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If there’s one thing that barrel racers find themselves battling, it’s the tendency for our barrel horses to become tense, bracey, stiff, inverted and heavy on the front end. Often their bodies become rigid, resistant and concave rather than softly round over the topline, with a gentle lateral arc that follows the shape of the barrel, circle, or direction of travel.
I’d venture to say however, that it’s not just our fast paced sport that contributes to this tendency, but that many riders and trainers tend to lack the understanding and skill necessary to truly develop and then maintain quality movement from the get go.
Of course there’s a mental/emotional connection here as well – a horse that is “stuck” mentally will also be physically, and vice versa. Rather than get into a discussion on “which came first,” this month I’ll be sharing some extremely effective exercises for reversing these tendencies to create posture and movement that is round, soft, snappy and sure to lead to smoother, faster and more correct movement through the cloverleaf pattern.
In the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to help a special rope horse (Dot Com) become familiar with a completely new degree of relaxation I’m certain he hadn’t experienced in many years, if ever. Although achieving relaxation has been a huge help in changing the way he moved, years of poor movement patterns had left very ingrained habits in how he carried himself.
By dissolving his mental and emotional barriers, I have developed a more solid foundation from which to create new habits that will serve Dot Com better in the performance arena. Like many of the well bred timed speed event horses out there, Dot Com was a high achieving athlete even when he did perform with extreme tension and poor movement patterns. However, thanks to exercises like the ones that follow, I’m confident there is plenty I can do to reveal a level of athletic potential unlike anything we have seen yet.
Fortunately for Dot Com and I both, we recently met up with Horsemanship Instructor and Clinician, Matthew Bohman who recently helped us do just that.
It bears repeating that “how we do some things is how we do other things.” The success we achieve in the arena has a lot to do with what we do outside of the arena. To give Dot Com a head start on moving with more quality under saddle, we began by improving his movement while circling on the ground. Do know that when I refer to “circling,” I do not mean “lunging” (there is a big difference!).
Before we go too far, keep in mind that quality communication starts with quality tools and equipment. Just as you’d be challenged to call your friend in another zip code with a tin can tied to a string, it’s easier to get messages through to our horses clearly and effectively with equipment designed specifically for that purpose. For the exercise that follows I used a 22’ line with a swivel snap, a well fitted horseman’s rope halter, and a stick with the string removed.
To receive the greatest benefit from this ground exercise, it’s important that you already have a basic language established in which your horse is responsive yet not afraid of these tools, and that you have a baseline level of competency in using them.
Just as how the quality of a run is greatly determined by the start in the alley, my odds for success when circling are greater if I start out with a quality, snappy send.
I began by facing Dot Com head on then backed him away by first raising the life in my body, then sending subtle but certain energy toward him with a wave of my hand, and then down the line if necessary. Once he was approximately 12 feet out, with the intention of starting at a walk, I looked and pointed my finger of the hand holding the line (with stick in other hand ready to support) in the direction of intended travel, and away he went!
Once Dot Com was circling, instead of standing still as I typically would (in a neutral position – it’s HIS responsibility to keep circling once I ask), I turned my body to face the same direction he was going and walked forward in a small circle also. With the stick in the hand closest to DC, I kept it low to the ground while lifting it with even rhythmic energy toward Dot Com’s midsection.
Matthew instructed me to look at his belly with intensity, as I continued the upward motion as if raking the air, encouraging his rib cage to yield away from me and his nose to tip toward me slightly on the circle.
Next, I slowly reeled in the line using a hand over hand motion with the stick still held in the hand closest to Dot Com. The purpose was for him to tip his nose in toward me, yield his rib cage out with full body bend, while keeping forward motion AND follow the feel I was presenting by making the circle smaller. It’s not as easy as it sounds!
As I wrote about in recent posts, Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I and Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Fast Turns – Part II, there are numerous qualities that must come together all at the same time to create the “perfect circle!”
When Dot Com misinterpreted what I asked and lost forward momentum, I raised my life back up to encourage him forward. If he turned to face me, I’d use my energy and a lifted hand on the line to send him back out and away.
Initially, when he wasn’t quite making the connection, instead of walking forward in a small circle, I rotated in one spot, and slightly step backward as I continued to turn with him until he got the idea that this wasn’t about squirting or wandering mindlessly forward, but really connecting to me, softly rounding his body, and following the feel I offered. At times I had to increase the intensity of the lifting motion with the stick to encourage his shape. It was a constant balancing act – a challenge for both of us!
When you give this exercise a try, be ready for that moment when your horse shapes his body correctly, keeps his forward motion, and responds to your feel. In that instant lower your energy to stop and give your horse relief. This is how he understands and learns what it is you’re looking for. If any one aspect is missing – forward momentum, yielding the midsection, or feel in the line, it’s best to get these ingredients better established individually before attempting to put it all together.
When you’re communicating clearly and your horse understands what you’re asking, after some success at the walk, advance to the trot. In addition to asking your horse to reel into you, experiment with feeding slack back into the line as you send your energy out away toward your horse to ask him to yield out to a larger circle, then gradually come back in to a smaller circle, all while aiming for that even forward motion and positive shape in his body.
The more specific you are about the quality of your horse’s movement, even on the ground, the more it will start to become second nature – and set yourself up for even greater success under saddle. Speaking of under saddle, I stepped aboard and with Matthew’s guidance executed a very similar exercise on Dot Com’s back that also yielded fantastic results.
