In 2016, when I wasn’t able to attend the NFR due to our 15 year old dog, Tess’s failing health, a trusted source mentioned after being at the NFR barrel racing practice sessions, that they were especially impressed with Taylor Jacob’s horsemanship.
After seeing footage of the top 15 working the pattern myself, I also really appreciated the late, great “Bling” as a mover, and knew that natural talent aside, her quality biomechanics had to be in large part being carefully instilled and maintained by her trainer and jockey, Sarah Rose McDonald.
When I received word that these two barrel racing superstars were pairing together for a clinic in nearby Carmine, Texas, it only made sense that I’d jump at the opportunity to gather and share some of their barrel racing wisdom!
FIRST THINGS FIRST – COLLECTION & CORRECTNESS OFF THE PATTERN
The dynamic duo started off the morning by offering insights to each clinic participant after making their initial “cruise through” the pattern. Next, Sarah Rose and Taylor lead the group through some collection exercises, while stressing the importance of developing it away from the barrels first.
To do so, they demonstrated and then guided riders as they each rode along the (imaginary) arena rail, practicing quality transitions. Being that Taylor’s arena has a fence only on one side, it allowed for an honest picture of just how connected the horses were to their riders, the pattern – AND the task at hand.
Clinic participants asked their horses to trot, stop, back, settle and go forward again repeatedly, with a goal to do so without the horse rushing or leaning forward after the stop, which sometimes called for more backing, depending on the horse. While some might not need as much of this work, there are also some barrel horses that were never taught the fundamentals required for collection, which the transitions helped to instill.
Much like the Tremendous Transitions exercise in ‘The First 51,’ this drill serves as a perfect starting point and way to spot-check a horse’s foundational training.
It’s not uncommon for a horse to be slightly resistant or delayed when asked for soft yields and snappy acceleration, but both Sarah Rose and Taylor agreed that when a horse is really struggling, there’s a time and place to keep pursuing improvement in that moment, and a time and place to temporarily abandon the topic, change the subject, and/or offer them a new perspective (sometimes with simple, but more physically challenging work), and return back to it for greater odds of success. After all – we get good at what we practice, and it’s our responsibility to set our horses up to experience more of what we want, and less of what we don’t.
“To get collection, ride them INTO the bit contact… we want them to give their head and round their back…”
MECHANICS OF & POSITION IN THE TURN
As the morning advanced, the group moved on to yet another drill that didn’t yet involve a barrel, by walking small, even, balanced circles and then advancing them into rollbacks, which closely simulates the mechanics of an actual barrel turn.
“Putting our hands forward in the turn should mean GO forward to the horse. We must have forward motion…”
This reminded me of my husband Craig’s policy for releasing his hand forward to signal GO out of the roping box. While it’s ideal to also use our energy along with our hands to cue our horses to go, compared to using only our legs (which are a primary communication for this outside of a run), releasing our hands forward is simply a faster way to get this message from our horse’s brain to the feet.
In the rollback portion of the exercise, Taylor and Sarah Rose reminded everyone, “Keep them moving forward like a barrel turn, without disengaging behind. We want the inside foot up underneath the hip. We must have quick, smooth footwork in the rollback, without hopping or (excess) elevation in the front end.”
When it came time to start putting things together on the barrels, Sarah Rose stressed that it can be detrimental to work the barrels wide too often, which can cause a horse to get a mentally lost or disconnected, especially at the first barrel.
A better option then, is to go around each barrel twice, wider the first time and tighter the second.
“The body should be in alignment, and in a position that’s not too close to the barrel with the front end, and not stepping out behind. We want the horse to stay gathered and not too wide or disengaged.”
Sarah Rose went on to explain that when given an extremely wide “pocket,” she feels horses will tend to dive in because they know they need to turn, but are so far away from the barrel, that it makes it physically very difficult for the horse. A “happy medium” that is neither too close to the barrel, OR far away, is ideal.
ADDRESSING (and AVOIDING) STALLING OUT & TIPPED BARRELS
Fine-tuning an already advanced horse and discovering what subtle changes are necessary to take them to the very top of their game is a fun & challenging process. These final, missing links are sometimes difficult to identify by even the most advanced horseman, so it was exciting to see these two gals coach a participant on a very nice, cutting bred horse that already had a tremendous foundation and a near-perfect pattern.
Cutting horses especially, are bred to get low and “into the ground.” When teaching our horses to yield to bit pressure, we often teach them to lower their head in response to contact as well. These qualities (when combined, especially) can become a problem however, when the horse develops a “kink” in their free-flowing movement through the turn as a result.
