Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs

Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs

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A few years ago I was having trouble with my gelding anticipating the second barrel and cutting in too closely – a common problem in the barrel racing world.

It’s even more common on the second barrel where we have the shortest distance between barrels and run straight toward a wall or fence, which definitely plays a role in our horses getting short and anticipating that turn even more.

Focusing ahead and actively riding him further in the hole helped, but I really wanted to do something to lessen his desire to drop in to begin with.

We weren’t tipping a lot of barrels YET, but I knew the issue had the potential to develop into a more major problem if I didn’t address it.

So, I employed the help of the good ol’ barrel racing standby – the counter arc.

You can imagine my surprise a few weeks later, when I tested our progress in competition. I was hustling him across the pen, and when I offered some subtle rein contact to round the second barrel, my gelding stiffened up like he had rigor mortis!

He felt like he’d swallowed a 2×4.

My almost over-bendy, soft and supple barrel horse was literally stiffer than a board in that turn – I had never felt anything quite that extreme, or that awful.

I was so shocked and confused. But after quickly flipping through my mental rolodex, there was only one thing I could attribute the change to – all that counter arcing.

These days, I certainly don’t hold a grudge against counter arcs. In the same way that a certain bit only becomes severe based on the hands it’s connected to, the counter arc itself was not guilty of creating our problem.

When the shooter misses the target, you don’t blame the target.”

At that time, I really started to realize even more so that developing barrel horses and fixing problems on the pattern is not ALL about exercises and drills. It wasn’t the counter arcing exercise that “messed up” my barrel horse, the issue was in THE WAY I was going about it.

The trouble I had with my gelding really stands out but because it was also a huge lesson in just how quickly and dramatically I could influence how my horse used himself in a run. Surely if I could create so much stiffness, I could also develop, refine and bring more positive traits to our turns as well – IF I could just get the combination right.

A horse that drops his shoulder in general, certainly will in a turn.
A horse that drops his shoulder in general, certainly will in a turn.

The troubleshooting process is similar to figuring out the combination to a lock. You’ll turn the dials one way, then the other way, you’ll go too far, then not far enough. You’ll find out what definitely doesn’t work, you’ll try again, and again, and if all goes well, eventually things tend to line up.

However, like I mentioned in today’s email tips, before this can happen it’s important that regardless of how long things haven’t been lining up, that we first and foremost believe positive change is possible.

We have so much more power to positively influence our horses than we realize. We don’t have to accept and live with negative behaviors, less than ideal movement patterns OR subscribe to the notion that resolving these issues requires “picking on our horses.”

In fact, what it often requires, is becoming a better horseman.

When it comes to the counter arc, there are many ways to use it for problem solving on the pattern. It’s also possible to create just as many problems with the counter arc as you solve – again, it all depends on how it’s done. In any case, it’s easy to get a little too obsessed over an exercise itself, instead of directing focus more on where it should be – which is on the quality and correctness of that exercise. In my experience, that is what will really determine how effective we are in the end.

Just seeing someone perform a counter arc, then going off in sort of a “monkey see, monkey do” fashion (which we all do at some point), isn’t really the best way to go about it.

The thing about certain techniques is that when they work for some people, or some horses, and not others, is that there’s bound to be something different in the way they’re applying them.

A barrel racer that prefers to move the hip in instead of yield the ribs and shoulders out for example, might have a negative association with the counter arc because they have never executed it like the barrel racer down the road who has experienced wild success with it.

What matters most of all, is that you find what works for you, while you simultaneously continue refining your own ability to recognize and create what really constitutes “correct” and “quality,” in anything you do. The more quality and correctness you have in general, on the pattern and off, the less likely you’ll have problems to begin with.

Of course, there WILL be trial and error, experimenting, questions to be asked, help to be sought, mistakes and victories to be made in the process. In the end, your results will speak for themselves and will teach you a lot about how and when to redirect course.

Just because what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working real well so far, doesn’t mean that huge improvement isn’t possible, or might not be right around the corner! Just because we, as individuals, either don’t know now, or haven’t had success in some way, doesn’t mean the combination is still there just waiting to be discovered, IF we accept responsibility and apply ourselves to figuring it out.

I do believe that horses are born with certain innate tendencies that show up in the way they use their bodies in a run. However, at the same time, I think if we, as riders and trainers focused more on developing their own abilities, we’d have much more success when it comes to positively enhancing (and therefore speeding up) the way any horse works the pattern.

We so often have a habit of throwing our hands in the air, convincing ourselves “it’s just the way it is!” when things get hard, challenging or frustrating. There’s a time and place where we may not be equipped, or have the desire to handle certain challenges, but that is a completely different scenario from it “not being possible.”

As you consider employing the counter arc, or any other exercise to troubleshot a problem, I encourage you to make a habit of looking for what IS possible, what CAN be enhanced, refined and improved.

Never underestimate the possibly of positive change, regardless of the evidence you’ve received so far. Changing this aspect of your mindset can make all the difference and determine whether you’re a raging success or must return to the drawing board, yet again.

