Reining: Equestrian with a country kick

lblackford@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2009 

Most equestrian disciplines don't play background music, much less Jesus Was a Country Boy. But this is reining, and Tom McCutcheon and his horse, Darlins Not Painted, circled, spun and slid across the new arena at the Kentucky Horse Park to Clay Walker's crooning.

This is a sport, after all, with roots deep in the American West, where cowboy hats and boots are de rigeur, and just because it's a growing sport around the world doesn't mean anyone will forget it's more than a little bit country.

That's not to say reining isn't big sport and big business; McCutcheon, for example has won $1 million in his reining career, and he lent his formidable talents to the U.S. reining team Tuesday when it competed in — and won — the Kentucky Cup Reining team competition, the first official run-up event to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

Reining is the fastest-growing discipline of the eight that will be featured at the Games, particularly in somewhat unexpected places including Slovakia and Finland, which don't have ranches or ranges but love the sport that celebrates that way of life. Reining horses have to emulate the moves of horses that raced after cattle and stopped on a dime.

"It's the speed," said Aaron Ralston, a rider from Silt, Colo., who was part of the U.S. team at the 2006 World Games in Aachen, Germany, when it won the gold medal in reining. "Speed represents the Western cowboy. It's a great way for a lot of people to live these dreams."

Games officials were hoping for more international representation at Tuesday's test event, but because of the cost of international equine travel, they could attract only the three teams on this continent: the United States; Canada, which came in second; and Mexico, which came in third.

The individual finals will be Thursday night, when officials hope for a larger crowd than the one that showed up on Tuesday morning. Admission to Thursday's event is free, but the Horse Park will charge $5 for parking.

The reining test event was not only the first practice run of its kind for World Games organizers, it was the first event held at the new $45 million indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park.

It's so new, in fact, that painters doing some touch-up work Monday night set off the sprinkler system. "So we know the sprinklers work," Horse Park director John Nicholson said.

The Horse Park will host test events for the other seven disciplines — eventing, dressage, jumping, driving, endurance, vaulting and para-equestrian dressage — through the coming year before the Games take place Sept. 25-Oct. 10. The test event for vaulting will be next week.

"I think it went great," said Kate Jackson, vice president for competition for the World Games Foundation, which is organizing the Games. "We had a few things ... but, fortunately, they were not so big."

The footing of dirt and sand, which is crucial for the sliding moves made by reining horses, was pronounced in good shape, even though it was put together relatively recently.

Shawn Flarida of Springfield, Ohio, who has won $1 million in reining competitions around the world, said the horses stopped well on the new footing. Flarida led his team Tuesday on veteran champion Smart Spook, an 8-year-old American quarter horse stallion who is one of the winningest reining horses in history.

U.S. teammate Ralston said the atmosphere was "phenomenal" and made him look forward to a filled arena during the Games.

Even the sparse crowd showed its enthusiasm with plenty of whistles and whoops, which is encouraged while the horses are in the ring. Kelly and Russ Ehmke and their two boys drove from St. Louis just for the two-hour competition.

"It's exciting and it's neat to see the partnership between horse and rider," Kelly Ehmke said. Her favorite maneuver is the slide, when horses gallop, then slide through the dirt on their back legs to a complete stop.

Deanna English drove from outside of Toledo for the same reason: "It's absolutely beautiful," she said of the effortless athleticism of horses that sprint or stop with a small squeeze of the legs and the slightest touch on the reins.

Gaofeng Yue, the secretary-general of the China Horse Industry Association, also was there, checking out Kentucky's horse scene in advance of the Games.

Show jumping is big in China, apparently, but they're interested in quarter horses as well.

"He feels very lucky and happy to be here," translator Cathy Cao said.

At the end of the competition, the medal ceremony, complete with red carpet and ferns, left no one out. All three teams got to stand on podiums and receive their medals.

Bennie Sargent watched the proceedings with satisfaction. A member of the original Horse Park commission and the head of the Kentucky chapter of the American Quarter Horse Association, he was one of the people pushing for an indoor arena at the Horse Park for years, hoping it could bring more Western competition here.

Sargent judges reining competitions around the world, and he knows this arena will be overflowing next year with reining fans who love the mind and athleticism of the quarter horse.

That, and the spell of the Wild West.

Sargent said he'll never forget a Frenchman he met at a reining competition in Belgium.

"He told me, 'I want to do three things: ride the American quarter horse, sing the country music and to be a cowboy.'"

Reach Linda Blackford at (859) 231-1359.

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