Developing a Stylish Freestyle Reining Routine

Freestyle reining includes carefully choreographed elements while in costume.

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Horse and rider performing in costume.
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Preparing for a freestyle reining routine requires more than hitting play on a fast-paced tune. Here, champion-earning freestyle performer and trainer Sharee Schwartzenberger shares her tips for wowing the crowds and the judges.

The lights dim and the fog rises as the spotlight aims at the arena gate. While a sold-out crowd watches, the music starts and horse and rider lope in time with the beat. The audience claps in anticipation, identifying the rider’s costume and the theme of the ride.

In the next four minutes, the rider must complete a full reining routine with four spins to the right and left, three stops, and lead changes from left to right and right to left. The judges watch carefully and rate each move according to National Reining Horse Association competition standards. But unlike any other reining competition, the rider’s unique costume, presentation and music choices can add up to 20 percent on the scorecard.

Schwartzenberger shares what it takes to win top honors while reining to music. After all, she won the 2020 Ram Invitational Freestyle Reining at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo and represented the United States at the World Horse Training Congress and International Horse Show in Anping, China, in 2019.

Schwartzenberger rode bridleless to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” for her 2020 win. Her horse, Game Day Surprise, was painted with sparkling piano keys while she donned a horned bodysuit as seen in the movie “Rocketman.”

Music Comes First

Schwartzenberger says she looks for a song first when planning her freestyle reining routine—and must consider the horse she’s going to ride to decide if it will be a fast-paced rock song or a dramatic ballad.

“If you have a fast song and a slower horse, he may run out of gas before the song ends,” she warns. “If your horse is younger, he can be scared by fast and loud music.”

Horse and rider performing routine to Elton John song.
Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

For a young horse, choose a slow song. Then you can ride while relaxed to reassure your horse. Even without speed, you’re introducing spotlights and crowd noise.

Find songs that have differing tempos. They add drama and give your horse breaks.

“You want something that has a crescendo,” says Schwartzenberger. “When you build with the music and you stop when the music stops, the crowd gets into it.”

Think about crowd interaction and judges’ likes when you pick your music.

Don’t choose a song with bad language. Find old songs made new—opt for a classic song renewed by a film, or find classics with a twist as performed on “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent.”

Choreography

Perform in sync with the music. Your artistic scores will increase if the elements you perform seem in sync with the music.

But how do you know when to do what maneuver?

Listen to the music several times before you plan your ride.

“Do your turns when the lyrics repeat a lot—I lined up the repeating part of ‘I’m still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ with my spins,” she says. “Turns also look good during instrument parts. Spin when there’s a guitar solo.”

Stops in a freestyle reining routine are well placed when the music crescendos.

“Build up your speed in the rundown while the singer builds, then hit the stop,” she says.

Horse and rider performing freestyle routine.
Sharee rode bridleless in the Elton John horned bodysuit seen in the movie“Rocketman” to his song “I’m Still Standing,” while her horse sported sparkling piano keys. Photo by Heidi Nyland Melocco

Schwartzenberger says she only performs with a loose plan. “You don’t have to submit a pattern, so no one knows that you’re off your planned routine. When I practice in a relaxed setting at home, my plan is perfectly timed. Then when I’m in the show ring, the adrenaline gets you moving!”

If you’re ahead of your music, make a bigger circle or let your horse go out to the rail. Lope past the center line and do a diagonal rundown.

Plan every required element and leave time at the end so that you have can add in or redo something if you miss it.

“If you miss a stop, you want to add another one in at the end so you can get a better score.”

Costume Counts

“Your costume adds to your performance and shouldn’t hinder it,” says Schwartzenberger. “If you wear a dress, make sure you can move. Sometimes you have to pin it to the saddle so it doesn’t fly.”

Make sure your horse won’t trip over anything too long. If you’ll wear a dress, train your horse with a sheet under the saddle while you longe him at home.

“I’ve found a lot of costumes online or at prom shops,” Schwartzenberger says. “My mom and I split the skirts right up the middle to my buckle then I’ll pin each side around my jeans. I do wear jeans underneath. I tried riding in leggings but it was slippery.”

Don’t try the dress the day of the competition. “Ride in it before you show in it so you know that you won’t slide off your horse,” she says.

When it’s time to perform, have someone hold the horse while you get on and off.

Practice

Too much practice can lead to your horse anticipating your cues. Instead, Schwartzenberger recommends practicing elements and not your entire run. You may also listen to your music with headphones so you can repeat portions without riding to the whole song at once.

Envision all the necessary elements of your ride as you listen to your music. If you have the best music, costume and pattern for your horse, you’re sure to top the judge’s list.

This article about freestyle reining routines appeared in the May 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; registered AQHA gelding, Charlie; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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