Bareback Balance for Barrel Racers

Bareback Balance for Barrel Racers
We’ve all heard the age old advice – to become a better rider, ride bareback!

However, you may write off that advice thinking that riding bareback is for kids or that you’re a perfectly capable rider – or are you?

Part of reaching your potential as a barrel racer means being committed to never ending self-improvement. To truly grow in our horsemanship we must be willing to look (deep) within – FIRST.

So what constitutes a good rider in barrel racing anyway? We might figure that if we can get through the pattern without falling off that we’re good enough, or that if we can lope circles, trot along the rail or even sprint full speed without major day-lighting in the saddle that we are accomplished riders.

When someone at the barrel race says “She can really ride!” they may mean that person seems to have an ample dose of balance, timing, fluidity & feel that is necessary to be ONE with a horse during a run. Any cues are made smoothly, which creates response rather than reaction from the horse. They are fluid in their body, appearing to move ‘with’ vs. ‘on’ their horse and rarely over exaggerate movements resulting in costly time off the clock.

A not so advanced rider might cue their horse too soon or too late (out of time), they might tense up and brace in the stirrups (lack of fluidity), lean one way or another (out of balance) or roughly jerk or pull their horse through a turn (lack of feel), trying to make up for the mistakes created by the previously mentioned missing ingredients – timing, fluidity and balance!

Have you ever beat yourself up for not riding as well in a run as you thought you should have, not remembering to do ‘this or that’ when your horse needed guidance? The truth is that great riders do not rely on thinking their way through a run. Great barrel racers don’t make a horse work, they allow a horse to use themselves as naturally and efficiently as possible. Developing an advanced degree of balance, timing, fluidity & feel helps remove the blocks to a horse’s greatest athletic potential. The good news is that we were all born with ‘feel,’ it’s only a matter of uncovering it! Even better is that you can start today by incorporating bareback riding into your riding routine!

Until we develop true balance on our horse, our bodies will always hold tension. If you think your balance is already above average, as a test – kick your feet free of the stirrups and long trot the barrel pattern. You may be surprised by the lack of security you feel!

So if you’ve convinced that further developing your balance, timing, fluidity and feel is a good idea, let me share in detail how riding bareback can do just that.

Fluid and Relaxed Rider
Relax and move ‘with’ your horse.

Simply losing the saddle requires that we automatically become more relaxed, fluid and in time with our horse. Reason being that if you were stiff – you’d have a real hard time staying on! Saddles (and reins) are often used (unconsciously) as a crutch, something for our bodies to brace against to feel more secure and counteract our lack of balance. Without anything to brace against we’re forced to find our ‘balance point,’ that sweet spot where our centers of gravity meet and we achieve oneness with our horse.

So what does all this mean to the horse & our barrel racing success?

It’s possible that you have good position but still carry some tension – which again comes about from lack of balance. The bracing in your body may be subtle and you may have carried this tension for so long that you don’t even realize it, however your horse knows the truth! And the clock knows the truth! With hundredths of seconds determining placings, it makes sense to take every opportunity to allow our horse to perform at maximum capacity.

We described a slightly out of time rider, one that may lean, stiffen or use too much or too little rein, etc. When we are not one with our horse & properly balanced we are basically “extra baggage” and are dramatically interfering with our horse’s ability to use their own bodies in an efficient (and fast) way. When we are balanced we can do a better job of gently guiding our horses as needed in a run, less ‘pull’ is required because when we are free and supple, and when we can sit down squarely and drive, everything becomes much easier for the horse! If you get behind in your timing, your horse must shift subtly as you ‘catch up,’ if your poor timing requires you to over exaggerate to correct a undesirable reaction from the horse or if you lean and wonder why your horse tips barrels, doesn’t engage his hind end, crossfires, gets sore, etc. YOU might be the reason why!

Bareback for Balance
Start small and work up to a BIG trot.

BUT, this is GOOD news, because we can DO SOMETHING about it!

When we are one with our horse, in perfect time with perfect balance, this allows FEEL to come to the surface and we open a huge door for our horses to use their talents to a whole new degree in a way that is more natural and free of rider interference.

Make it your goal to ride bareback at least once a week, more often if possible. Do limit your rides to 30-60 minutes, any longer could cause your horse discomfort and possibly sore his back. When riding bareback the concentrated weight and pressure of a rider can cause strain that wouldn’t otherwise occur with a saddle which distributes the weight and pressure over a greater area.

If you don’t typically ride bareback it would be wise to start out with a quiet, gentle horse (preferably one that is familiar with being ridden bareback) in an enclosed area such as a round pen or arena.

Do's and Don't's of Bareback Riding
Avoid gripping with your lower legs, grab mane if needed!

Position yourself on your horses back in the spot that feels most natural and comfortable. Do everything bareback that you would otherwise, but at your own comfort level. Be very aware and get a feel for how good your balance really is. Don’t be surprised if you feel unsecure at first and must grab for mane!

Try to sit up straight and avoid the temptation to lean too far forward. (This is a bad habit of barrel racers in general, leaning forward is unnecessary when not traveling at high speeds and actually interferes with our horse’s ability to elevate their front end and engage their hind end properly.) Avoid using your feet or lower leg to grip. Remember to stay relaxed and fluid in your joints and move with your horse’s movement, even exaggerate your movement. Take this opportunity to really FEEL your horse under you, which foot falls and when, which muscles are engaged, etc.

Focus on circles! Balance issues will really show up when long trotting circles, the smaller they are the more the ‘holes’ in our riding are amplified! It’s likely that you’ll feel more security going one way than the other. Trot around the barrel pattern all one direction or the other – the direction you struggle with most. You can also trot a figure eight pattern around two barrels or simply trot small, fast circles without barrels. As you’re circling, also avoid the temptation to allow yourself or your horse to lean to the inside. Think of you both as being squarely balanced with equal weight distribution on each side.

Trotting Around Barrel
Trotting a balanced bareback circle.
Bareback Barrel Racing
A BIG trot on a small circle tests your balance!

Try posting at the trot, yes posting! This really engages and develops your core muscles which are necessary for balance. Posting on the correct diagonal is critical to the balance and conditioning of you and your horse, whether you ride english or western. Click here to learn more about posting and why being on the correct diagonal is so important.

When it comes to riding bareback, you can have too much of a good thing – if you want the walk the next day, don’t overdo it! You are especially likely to ‘feel the burn’ in your inner thighs.

We have a choice when it comes to becoming a better rider, barrel racer & horseman – we can take responsibility for the part we play in the partnership with our horse and look to ourselves FIRST before placing blame on our equine friends for mistakes that are often rider induced.

Go forward today, empowered with a NEW reminder on some age old advice – ride bareback and dissolve blocks that have previously stood in the way of your barrel racing success!

Enjoy this video clip from the WBR Barrelnanza Bareback Barrel Race!

For more resources to improve your riding, check out:

4 replies
  1. sandra
    sandra says:

    I am having problems at the trot when riding bareback. I have read the article on powerseat and I am trying to incorporate that into my bareback riding too. I do not feel like I am really getting anywhere. What am I doing wrong? I am just flopping everywhere just like I do in the saddle.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Sandra,
      You might focus on having more fluidity and flexibility in your pelvis to really move WITH your horse and “go with the flow and flow with the go.” Hope that helps! The trot can be a toughy to ride really well, especially with a horse that isn’t so smooth. You can also practice standing in your stirrups when you’re riding in a saddle, that really helps with EVERYTHING!

      Reply

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