Reining Circle Tips from Matt Mills

Reining Circle Tips from Matt Mills

“The Last Cowboy” star Matt Mills shares pro tips to improve your reining circle scores.

Matt Mills runs a large fast circle on Wallas Chic Diana in the junior reining prelims at the 2019 AQHA World Show (Credit: Shane Rux Photography for AQHA)

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From The American Quarter Horse Journal

When it comes to reining, circles are often overlooked. Emphasis is usually placed on stops, spins and rollbacks.

However, the fast and slow circles count just as much as the other maneuvers when judges tabulate their final scores.

Reining horse trainer Matt Mills is known for his precise, consistent circles in the reining arena. He put those skills on display in Season 1 of Paramount Network’s “The Last Cowboy” and at the show’s finale event, The Run for a Million. 

Here Matt offers five tips on how to improve your circle scores.

1. Have a Plan

It’s very important to pick landmarks out in the arena. Before you show your horse, make out a plan of where in the arena you are going to go. If it’s an arena you’ve never ridden in, you might consider walking it on foot to familiarize yourself with it.

While looking at the arena, pick out four points you are going to try to hit when showing to ensure you’re in the right spot. Obviously, you have the center cone as one point but then you should choose three other points on the rails of where you need to go.

You’ll be surprised how this helps you. It takes your mind away from getting nervous if you know, “OK, I’ve got this pattern dissected down into pieces. When I lope off, I’ve got to go from this point to that banner right there to that white post over there and then to that banner on the other side.”

You know exactly where you are at, and you’re always looking where you’re going.

2. Look Up

To maintain the same size circles, you must be aware of the arena while you’re showing.

I see so many riders who just don’t look up. If you don’t pay attention to the small details, you will cost yourself points, and those are silly points to lose.

A rider looking down is a sign of an insecure rider. I know just from watching videos of myself show when I felt really good and confident. You could tell, because I’ve got my head up and I’m looking where I’m going. I’m very focused on what I’m doing. It definitely shows up in the judges’ scores.

When you’re not confident and looking down while you’re riding, it not only doesn’t look as good to the judge, that’s usually when mistakes happen because you’re not looking ahead.

It’s very important to look up. It comes back to arena awareness, knowing where you are in your pattern. Don’t blow the entire run for one bad maneuver.

Matt Mills lopes a small slow circle on Wallas Chic Diana in the junior reining finals at the 2019 AQHA World Show (Credit: Shane Rux Photography for AQHA)
Even in small, slow circles, riders should look up and ahead to plan the circle, ensuring they'll land on target with the center marker.

3. Know Your Horse

I like a horse that is bright and looking around, but I’ll make subtle movements when I’m showing just to check and make sure my horse is listening to me. The best way to know whether a horse is dialed in or not is if his ear is perking back on you every now and then.

You’ll be surprised what those ears will tell you. I’ve been run off with as much as anybody has, but if you watch the ears, the horse will tell you if he is listening or not.

You’ve also got to pay attention to what kind of horse you have. If you have a horse that is a little on the hot side, one that really wants to go, then you don’t want to go very fast. Go a medium speed. Keep him where he is comfortable and don’t push it. If you’ve got a horse you know you can run, then go ahead and show him off and ask for more speed.

For my horses, I like to sit differently. When I’m running fast, I lean forward and push my hand forward on the horse’s neck. That’s a cue for the horse to go fast, but it also gives me the feeling like I’m ahead of my horse. That way, if there are any problems that come up, I’m already ahead and can see them coming.

When I move into my slow circle, I sit back in the saddle. That’s the cue for my horse to slow down. It’s a huge move because I don’t want there to be any doubt in that horse’s mind that when we get to the center and I sit back, it’s time to slow down. Plus, to me, it adds a touch more to my performance.

4. Pick Your Speed

The lead departure is where you choose the speed for your circle. When you pick up the bridle and push the horse’s hip over to lope off and the horse is right there with you listening, you can probably push for more speed.

However, sometimes when you lope off, you don’t have that feeling. Then you want to back off a little until you feel your horse come back to you and relax. Also, if you have a seasoned horse that anticipates, you’ve got to be able to adapt in the pen. If in that right circle, he gets excited and wants to take off, you need to back off a little. Get through that maneuver, and you can go a little faster on the left side.

I think non-pros are better off going a nice medium speed, a speed that they can master and feel comfortable. There’s nothing worse than seeing somebody trying to go 100 miles an hour when they aren’t comfortable with it. They haven’t practiced it and just haven’t ridden it enough. It’s much more offensive to me to see somebody going too fast when they can’t handle it than someone who is going too slow.

Whatever speed you choose, it has to be correct. I think it’s great, if you can go fast in a high degree of difficulty, if you’re prepared to do it. But if you’re not ready to go that fast, don’t do it. You need to pick a speed both you and your horse are comfortable with.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice your circles all the time, every day. You learn to run circles mostly from feel and practicing. So you need to practice circles a lot.

A lot of people are kind of wary and think if they practice going fast too much, their horse is going to like it and will want to run off and not slow down. That’s not true. Don’t be scared to practice those fast circles.

You’ve got to practice. You can’t run away from any of the maneuvers, including circles. You’ve got to practice all of them.

Reining Scorecard

Reining circles are maneuvers at the lope, of designated size and speed, that demonstrate control, willingness to guide and degree of difficulty in speed and speed changes. Circles must at all times be run in the geographical area of the arena specified in the pattern description and must have a common center point. There must be a clearly defined difference in the speed and size of a small, slow circle and a large, fast circle; also the speed and size of small, slow right circles should be similar to the small, slow left circles; and the speed and size of the large, fast right circles should be similar to the large, fast left circles.

In evaluating a maneuver, a judge uses the same scale for evaluating each maneuver in a pattern and considers the performance based on the following hierarchy of concerns:

On Pattern – The judge must ensure that the maneuver being performed by horse and rider is the correct maneuver as dictated by the pattern.

Correctness – Having ascertained that the horse and rider are performing the maneuver required by the pattern, the judge must then ascertain whether the maneuver is being executed correctly. In the instance where horse and rider have failed to correctly perform the maneuver, the judge will deduct for substandard performance from -1/2 to -1 1/2.

Degree of Difficulty – Having ascertained that the horse and rider are on pattern and have performed the maneuver group correctly, a judge must evaluate the degree of difficulty in completing the maneuver. The judge can credit +1/2 to +1 1/2 to the maneuver. Credit for degree of difficulty is given for using smoothness, finesse, attitude, quickness, authority and controlled speed while completing the correct maneuver.

Reining Penalties:

Starting or performing circles or figure eights out of lead will be judged as follows: 

  • Each time a horse is out of lead, a judge is required to deduct one point. 
  • The penalty for being out of lead is accumulative, and the judge will deduct one point for each quarter of the circumference of the circle or any part thereof that a horse is out of lead.
  • Running away or failing to guide where it becomes impossible to discern whether the entry is on pattern: no score.
  • Jogging in excess of one-half circle or one-half the length of the arena: no score.
  • Break of gait: -2 points.
  • Starting circle at a jog: -1/2 point.
  • Jogging beyond two strides, but less than half the circle: -2 points.

Review more reining penalties in the AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations.

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