Reining — the sport derived from cowboy moves on working ranches — is the first competition of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
At 9 a.m. Saturday in the indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park, reining teams from 22 countries will begin four days of competition.
In the mix are countries that might seem unlikely to have a fascination with cowboys, including Sweden, Denmark and Israel, said Brad Ettleman, WEG's discipline manager for reining.
"The sport captures the romance of the American West," he said.
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However, if this is your first exposure to reining, don't go expecting to see rodeo riders. Instead, reining is sometimes called "cowboy dressage."
The moves of cowboys on working ranches "have been refined and fine-tuned," Ettleman said. "Reining requires a lot of finesse." Riders compete with quiet hands, guiding the horse with their legs and feet.
In competition, riders perform selected patterns such as spins, roll backs and dramatic sliding stops, where the horse slides to a stop on its hind quarters in a sudden shower of dust.
Reining has grown globally since it was recognized as an official discipline in the World Equestrian Games in 2006 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, where the U.S. team won the gold medal.
"Reining is popular in Asian nations, South Africa, Australia, Israel and all over Europe and South America," Ettleman said. "Brazil has a very strong team here."
Tim McQuay, 58, a member of the U.S. reining team, said strong competitors are coming from several countries. "The Canadians will be pretty tough, the Germans and the Italians. Australia has put a good team together," he said.
The U.S. team is expected to do well, "but, for the first time, it's not guaranteed they will be the gold medal winners. That is adding a great deal of excitement " Ettleman said. "There's a charged world environment here because other countries know they have a chance for gold."
Other members of the U.S. reining team are Shawn Flarida, 41, of Springfield, Ohio, and Craig Schmersal, 37, of Overbrook, Okla.
Tom McCutcheon, 43, is a U.S. team member who was also on the team that won gold in 2002 in Jerez. He brought home the individual silver medal that year.
"I don't think it will be any tougher for the U.S. this year," McCutcheon said. "It was tough for us then. It will be tough for us now. Every four years, all the teams get better."
Reining horses are mostly muscular, stocky quarter horses because they're such a versatile animal — strong, fast, agile, sure-footed. "They can do just about everything but circus tricks," Ettleman said, chuckling.
Ettleman, 34, owns HorsePower, a company that manages national and international championship events with a focus on reining.
The United States remains the hub of reining and the quarter horse world because the strong bloodlines are here, he said. However, other countries have improved significantly.
Because "it is not a foregone conclusion that the United States will bring home all the gold ... that adds a great deal of excitement," Ettleman said. "There's a charged world environment here because other countries know they have a chance for gold."
One competitor sure to draw the attention of those in the equestrian world is Dutch triple Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven, one of the world's leading dressage riders, who "started dabbling in reining" in recent years, Ettleman said. "She has major celebrity status."