I started by trotting in a straight line and then picked up an inside rein to tip Dot Com’s nose slightly to start a 15 foot circle. As I did, I visualized and “sensualized” in my own body the soft responsiveness and roundness I wanted from Dot Com, both laterally and over the topline.
Similarly to how I used the stick on the ground, I used my inside leg to lift and bump Dot Com’s side with rhythm with the intention for him to yield his rib cage, subtly arc his body laterally as well as lift his back, with the long term goal of him eventually learning to take responsibility for moving this way, without having to be held in position (hence the “bump” vs. a “squeeze”).
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking this doesn’t sound like rocket science, however, what I can’t stress enough is that refining your communication and taking your horse to the highest levels means doing more with your legs and less with your hands. What many riders and barrel racers misunderstand is that although quality movement can be refined through communication with a horse’s mouth, it’s not where it begins.
When we use our seat or legs to communicate, it gives more meaning to our rein contact because we rely on it less, making it a tool reserved for more refinement, dissolving the seeming need for constant bump, bump, bumping to shape our horses (and significantly lessening the chance of ever “running out of bit,” but that’s a whole ‘nother story!).
Of course, if the pressure you apply and the timing in which you apply it is off, whether you use your legs, seat or hands – none of them will be effective for creating responsiveness, quality movement, or your horse’s ability to maintain it.
I started this exercise already knowing there is a difference between a horse with bend through is whole body vs. a “bent neck.” However, even I found myself using too much inside rein, too little leg, and over bending Dot Com’s neck in an effort to create the fully body bend I was after – a challenge for a stocky little rope horse with a long history of brace and tension.
So allow me remind you just as Matthew reminded me: be sure to use only enough rein contact to get the nose tipped, and use more leg to encourage the proper body position while your body’s energy monitors your horse’s forward motion.
It’s a good idea to offer support with the outside rein to avoid the “over bent” neck position, while also preventing your horse’s energy from escaping out the shoulder. Most importantly, when you feel like you need more rein contact to create more shape, use more leg, more leg, more leg instead! Just like on the ground, be aware and challenge yourself to use less line or rein, and only enough stick or leg as necessary.
It’s also vitally important to remember that although you might be able achieve soft, smooth movement, that a lethargic trot, even if it’s relaxed, won’t help you create efficiency on the pattern. Ultimately we must have the whole package – which is dynamic, quality forward movement with good posture.
The result of all this was that Dot Com naturally lowered his head and tucked his chin slightly, he rounded laterally, and started to lift his back – without me having to bump or pull repetitively on his face.
When you feel all this starting to come together, even if it’s just for a second or two at first, INSTANTLY give your horse relief – either by stopping and letting him rest or just going back to a straight line from a circle.
If your horse has been challenged in this area, to help him understand what you’re looking for, it’s critical that you reward the slightest try. Shoot more for progress than perfection initially. Most of all, be alert and prepared – the quicker you reward the correct response, the quicker your horse learns!
As you go forward, remember that the goal is to always create more with less – meaning more responsibility from the horse for maintaining high quality movement, with less support and guidance necessary from you. For this to be possible, one must always start with very subtle rein contact or leg contact, then expect a quality response and only intensify if necessary.
Beyond the teaching stage, as your horse builds strength and your communication becomes advanced, if you have to increase the pressure from the rein or leg for a quick reminder, go back to the more subtle version of those cues and expect your horse to maintain the quality movement (and again add more intensity to get the desired response if necessary).
We want to communicate that “this is the result I want with this subtle suggestion.” Doing so is how we increase responsiveness and avoid getting stick in the rut of always having to use A LOT of leg or rein contact, or having to “hold” our horse in position.
Eventually, I’ll want Dot Com to maintain quality movement on a circle more and more on his own. My suggestion may be as subtle as looking in the direction I want to go and shaping my own body in the way I want him to shape his, with little to no rein/leg contact depending on what I’m asking.
When quality movement becomes your horse’s “default,” and your communication becomes this refined, and holds up under any circumstances, you will have everything in place to maneuver through the barrel pattern with the upmost precision and efficiency.
As the creator of BarrelRacingTips.com and author of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success,” I have a passion for empowering barrel racers to achieve high level success in the arena and out. It’s my belief, however, that being the best in any field, no matter how much we have achieved, or what level we’re at, requires a deep commitment to never ending self-development.
Dot Com and I are well on our way to creating, new, more positive movement patterns and thanks to our time with Matthew, I have more tools and even greater insight as we go forward that will no doubt optimize all that Dot Com has to offer as he prepares to return to his performance horse career.
There are so many more details involved in executing the exercises above in order to receive the greatest benefit than I have been able to describe and fit into this article. Nothing can quite compare to real, live, professional and experienced instruction, which is why I’m grateful that Matthew is available for workshops, private lessons, semi-private lessons and small group lessons.
Matthew has done his share of cowboy work, roping and branding over the years in addition to starting colts with Martin Black and Bryan Neubert. He’s made a living training horses since age sixteen and has ridden more than 1,100 young and challenging horses.
A specific passion for reined cow horses has led him to spend time with renowned reining horse trainer, Clint Haverty, as well as World Champion NRHA, NRCHA and AQHA trainer Jay McLaughlin, and cutting horse trainer Doug Jordan.
Today, Matthew is more than prepared to begin the next leg of his journey – helping students reach their Natural Horsemanship goals. I encourage you to visit Matthew Bohman Horsemanship on Facebook and give him a “Like!”