinement of your hands together,” Brown explains. “Your horse needs to understand collection and be respectful of your cues.

“As far as the anticipation [seasoned horses can develop], doing things like practicing a rundown but not stopping at the end help prevent that,” he continues. “And you can do those same things in the pasture [with safe, dry footing].”

Horse's legs loping on grass
Work at a slower speed than you would in an arena with excellent footing. A slower pace can allow you to focus on correctness and your body language, which will improve your horse’s response. (Photo by Kaycie Timm)

Riding less intensive moves to keep a horse physically fit will help prepare him to do things like turn around and change leads. Be aware of hard footing so you don’t overwork your horse or cause an injury or soreness, but you can still do quite a bit if riding carefully.

“You can work circles and counter canter,” Klingeberg shares. “Training a horse to change leads in a big pasture is good because it’s less confined than an arena. You can just use a ton of area and push your horse’s body around.

“Spend a lot of time on steering because, when you go to show, you have to make sure your horse can steer,” Klingenberg adds. “That’s probably the most vital of anything. Any place where you can just steer and make sure your horse stays soft off the neck rein and your legs—that’s big.”

If your horse has “tricks up his sleeves” and likes to anticipate his next move, Klingenberg suggests practicing steering by making up random patterns and counter cantering if your horse leans one direction. You can stay one step ahead of your mount and refocus his attention on what you want him do.

Dreaded Dirt

Always watch out for deep or very hard ground. They pose different issues, but both can leave your mount needing veterinary care and time off.

Deep ground can cause muscle problems or soft-tissue injuries to your horse’s ligaments and tendons.
It requires your horse to put forth more effort, and if he isn’t used to that type of surface, he can easily overexert himself.

“All that works the same way, whether you’re loping circles, where you can overwork your horse or he can step wrong, or if you’re spinning,” Brown cautions. “A lot of times if your horse picks a pivot foot and drills a hole down in the ground, you don’t want to do that to the point it binds him up and he twists that hock. Plus, it’s more of a struggle for him to get around in super-deep dirt.”

Hard ground poses problems, too, due to repetitive concussion and the danger of slipping. If an athletic horse pounds his feet around in a spin on hard ground, that can cause soundness issues, or he might even slip and fall. Avoid performing maneuvers on ground that could allow for an accident, which will keep your horse confident in his ability to do his job.

Find a Mentor

Though it can be hard, especially if you’re new to the sport, to find the right kind of ground to practice on, at the end of the day, keeping your horse in shape and mentally focused goes farther than practicing maneuvers daily. When you’re ready to compete, finding a mentor to haul out to and work with can give you the edge you need to be show pen-ready.

“Participants in all events, not just Western sports, need a good coach and trainer,” Brown says. “With a good coach and trainer, you’ll have access to some good ground so your horse can practice stopping.”