Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

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If there’s one thing that has both bewildered and fascinated me over the years, it’s collection.

Most of us realize that there is much more to it than our horse’s headset.

However, for a long time (like most barrel racers), I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Lethargic, short strided movement with
Lethargic, short strided movement with “headset” is NOT collection.

Unfortunately, even those competitors who are quite accomplished are leaving money at the entry office by neglecting to fully understand, focus on and create true quality movement.

I’m fortunate that I got a taste of the difference it can make on the barrel pattern early on.

This has motivated me to continue studying, learning, practicing and experimenting – ALL with a desire to create movement that was more balanced and powerful, and therefore FASTER.

Even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning how to create authentic collection, I feel like I floundered around quite a bit before things started really coming together.

I know I’m not the only one, so below I’ve shared some theory to clarify this murky, and often misunderstood concept, as well as some tips for creating it for yourself, which I’m confident will benefit your runs – in more ways than one!

In my quest to create quality movement and collection, many pieces to the puzzle have been found in large part through my study and practice in other disciplines, such as reining and even through dabbling in dressage.

I’ve been having some great rides lately with my gelding Pistol, and recently we’ve discovered even more missing links.

Slightly more elevated in the shoulders but not rounding through the back.
Slightly more elevated in the shoulders but not rounding through the back.

You should know that what most riders would consider “good enough” or even “collected” is, in most cases, not would I would consider TRUE collection. I encourage you to resist the temptation to settle for less in this area as well!

It’s been my mission recently to create higher quality movement with little to no contact with my gelding’s face. Yes, that means I will expect him to hold his own body in good position – also known as “self-carriage.”

As barrel racers, when we really start adding speed on the pattern, although we’ll need to offer our horse support and guidance at times, I just don’t believe it’s desirable OR possible for the rider to constantly hold the horse (and the entire run) together. In fact a horse that requires a lot of support to travel in a good frame in slow work, is almost guaranteed to struggle at speed.

Now that Pistol and I are getting reestablished after his year-long+ recovery from an injury, I noticed that the way he carried himself, and whether he did so with quality, was highly dependent on me “holding” him.

By that, I don’t mean that he was heavy in the face, dull, or that he was even leaning on my reins or legs. In fact, the support I offered was subtle and light, but by all means the quality of his movement certainly depended on it. I figured it was time for me to do less, and him to do more. After all, a horse CAN “follow a feel” though a rein with slack in it, and there was plenty of room for his responsiveness to my energy, focus, and seat to improve, so that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do.

“When a horse is taught to balance himself and not rely on the rider’s hands to hold him in frame, lightness occurs. Light hands represent the highest achievement between horse and rider.”Eitan Beth-Halachmy

A more lengthened stride - but not quite what I'm looking for.
A more lengthened stride – but not quite what I’m looking for.

Now I DO believe that there IS a time and place to use and benefit from the support and contact that certain bits, etc. help provide. In addition, when it comes to making a run, some horses are actually comforted by consistent, subtle guidance.

However, as you may know – I’m interested in being not only being a top barrel racer, but a horseman. You may also know that despite each trainer’s preferences in how they want their horse’s to use themselves, in general we all have habits of doing entirely too much with our hands, and there’s no doubt that refining our horse’s development, responsiveness and lightness to all the aids, can open doors where limitations used to exist.

You could say that I’m interested in “resistance-free barrel racing.” Where there is harmony without resistance, there is more opportunity for greater efficiency and speed.

I knew that based on where we left off, that he didn’t have a real great habit of taking responsibility in general, but my new found awareness has also helped me realize just how much I had micromanaged him in the past. Soooo many of us do this to such an extreme degree and don’t even realize it (watch for more on this subject soon)!

I believe that horses CAN and SHOULD be responsible for maintaining three things:

Direction, gait AND shape.

Finally rounding the back and shoulders for ultimate power!
Finally rounding the back and shoulders for ultimate power!

When I talk about shape, I mean more than lateral bend, but also vertical shape, meaning the arc through a horse’s back and shoulders. Shaping Pistol has never been much of a problem, but without consistent, subtle support from my legs and hands, the quality of his movement went downhill quickly.

