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home : features : d-h May 22, 2015

2/22/2012 9:54:00 AM
Gilbert finds silver lining as reigning reining champ
Rancher Jon Gilbert and his 10-year-old American Quarter Horse Cielo San Lewis, known as “Lewis,” defeated 109 other riders from across North America to take the National Reining Horse Association’s Prime Time Non Pro Division title in Oklahoma in December, 2011. In this video, Jon and Lewis demonstrate reining techniques at the Gilberts’ Horsebreakers ranch in Dewey, Arizona.
Jon Gilbert explains reining technique while his Quarter Horse, Cielo San Lewis, executes a circling maneuver at Horsebreakers ranch.
Trib Photo/Cheryl Hartz
Jon Gilbert explains reining technique while his Quarter Horse, Cielo San Lewis, executes a circling maneuver at Horsebreakers ranch.
Trib Photo/Cheryl Hartz

Cheryl Hartz
News Editor

If every cloud has a silver lining, Jon Gilbert certainly found one in his champion reining horse Cielo San Lewis. The Spanish name, loosely translated as heaven's or heavenly Saint Lewis, indicates a gift from cloud country, especially during the current economic crisis.

On the 10-year-old horse, bred and trained in Germany, Pennsylvania native Gilbert of Dewey, Ariz., won a 2011 National Reining Horse Association championship in Oklahoma.

"If there is a silver lining in the recession, it's that I've had more time to do that stuff," Gilbert, co-owner with wife, Marywade, of Horsebreakers, Unlimited, said of becoming more focused on the sport of reining.

Gilbert and Cielo San Lewis, known simply as Lewis, defeated 109 other riders to take the Prime Time Non Pro Division national title in early December. They also placed fifth in Intermediate Non Pro and sixth in Non Pro.

To qualify for nationals, the horse and rider swept all three categories at the regional finals at Scottsdale's WestWorld in October. Gilbert called the venue "one of the nicest equine show grounds in the country."

He said people have a misconception of reining as a "rich man's sport." And while it can be expensive, it isn't at the level in which Gilbert competes.

As a sport, reining is a series of established patterns incorporating spins, turns and sudden stops. The event is not timed.

"It's technical and requires a lot of discipline between the horse and rider," Gilbert said.

He explained that each entry in a competition class performs the same set of 11 patterns and eight maneuvers, and woe to the rider who forgets the order.

"If you go off pattern, you're disqualified," he said.

The concept of reining is centuries old and originated in the American West - California, the Southwest and also Mexico. Working cowboys required mounts that could stop and turn on a dime. Needing free hands to manage cattle, the cowboys developed ways to guide their horses with minimal use of reins or even verbal commands.

"You try to do it all with some nice slack bridle reins and use your body to cue him," Gilbert said. "You make the cues as subtle as possible; you try to not really move your hand a lot. You don't want to make it obvious how you're cuing your horse or how you're steering him."

He said although riders certainly are allowed to steer their mounts, "To me the key phrase in reining is the horse is 'willfully guided,' so the purpose is to not just rein the horse, but dictate his every movement."

A horse that exhibits any resistance is penalized instantly.

One of Lewis' strengths is circling (spinning).

"He's a real pretty circler," Gilbert said, adding that his Quarter Horse also excels at abrupt stops.

To get to that level of expertise requires a lot of training, conditioning, and in Lewis' case, peppermint candies as a favorite treat.

"They're athletes," Gilbert said. "The trick is to keep it interesting for them. I give Lewis a fair amount of time to play around and act like a horse. He needs his 'down' time."

Reining may be an old sport but Gilbert learned he'd won through modern means - cell phone updates on the Web.

"I did not feel like I had a good ride at all. I knew I missed two of three stops," Gilbert said. Points start at 70. Penalty points for incorrect maneuvers are mandatory deductions. But the three judges also award "opinion points" in half-point increments.

As draw No. 33 (33rd rider), Gilbert and Lewis left the arena sitting at No. 1 with 214.5 points - an average of 71.5 from each judge.

"I thought we might end up in the top 10," he said, adding, "Lewis is capable of 73 or 74."

But he had to wait through the next 70-some riders, performing at a rate of about 10 per hour. Getting continual updates via cell phone, he said he thought, "Huh. Maybe these scores will hold up."

The win put him in the top 10 in earnings of NRHA of Prime Time Non Pro.

Gilbert said he wasn't looking for a champion when he bought Lewis at a horse sale.

"It wasn't choreographed. I was in the market for a second reiner and I had no idea he would be this good," he said.

Yet 80 percent of the "stuff" in his collection he won on Lewis, including three heavy denim jackets, belt buckles, a bronze statue, a saddle and a rosette ribbon rainbow.

"It's a lot of fun. To get your riding skills to a level where you can dictate to a horse that way is rewarding," Gilbert said. "And anybody can do it at any level on any horse."

The Gilberts bought the first 10 acres of their ranch 25 years ago, in January 1987. They expanded to 50 acres in what is now a nationally recognized horse operation.

Jon Gilbert provides riders with horses, but doesn't instruct them in reining.

"I show as Non-Pro, so I can't train others or give lessons," he said. "I'll never be able to slam dunk a basketball, but when I look back to what my riding skills were and what they've become, it's an amazing progression."

He said even though reining begins with a "Green As Grass" category, most riders aren't interested in competition.

"I sell a lot of horses to people who probably will never get them out of a walk," he said. "The bottom line is, I just want to see people on horseback. The horse industry is a big part of life in Arizona."

Next up for Gilbert and Lewis is the Cactus Reining Classic at WestWorld starting March 7. Events are free to the public.

For more information, visit:

It's another chance for the pair to qualify for nationals.

"You can't pull it off without a horse like Lewis," Gilbert said. "He's just a really good horse.

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