When reined cow horse exhibitors trot into the show pen this year, their reining skills may be evaluated in a slightly different way, with the addition of three new reined work patterns in the 2009 National Reined Cow Horse Association rulebook.
The reined, or “dry,” work is designed to gauge the cow horse’s ability to execute spins, sliding stops, lead changes, and fast/slow circles with smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness and authority, using controlled speed. “It demonstrates that the horse is broke well enough to go where it’s pointed, so to speak; that they’ve had the time spent on them,” said Bill Enk, NRCHA director of judges.
In an effort to give show organizers and judges a greater variety of shorter reined work tests to save time at shows with many entries, the NRCHA board of directors voted to add three patterns in 2009, requiring riders to run only two circles on each lead. The additions mean judges can now choose from six different patterns with two sets of circles; before, there were only three patterns that offered two sets of circles.
In its pattern-editing process, the NRCHA board also voted to eliminate an outdated pattern deemed unsuitable for showing and judging the modern reined cow horse. The NRCHA pattern adjustments were also adopted by the American Quarter Horse Association, a customary move to facilitate concurrently-judged AQHA and NRCHA classes at shows approved by both associations.
While changes to the NRCHA reined work patterns aren’t particularly rare – the last modifications were implemented in 2006 – they are carefully thought out.
“Our goal is not to annoy people with rule changes. Most of the changes come from the members, or it comes from what we saw as a problem at our major shows,” said NRCHA president and top cow horse trainer Lyn Anderson.
The association designed its pattern changes in response to the needs of exhibitors, judges and show managers, without compromising the function of the reined work: to be an effective test that, paired with cow work, determines the best reined cow horse. This year’s changes were driven by a need for a greater selection of patterns that are shorter in duration, but retain the degree of difficulty needed to evaluate each horse.
“We didn’t just all of a sudden come up with new patterns for no reason. We’re constantly working and thinking,” Enk said.
The process of changing the 2009 NRCHA rulebook began about two years ago, when some of the major NRCHA events began to draw so many entries that the judging took all day and part of the night.
“It was late,” recalled Sandy Collier of the 2008 Hackamore Classic. She was the Open Champion of the event. Collier, the only woman to win the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity Open Championship, consistently appears near the top of the Open NRCHA limited-age event rider list and is also an NRCHA judge.
“We always are trying to respond to the horse show people, and getting people home at a decent hour, and not keeping the judges in their chairs all day,” she said.
While the shows weren’t quite big enough to justify the expense of adding an extra day, NRCHA officials wanted to find a way to finish at a decent hour.
“It wasn’t just a reaction from one year; it was the last two or three years,” Anderson said. “We’ve been getting bigger and bigger, and it’s [a question of] what can we do to help out the judges and the exhibitors, because it’s just getting too lengthy.”
It came down to the most time-consuming maneuver in the reined work: the circles. The patterns in both reining and cow horse competition use circles to evaluate how well the horse controls its speed from fast to slow. With the exception of NRCHA Pattern 6, which asks for only one circle on each lead, all patterns feature either two or three circles on each side. Obviously, the greater the number of circles, the longer it takes a rider to complete the pattern.
For a cow horse competitor, the average reined work lasts about three minutes, when executing a pattern with three circles on each lead. Enk suggested taking away one large, fast circle each direction, abbreviating the pattern by as much as 30 to 40 seconds.
“To save time, we still think we can get it judged accurately with the two circles versus the three, so that’s the patterns we added: two-circle-type patterns,” he said.
Anderson noted the new patterns save time without sacrificing the elements that make them a valid test of a cow horse’s reining ability.
“You’re still keeping a big fast/small slow circle for degree of difficulty, so the judges have something to judge – we didn’t try to ‘dumb it down,’ ” she said. “We tried to keep the degree of difficulty up there, but just take out one of the big fast circles, and I think they’re going to be pretty popular.”
Exhibitors say it’s an even greater relief to have a shorter reined work pattern in horse show situations where the fence work immediately follows the dry work, as opposed to most limited-age events when the herd, rein and fence work are run separately, and often on different days.
“The weekend shows, if you have a really long reined work pattern, and then you follow it with the cow, that’s a long time for a horse to be going,” Collier said. “I don’t mind having longer patterns when the events are broken up, but when they’re put back to back, I appreciate and I’m sure my horses appreciate the shorter pattern.”
Out with the old
Poor old Pattern 5: rejected as “boring” and “hard to judge,” it was removed from the 2009 NRCHA rulebook and replaced with a more worthy group of maneuvers.
“It was a holdover,” Anderson said. “It was the only pattern we had that was concurrent with the AQHA pattern years ago.”
The old Pattern 5 was unbalanced and not very specific, compared with the other NRCHA patterns. It asked for only one circle on the right lead, but two on the left lead. None of the circles were defined as large, small, fast or slow, as they are in all other patterns. The final maneuver was a single 360-degree spin each direction at the center of the arena. Riders found this awkward to execute and judges thought it was difficult to evaluate.
“You really couldn’t show your horse,” Anderson said. “There was no big fast, no small slow. It was just pretty boring to show it, and it was boring and hard to judge it.”
Enk added, “You really didn’t have a standard. If you have one circle, have one circle on both sides. We found it was hard to make just one full turn each way in the center look very good. So we didn’t care for that any more.”
The new Pattern 5 is a run-in with two circles: one fast, one slow in each direction, and 3 1/2 spins each way. A note in the rulebook advises that this pattern works best in situations where exhibitors and cattle enter at the same end of the arena.
Enk, who judges NRHA and AQHA events as well as NRCHA, said that a particular feature sets the reined cow horse pattern apart from the straight reining.
“One real plus with our patterns is the trot-in,” he said. “When they trot in, it’s almost as fast as a run-in pattern, so that opens us up to use all of our patterns, because there isn’t a lot of difference between a trot-in and a run-in pattern – where there is a lot of difference between a walk-in and a run-in pattern.”
Enk said the association is constantly evaluating its patterns, looking for ways to make competition more efficient for the humans and fresher for the horses.
“Originally, we always used the same pattern, all the way through, at the Snaffle Bit [Futurity]. And if you do that too much with a young horse, they catch on, and you want them to stay fresh and open-minded. We’re always trying to better those patterns. It hasn’t just come up; we work on it all the time,” he said.
Raising the bar
Veteran NRCHA competitors say the pattern changes adopted over the years are due, in part, to the increasingly high standard of performance in the show pen. In the “old days,” judges forgave mistakes in the reined work that are heavily penalized under current standards. As reining specialists began entering the cow horse pen, the level of competition grew to the point that judges needed a more stringent check list of pluses and minuses to divide up the class and justify their scores.
“We want to be able to say: here’s the reason he got what he did. He trotted two steps and that was a half-point penalty. He did stop real good, but you’ve still got to give the good and the bad; give the penalties and plus the credits, but with a little more structure because of the competitiveness of the whole event,” Enk explained.
Lyn Anderson’s reined cow horse career dates back to the days when there was only one pattern in competition.
“When I first started, and when we first started doing the longer patterns, the old-timers, for lack of a better word – they did complain!” she chuckled. “I’ve been through a lot of pattern changes and it was time for us to get a little more serious, add a little more degree of difficulty, give the judges something to judge in the reining and not just have it based on the fence work.”
And there are still greater achievements ahead, Collier said.
“The bar is going up. And it goes up every year, and I’m so happy to see it,” she said. “What I always think is, what’s it going to look like in 10 more years? We think we’re at the top of the game now, but in 10 more years, just imagine!”