When I think about it, it’s no wonder so many horses have trouble with turning the first barrel, or dropping into their turns – with every step they take they’re practicing poor movement and positioning.

I’d love to inspire and help barrel racers to reach new levels of excellence in this area, and as a result achieve new levels of excellence on the barrels!

It’s my belief that in order to create collection, it’s helpful to first completely understand collection. Secondly, to be motivated to create collection, it’s extremely helpful to get a taste of the incredible positive difference it can make on the pattern, and ultimately in competition.

First, a disclaimer – I’ll be the first to say that it IS indeed possible to be a “successful” barrel racer without understanding the slightest about creating quality movement and collection. However, I would rather my horse performed well because of me (at least in part) vs. in spite of me.

Dropping the shoulders at a lope as the hind legs trail out behind.
Dropping the shoulders at a lope as the hind legs trail out behind.

What I’m getting to, is that while fast times without quality movement are possible, it’s more of an exception than a rule. I’m all about developing my horses in a intentional and purposeful way, so that I have something I can be confident in vs. get lucky with – a way of moving that provides a foundation for my horse to perform well in all types of setups, ground conditions, and even makes it more likely that he’ll stay on all fours, therefore keeping he and I both safe and sound (quality movement equals fewer slips, falls, injuries and physical wear and tear).

Simply put, finesse is FAST, but it’s benefits extend much further beyond that.

When it comes to defining collection, some people mistakenly think that it involves a shortening of the stride. Others believe it has to do with the horse reaching his hind legs far underneath the body. Neither of these ideas are really accurate.

Collection involves a shift of weight to the hindquarters, and technically a horse can be collected with a shortened OR lengthen stride.

The other critical key to collection, is not only soft, suppleness in the face and poll, but powerful energy must come up through the horse’s rounded back and elevated shoulders. It’s the final piece, the more advanced part of quality movement that is a total game changer for any performance horse. This is also the part that many riders misunderstand or overlook.

More balanced and collected with room to improve vertical shape.
More balanced and collected with room to improve vertical shape.

For example, if I ride Pistol “into the bit,” with a little contact and a lot of leg, without inspiring a big, powerful circuit of energy, I end up with only an illusion of quality movement. It’s likely to be short strided, soft but lethargic movement, albeit with a soft and supple, yet tell-tale swan shaped neck (with a dip in front of the withers – not what you want!).

Many of us appreciate soft, relaxed movement in a barrel horse especially, but true collection is much “bigger” and more elevated than most of us are accustomed to, and many barrel racers have yet to experience the magic of a horse that really lifts and rounds their back.

The thing about Pistol particularly that presents a challenge is that he’s what I refer to as an “energy conservationist.” Of course, he’s very obedient and never blatantly refuses to do what I ask. However, if I want him to put his full, genuine effort into “self-carriage,” I’m smart about how I go about it. I like to start asking him to carry himself when it’s more likely to be easy for him – like when he’s warmed up but not fatigued. I’m careful not to ask for too much, for too long, as it can actually be quite physically challenging, and I’m also quick to reward him with a rest when he does well.

Despite our barrel racer tendencies to often “make things happen,” by threatening “do it or else,” no matter how bad we want it, OR how frustrated we become – the truth is that quality movement cannot be forced.

“Anything that is forced cannot be beautiful.” – Xenophon

Rounded and ready to back up with weight on the hindquarters.
Rounded and ready to back up with weight on the hindquarters.

Dot Com is a horse that will make this real obvious real quick. He’s easy to micromanage for a different reason, which is that he tends to get emotional. If this part of the equation isn’t balanced first, there’s not much hope of quality movement. A tense, distracted, worried or fearful horse with their head up and their back hollow doesn’t have much chance for more than “an illusion” of collection that must be manmade (held in place).

It’s quite surprising what a horse can do athletically despite poor positioning, but I guarantee that they can ALWAYS do more, better, faster – IF we work through these obstacles and dedicate ourselves to creating true quality movement and collection.