In this case, although the issue was barely recognizable, a drill that involved roll backs performed toward the fence was just what the horse needed to free up and elevate the front end, which translated into a much faster move on the backside of the barrels. Most important was HOW it was performed – which included encouraging the horse to elevate and really hustle through the change of direction.
“Picking up our horses (making bit contact), shouldn’t mean drop low and slow down (in the turn).”
At any specific point in a turn where a horse tends to tip barrels, it can be helpful to really encourage them forward at that spot as well, by reinforcing our increase in energy with our legs. A horse with a habit of shouldering may need to be picked up, but it must be done in a way that keeps their body under them.
We’d also be wise to make sure we’re not asking for the turn too soon, but allowing their shoulders clear the barrel first. By simply encouraging more forward, dynamic movement, we can cause our horses to better engage their hindquarters and elevate their front end.
For a horse with the opposite problem and a tendency to pop out of the back side of the barrel, it’s ideal to circle three times so they get turning and specifically, finishing the turn on their minds.
There aren’t many barrel racers who wouldn’t benefit from more engagement in their horses. This, I believe is because of the widespread tendency so many of us have to focus on what’s in front of us, and to anticipate the turns and override our horse’s front end. However, the secret to powerful, correct, collected (and fast) turns comes in large part through instilling responsibility for rating and turning in the horse, so we can guide more subtly with our hands while “riding the hind end” with our bodies instead.
Of course, if it was easy – everyone would do it!
Sarah Rose’s secret for more balance and engagement is thankfully, a simple one.
“For horses that tend to lean or disengage, slow it down and tighten it up (the barrel circles), instead of being rushed and strung out. Keep them moving forward. Tightening up the turns helps a horse engage… they have to.”
So here’s a little test – can you lightly neck rein your horse around a barrel with one hand without them leaning, disengaging or getting strung out?
How much quality movement is there with minimal guidance as you increase to a trot or lope?
If a horse struggles with this going slow, you can expect for problems to be much more exaggerated in a run at speed.
Again, it’s ideal for our hands remain light and soft while really hustling with our body at those points in the turn where a horse tends to hang up, get delayed or lose power.
When I had the opportunity to ask Sarah Rose and Taylor what their best advice was for taking our jockeying to the next level, or specifically – what their secrets were for riding at such a high level, their top three tips were:
- “Riding a lot of horses with different styles.”
- “Making A LOT of runs.”
- “Riding to win, not to train.”
If you’re like me, however, and have a second passion in addition to actually training and competing, OR if your life responsibilities or personal preferences mean you don’t ride every day or make a high number of competition runs, you’ll enjoy ‘Exercise 11 – Walk to Win’ in the Start Strong, Finish Fast chapter of The Next 50, where I shared ways to help bridge this gap and still make big-time progress toward your BIG barrel racing goals!
After a second round of “cruise-throughs,” the group wrapped up the afternoon with more slow work on the pattern.
Sarah Rose asked each individual participant what they were focusing on as she worked with them. A great question – considering that describing what we’re doing and feeling is a good way to confirm we confidently understand our objective, which helps ensure our horse does too.
A late September, 75 degree, sunny Texas day spent riding barrel horses in a big, cushy, sand arena surrounded by beautiful rolling green hills and like-minded barrel racers is one that’s nothing short of perfect, and I was remind of this quote by Shanti…
“At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair should be messy, and your eyes sparkling.”
As the clinic wrapped up, there was a palpable, satisfying fatigue among the group of dedicated barrel racers and talented horses, knowing they‘d each made eye-opening breakthroughs that would dramatically improve their barrel racing, thanks to Sarah Rose McDonald’s and Taylor Jacob’s expert guidance.
I was grateful for the opportunity to audit and share some of their valuable experience and wisdom, and hope you’ve enjoyed gaining some now as well!
For opportunities to ride with Sarah Rose McDonald in a barrel racing clinic, visit and “Like” Sarah Rose Barrel Clinics on Facebook, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about hosting one in your area.
Sarah Rose would like to thank her generous sponsors, including 12 Guage Ranch, Nutrena, Cinch, Total Saddle Fit, Big Tex and the Trailer Store, Charlie 1 Horse, Horse Hydrator, Oxygen, CSI Saddle Pads, Iconoclast, Dazzle Rock Tack, PHT Products, and Tanner Equine.
For even more valuable insights and wisdom from NFR barrel racers, click here to visit the NFR Barrel Racing content category here at BarrelRacingTips.com.