Making a Top-Notch Non Pro Reining Horse-and-Rider Team: The Rider

A lot of elements go into making a non pro reining horse-and-rider team that can compete at the highest level. Here's how trainer and non pro coach Darren Stancik of Salem, Oregon, gets horse and rider in sync.

Story originally posted by: Cathy Herbert

The Rider

Get an attitude. The Stancik business slogan: “Attitude is everything.” “Non pros have to learn how to show with attitude,” says Stancik. “I put a lot of effort into helping non pros develop enough confidence to do that. They have to believe in themselves, their horses, and me all at the same time-including those times when they go to the shows and something comes undone. My non pros have to have enough faith in me that when I say ‘you have to put it all back together,’ they can do it. That becomes more important when you realize that if a non pro believes he can show through a problem, most of the time it won’t even surface in the show ring.”

The opposite of that scenario-in which the non pro loses confidence and performance deteriorates-goes like this. The non pro comes out of the ring and the trainer chews him out for something. Next time in the pen, the rider thinks about riding so as not to make mistakes or, worse, develops a phobia about the mistakes. When you concentrate on what could go wrong, it generally does. And you’re not thinking about winning. To keep that from happening, if a rider has a problem, and it’s partly their fault and partly the horse’s fault, Stancik is more than willing to put the blame on the horse, just to keep the confidence level high. Or he’ll take the blame if he’s at fault.

Show when you’re ready. Because Stancik focuses so much on establishing rider confidence, his clients generally show a new horse only after the partnership has been forged. “My goal is for both horse and rider to know each other well enough that the first time they go into the ring they have a positive experience and the non pro comes out thinking, ‘that was fun, that was easy.’ Until they’re ready, both the non pro and I work a lot on lead changes, something I became fanatical about when I worked for Bobby Avila. I want a very broke, western riding lead change, so that I can change leads whenever I want. This requires a lot of work on body control-and that makes everything else that I do in training a reining horse easier. I do a lot of dressage-type exercises, sidepassing, two tracking, putting the hip, ribcage or shoulders anywhere I like. Once I have that level of body control, we work on lead changes. This also gives me more control over the face. Plus, all these exercises help non pros because they often have trouble with lead changes.”

Strive for a 70. When non pros can do everything at home, one handed and relaxed without any struggle, they’re ready to show. “The first time we show, I always stress that all we want to do is mark a 70,” says Stancik, referring to the reining score that’s achieved when all the maneuvers are done correctly, but without a high degree of difficulty. “I don’t want anybody trying to mark a 72 or 73. I want the non pro to keep it relaxed and learn the horse, learn how he reacts in the show pen. If you go out there with the intention of marking a 70, and the horse is there for you, you’ll still end up with a 71 or a 72. If you try to mark a 72, you risk taking the horse beyond its comfort level, and you’ll end up marking a 65. Plus, you’ll create a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s like taking building blocks, building everything up, and then knocking it all down and having to start all over again.”

Take your time. “If anyone ever listens to me give non pros last minute instructions, even at a big show like the Futurity,” says Stancik, “they’ll hear me say over and over, ‘Take your time, don’t try to turn too fast, don’t run your circles too fast.’ I do that even with non pros at the top level of competition. As they become more familiar with the horse, I’ll have them step it up at home, so that they can to do it in the show pen if they have to-and they can tell when their horse is with them and when it’s better not to call on the horse. But, by the time they do it in the show pen, they’ve done it at home 100 times or more.

Know your type. Stancik also considers each rider’s personality. “Some are very aggressive. Every time they show, they want to run in, stick their hand between the horse’s ears and go,” he says. “You always have to tell them to tone it down. I treat the other type differently-you have to tell them, ‘You’ll have to step, cock your jaw and go after it if you want to win anything.’ If you show like you’re tiptoeing through the tulips, it’ll cost you. A lot of the time, when non pros walk to the middle of the pen, it looks like they’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m here by myself and in trouble.’ I don’t think the judges actually say, ‘Oh, she’s scared,’ but I think they can tell. I want my riders to look as if they mean business. They’ve got a job to do, and they’re there to show their horses. That ‘Attitude’ is crucial. I believe it can be the difference between a strong 0 and a plus 1/2 in a maneuver-and, if that happens a couple of times, you’ve got a big difference in the final score.”

Look polished. As a last point, the rider’s presentation can also make a slight, but important difference-just as attitude can. “I insist that my non pros have a professional, schooled look,” says Stanick, “Hats are often the giveaway. You look at so many riders in the green classes, and their hats are horribly shaped and the wrong style. I like the cattleman four-inch brim. In truth, I’m fanatical about hats.”

Darren Stancik
“We’ve been very successful at preparing non pros,” says Darren Stancik of Salem, Oregon, who trains with his wife. His successful riders have included Carter Smith, who, in her first year with the Stanciks, finished in the top five at the 1995 AQHA youth world championship show with Executive Oblivion. Paired with Chocolate Chic Olena, in 1996 she was third in the Non Pro at the Futurity and, most recently, won the Non Pro and Limited Open divisions in the 1997 NRHA Derby. She would have also taken the Open title, had she cross-entered. Other top riders have garnered APHAYouth World titles, won slate classes at major shows, including the Derby and the Futurity, and have been finalists in reining at the AQHA youth world championship show. Darren has won the PRHA Super Slide four times. He’s also been the reserve champion in the Limited Open division at the Super Stakes. He’s won the Big Sky Derby twice and made it to the finals in the Futurity and the Derby.