Find Your Center: Reining Exercise

Find Your Center: Reining Exercise

Creating a good center in a reining pattern starts with using your eyes correctly. Here are reining horse training exercises to help riders hit the mark.

find your center reining exercise with Texas A&M Stock Horse Team (Credit: Taylor Helms)

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By Paige Linne with Andrea Caudill

The center is the anchor of any reining pattern, and there is a lot that happens there. If you’re setting yourself up well there, then you’re setting yourself up to perform a lot of maneuvers well, so it’s important to focus on.

Take the time to stop and watch really good open riders, really good showmen, run a reining pattern. Watch that top rider on fresh dirt, and you’ll notice that all of their circle tracks in the center are on top of one another.

Those riders’ wins come from their attention to those details. It’s not something that you get a direct benefit from on the score card, but if you have pride in those tiny details, you will start to notice that everything else tends to fall into place.

Reining Exercises to Help Riders 'Hit the Mark'

Creating a good center starts with using your eyes correctly. A lot of us have a tendency to be really focused on our horse. We will spend that whole circle – including coming through that center – just staring down at our horse’s head and shoulders, trying to see if the horse is leaning in or out, but what that does is bring our eyes down, and makes our horse lean, even though we don’t want him to. So let’s start with our eyes.

As you start your circle, find the first quarter-mark of your circle with your eyes, which focuses your body into an arc the way you want your horse arced around that circle. As you reach that first quarter-mark, find your second quarter-mark. I like to have my students find the center a little earlier, because for a lot of horses, especially horses that have been shown a lot, the center is where they’re going to demonstrate bad habits. The quicker that rider can find the centerline, the quicker they’re prepared to fix whatever that horse’s habit might be.

So around the outside half of your circle, your eyes should be on the next quarter ahead. Then once you hit that final quarter-mark, find your center cone.

Having your eyes up through the centerline also makes you ride straighter, and if you are focused on looking up, it forces you to feel your horse to troubleshoot, instead of looking down. It is important to be a little more physically aware of the horse staying between your reins and leg, instead of just visually trying to fix things.

'Find the Cone'

If you’re really struggling to keep your eyes up, I have an eye exercise with a bunch of spray-painted cones. I place the cones around the arena, and randomly call out a color and my riders have to find that cone.

With my really novice riders who are completely new to reining, I start by having them just draw a reining pattern on paper.

D-Shape Circles

When it’s time for riding practice, I over-exaggerate the centerline of the circles. Instead of running a circle, think of running a D-shape. So you’ve got three to four strides, at least, of complete straight line in the center. A lot of my students will either duck in at the beginning of their centerline, or they’ll duck in right at the end and start to cut off half their circle. So I like to make them stay really long in that center. Sometimes I ask a rider to lope straight through the center and stop right before they reach the fence, to emphasize staying straight in that centerline.

Chute with Trail Poles

In practice, I drag out a bunch of trail poles and set them up in a chute through the center. I tell my students they have to make their line through these poles. It’ll be really exaggerated – 30 to 40 feet long. I’ll make the poles wide to begin with, and then finish with the chute about 10 feet wide.

I want my students to practice using their eyes on the circle, and then riding into the centerline looking for their cone, and then ride those strides straight. My students practice it over and over again until it becomes muscle memory and habit so when they do go in the show pen, they don’t have to think about it – their eyes are just naturally drawn to that cone because that’s what they always do at home.

Knowing that feeling also allows you to think about your horse. As you come through that chute, which direction is your horse leaning? Chances are your horse is closer to one side of the chute than the other, so fix it.

Once you get used to that straightness in the center, we can troubleshoot that horse. So if your horse leans toward the gate or center, make him stay super straight or ask him to counter canter. We’ll have a lot of horses that anticipate the lead change, and there are a couple things you can do with that. One is guiding them straight through the center, or set them up for a lead change but then continue on your original circle without changing leads. If we know the horse is going to come through, suck back and think it is going to change leads, the rider should push the horse forward and straight as long as he can when he feels that pull start, then go back to the original circle.

But I think once you fix the riders and get them thinking about where they need to be, often they autocorrect their horse without really having to spend a ton of time schooling.

While you have the trail pole chute set, you can also try this lead-change exercise from AQHA Professional Horseman Bob Avila

Putting It All Together

For most of us, but especially with inexperienced riders, the brain goes really fast in the show pen. Then the body goes really fast, and then the rider starts to over-correct everything. So by focusing on creating that anchor in the middle, you give yourself that time to breathe for that one-two-three strides in the middle. It forces you to slow down, and you’re not rushing to get to the next circle. I think regardless of how savvy or experienced the rider is, and regardless of how talented or finished the horse is, everybody can come through center and hit the mark.

It’s one of those details where if I can come in and know that my horse might not stop great, or he might not spin great, but I know that I can be really accurate and plus my circles, then I have a little bit of pride in our ability coming in, and it just mentally sets me up better.

More Reining Pattern Tips

Focusing on reining pattern placement will increase your score. Judge Jeff Petska explains how to use your markers to plus your maneuvers.

About the Source: Paige Linne

As a student, Texas A&M University stock horse team coach Paige Linne was a member of the stock horse team before joining the school’s NCEA reining squad. When she graduated, she went to work for the University of Alabama to launch its IHSA western team before returning to Texas A&M. Since 2011, the Aggie stock horse team has been the national champion or reserve collegiate champion in American Stock Horse Association competition, including being co-champions in 2016 and champions in 2017-18.

The stock horse team typically has a roster of about 12 students, some of whom have the unique opportunity of being able to ride and show the school’s horses – many of which were bred, raised and trained at the school.

For more information on Texas A&M or the stock horse team, search Facebook for “Texas A&M Stock Horse Team” or write to Paige at

The photo for this story was taken by team member Taylor Helms. Demonstrating in the photo is team member Katie Wright, aboard Kid Mecom Blue.

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