When it comes to making a run, when our horse is sprinting between the barrels, most of their weight is on the forehand – about a 60/40% ratio. There’s a definite transition that takes place in preparation for the turn where ideally, the weight shifts back to the hindquarters and the stride shortens. Although the stride through the rest of the turn may not be as lengthened as it is at a dead run, it’s ideal for the stride to lengthen some after that initial transition into the turn, while maintaining a pretty good balance of weight on the front and hind end for ultimate 4×4 power.

For a horse to make easy transitions into a turn, this shift of weight (rate) must be second nature. This comes easier to some horses than others, but either way, improving our horse’s ability to do so is something we certainly have a ton of influence over.

Although we might not ask for high level engagement and collection at all times, we CAN benefit from being more mindful to notice and require more quality in every single step – which will ultimately prepare our horse to deliver quality on the pattern, and thus more SPEED!

Quality movement + true collection = fast runs!
Quality movement + true collection = fast runs!

So in your own training, may this week’s message serve as a reminder to ensure that your horses are educated and responsive, calm and willing, as well as forward and connected – because then you’ll have much of what you need to put these tips to work toward creating authentic collection. Although you may have to support your horses in the initial stages, with each ride I encourage you to utilize well-timed pressure and release to empower them to get in harmony with you, and do more and more on their own.

Again, remember that this is not the type of “collection” that gets thrown around loosely in equestrian circles – what I’m after is a rare, high level of quality movement that takes skill, strength and a real time investment to develop in both horse and rider – that’s what I want for you and your horse!

I guarantee that it’s a worthwhile investment to pursue, and that you’ll be amazed the difference you feel when you apply the concepts I’ve shared to your work on and off the pattern.

To dive even deeper into this subject, I invite you to explore the Quality Movement chapter of Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, where I go into even more depth with steps for creating collection.

In addition, you’ll love the entire “Strength & Coordination” chapter of The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion, AND “Engaged for Power” exercises no. 31-35 in The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises for Precision on the Pattern.

Click here to learn more about the entire #1 best-selling book series.

Creating TRUE quality movement IS challenging – for everyone!

So in the comments below – please share YOUR questions, thoughts, struggles or ideas surrounding collection.

7 replies
  1. shawn
    shawn says:

    I am having a beginning problem on a new horse and it is stemming from a previous horse that would like to run up the fence. I am talking about muscle memory. I have a 6 year old that is just now competing in the novice group until we can be consistent. This weekend she ran past the first barrel and I believe got scared and being so close to the fence she had no place to go and ran up the fence. I have been working on slow work and a lot of rate and circles. I think I may have anticipated this and may have been a large part of the problem. Any exercises for me and her to connect again? I know I have to slow it back down and she is really anticipating this first barrel so when riding at home I have been going to the left to the third back to the first and always doing it slowly and making sure she is listening to me.
    Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Good question Shawn! There could be a variety of things going on here, but first and foremost make sure that you’re staying super loose, balanced and relaxed in your own body. Any bit of braciness or tension (even residually from experiences with your previous horse) is enough to transmit to your current horse and contribute to the problem. My best advice is to consciously replace your old experiences in your slow work with expectations that the approach to the turn will be balanced, fluid, correct and easy. THINK and FEEL that in your body. Put a little extra weight in your outside stirrup. Make sure there’s enough of a round arc coming in the turn, and that your horse is really using their inside hind leg under them in the approach. Most of all, as frustrating as this can be, don’t allow your emotions to get the best of you. Even if you have to make a firm correction, make sure you don’t make that area on the pattern a place of tension and/or fear for your horse. Practice all these thing so they become habits for you both, and gradually work your way back into an exhibition or two and then competition and chances are good the issue will be resolved! 🙂

    • Kay
      Kay says:

      Clinton Anderson has a pattern that you can work that does awesome things. It will help a horse that anticipates turns because you are going straight passed the barrel. It will help a horse that is chargey because you can let him go making circles and then piviot back to the barrel; they soon decide why try so hard if I am just going to have to turn. You take one barrel and do a pattern that draws a 4 leaf clover. You can do large, medium or small circles. When you turn back to the barrel it is a piviot. In the left hand circles keep the barrel on your left and vice versa for the right turns.Hope this helps. I use this on young horses and seasoned horses.


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