A portion of today’s article is an excerpt from my upcoming book “The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises for Developing a Champion” (which will include arena maps, diagrams, illustrations and photos). It’s my hope that explaining the wide and varied uses for the counter arc, along with some tips for performing them correctly and with quality, will open new doors of possibility both on the barrel pattern, and and off.

The counter arc, reverse arc (or counter/reverse bend) has probably been around as long, or longer than barrel racing itself. The maneuver consists of your horse’s body bending in one direction while he is traveling in the opposite direction. For example, your horse’s nose and hip are pointed to the left, but his feet are carrying him with both lateral and forward motion to the right.

Develop high level responsiveness to your leg first.
Develop high level responsiveness to your leg first.

Just as with any other exercise, a successful counter arc requires high level suppleness through the body, responsiveness to leg pressure and rein contact, as well as emotional fitness (not too much “go or whoa“). A horse that has been developed to be very responsive to both the rider’s subtle body language and mental/visual focus will be an asset as well.

As a prerequisite to a successful counter arc, I expect my horse to already respond to leg cues when asked for both straight lateral (sideways) movement, as well as full-body bend around my leg. He should understand how to softly flex the head and neck both laterally (side to side) and vertically (at the poll) as well as move with even impulsion. Your success will essentially depend on, and can be greatly enhanced by having all these foundational elements in place and refined to a high level first.

Counter arcs can be very powerful for problem solving on the pattern, but they have the power to create as many problems as they solve. When, where and how you utilize a counter arc will depend on the specific problem you’re experiencing. A counter arc can be used to free up a ratey horse, and it can be used to add rate into a horse that is too free. Depending on how counter arcs are performed, they can help a horse become more flexible or even firm up a horse that seems to have too much bend through the body. Below I’ve descried several variations of the counter arc, including tips for performing them correctly and with quality, all of which are valuable for resolving a variety of problems on the pattern, depending on how you execute them.

Some horses will find the counter arc very challenging and awkward at first. Suppleness and responsiveness through the entire body is critical, but the most awkward stage tends to occurs when the horse is learning and developing the coordination necessary to maintain body shape and quality forward movement at the same time. The best place to start with building an excellent counter arc is by separating and focusing on the ingredients mentioned above individually before attempting to put it all together. It cannot be stressed enough that any type of resistance in the face, neck, body or mind should be addressed first before the counter arc can be most effectively used as a problem solving exercise.

Strive for high quality, forward movement.
Strive for high quality, forward movement.

The percentage of forward vs. lateral movement you ask for depends on the results you’ve seeking. Either way, however, it’s important to understand, recognize and inspire quality movement in general. Quality movement is strong, purposeful, powerful and has rhythm and tempo. In other words, it’s not lethargic, sloppy, vague, irregular or uneven. One sign of a successful, correct counter arc occurs when the horse’s front leg crosses over the other quickly, easily and smoothly.

The life in your body is what communicates to your horse when, and how fast or how forward to move. So to ask for the counter arc, be conscious to first raise the life in your body and send your energy in the direction you want to travel. You might slighty weight the stirrup more so on the side of the direction of lateral movement you ask for (outside stirrup if counter arcing away from a barrel), while adding subtle leg pressure on the inside as necessary to support that lateral movement as well as your horse’s shape by asking the ribs to yield slightly.

Use rein contact to tip the nose if necessary.
Use rein contact to tip the nose if necessary.

Ask your horse to tip his nose to the inside with subtle rein contact if necessary, being mindful that it’s your leg more so than the reins that serve as the main cues for the lateral movement and shape.

Depending on your horse’s response, you may adjust your energy, focus, weight in the saddle, placement of your leg and the degree of pressure you’re applying, as well as the degree and position of rein contact.

The counter arc exercise is the one that many barrel racers go to when a horse anticipates the turn by rating too much, too soon, and as a result drops the rib cage and shoulder into the turn. Solving a multi-faceted problem such as this, then requires some initial detective work. It’s important to think about and analyze what the root problem, or the most extreme aspect of the issues really is. For example, is it the excess rate, or the absence of shape, the primary problem? How much bend you ask for, or how forward or lateral the movement you require will depend on your individual issue and will therefore determine your results.

Stop the Drop – If excess drop or leaning into the turn is an issue, start out by approaching the barrel in slow work, and when you feel your horse prematurely commit to the turn, quickly break off the other direction, and hustle away in a counter arc. Instead of allowing your horse to continue around the barrel, attempt to keep a bit of the same shape, while heading off the other direction. Good form is important, but even more critical here is timing. The harder your horse drops and commits to the turn prematurely, the more quickly, firmly and farther you want to “break off.” Although you don’t want to instill fear, your horse must feel a sense of urgency. When a horse’s body drops in, his mind has gone there first. This form of the counter arc is great for conditioning the mind to think differently, which therefore causes the body to respond differently. Be careful not to roll a horse too extremely backwards with this variation if your horse is also too ratey, which can create even more anticipation for the turn. After breaking off, return to the pattern by starting over and continuing until your horse is no longer anticipating before allowing them to continue with the pattern. Gradually move up in gait to ensure that that changes you’re making are ones that will hold up permanently, even at speed.

