Because every pattern consists of the same maneuvers, much of the work focuses on getting the horse to pay attention to the rider’s commands rather than anticipate the next move, said Jeff Petska, the chef d’équipe for the United States reining team, who helps run the team and selects and trains riders leading up to the games.
“We work a lot on trying to get that horse to really be focused, but relaxed at the same time,” Larson said.
The horses follow a specialized feeding regimen, need specific shoeing and hoof care, and benefit from massages and chiropractic care.
And as with human athletes, competition is not without risk.
Reining horses can develop problems in their hindquarters and back legs because many of the maneuvers require them to drop their hind end into the dirt to skid to a stop or spin on their haunches, Marcella said. Jumpers risk injury to tendons and ligaments on their front end from landing and trying to balance coming off jumps.
Endurance horses can develop metabolic issues, such as colic and intestinal problems, because they go such long distances and can easily get dehydrated or have electrolyte imbalances.
“The biggest thing for all the sports is to make sure the horses are well conditioned, because well-conditioned horses don’t get hurt as much,” Marcella said.
Although many riders said they would often go for a run or attend a yoga class to get into shape, their primary focus was on their horses’ fitness over their own. “There’s nothing like time in the saddle to prepare you,” Crouse said.
Most important, each rider said, is to have an intelligent horse with a love for what they do.
“They know their job, they know exactly what you’re asking them, and you’re asking them to do stuff that they love,” Crouse said. “Heart, mind and soul, they are total athletes, and it’s mind-blowing how in tune they are with what’s going on. They understand, and they just give you their heart.”