Don't allow too much energy to escape out the shoulders.
Don’t allow too much energy to escape out the shoulders.

Grab a Gear – A horse that is simply too ratey, but who is maintaining good shape and position, will benefit from being asked to move into a free-wheeling, large, wide counter arc at the point on the pattern where they are anticipating the turn. Again, shape is important but equally so is that they stay in a big open, wide, fast moving and forward arc around the barrel. The counter arc is both a lateral and forward movement, the horse isn’t traveling straight forward, neither are they going directly to the side. The percentage of lateral vs. forward movement you use will depend on the specific problem you’ve having. A horse that tends to have too much rate will benefit from a counter arc that emphasizes more forward movement. Again, instead of allowing your horse to think “get ready, get ready, get ready, turn, turn, turn” we want to flip the script by taking the scenic route while supporting quality shape and positioning. After counter arcing out and away as far as 20 feet or more, as you near the back side of the barrel, close in the turn with proper position as usual then move on to the next barrel.

How much bend you ask for depends on your goal.
How much bend you ask for depends on your goal.

Add Rate & Shape – If your horse lacks rate and tends to stiffly go by the barrels, a more compact, laterally moving counter arc with plenty of supple bend through the body can be beneficial. Ask for this type of counter arc at, or even before the point on the pattern where you actually expect your horse to rate. Stop your horse at this point and then really focus on exaggerating the perfect shape in the counter arc. In this instance, although you’ll always want to ask for quality forward movement, place your focus more on correct and exaggerated full-body bend. Refrain from rushing or hustling your horse through this version of the counter arc. Even consider trotting to the barrel, and performing a stop, then executing a small, quality counter arc at a walk backwards around the barrel, almost asking your horse to rotate on his hindquarters slight as you do, before completing the turn and moving on.

Tight & Right – A counter arc can be used to encourage a horse to stay in the turn just as it can discourage one from dropping in. If your horse had a habit of fading out away from the turn, or coming off a barrel wide, ask for a counter in the spot this tends to happen (or just before) in a way that puts his rib cage toward the barrel (vs. away from it), or direction you want to go, with his nose and hip to the outside. You could consider this a “reverse, reverse arc,” since it’s done in a way that is “inside out” compared to how it is most often utilized. Again, start by walking the pattern as usual, and then ask your horse to position his body inside out, with his body shaped and exaggerated in the opposite direction as it is when he steps out. Continue in this position until you’re clear of the problem area. Be very aware of the subtleties of your horse’s behavior and body positioning going slow as it will often reveal the truth of why they are stepping out to begin with.

How much counter arcing you will need to do depends on how severe the issues you’re working through are. When your horse is doing well first at the walk, trot and then lope, feel free to add more speed as you progress, being sure to hold your horse responsible for proper positioning as you do. However, resist the temptation to test your work too soon and risk falling back into the same ruts, but at the same time be very perceptive of the changes that are taking place.

As you advance, don't hesitate to add speed.
As you advance, don’t hesitate to add speed.

Remember that the counter arc is a way of performing an exaggeration of what we want more of on the pattern. In all reality, our horse’s bodies won’t be contorted and bent to the degree we ask for in order to correct a problem. We exaggerate to teach something new and refine as we advance. As long as these variations of the counter arc aren’t over done, there should be little risk of your horse actually learning to get off track in a run.

When it comes to fixing problems, it’s important to remember not to allow frustrations and emotions get the best of you and turn the barrel pen into a punishment pen.

Changing a habit is hard enough for a horse without experiencing feelings of fear about doing the right thing. Although it’s important to have discipline and respect, a horse that is worried about getting in trouble on the barrels will struggle to have good form, as well as suffer from a lack of confidence. Expect it to take at least 4 – 7 sessions to start making a change and up to a month for a very deeply ingrained habit, depending on how correctly you’re implementing the counter arc.

If you run into resistance, work through it away from the pattern.
If you run into resistance, work through it away from the pattern.

The reason the counter arc didn’t work so well for me years ago was because my horse wasn’t soft and supple enough through the rib cage, neck and face especially at speed. When I asked him to counter arc at the second barrel he was actually quite stiff and resistant by my standards today. Looking back, I know now that those elements need to be even more refined.

In fact, if you focus on the foundational areas mentioned above, you may create a solution to problems on the pattern in the process before ever needing to utilize the counter arc! When our horse is truly soft, supple and responsive through the body, head and neck, with ample emotional fitness and no physical or mental brace (even going fast) – our chances of achieving success raise dramatically.

When we really understand and develop a firm foundation and quality movement and positioning from the get go, then ask for and expect that from our horses at all times – the need for “problem solving exercises” is greatly diminished.

Barrel racing success isn’t about finding and collecting a bunch of exercises, and just going through the motions for something to do. It’s about developing a FEEL and designing each ride based on your horse’s tendencies – his needs, day to day and moment to moment while being mindful of what your long term objective is.

What would mean the most to me, is if I could empower barrel racers to be puzzle solvers – I would rather teach a man to fish, than give him a fish.

So I actually encourage you to “make up exercises” as you go along that create solutions to issues that might crop up on your own barrel racing journey. Put your own twist on the counter arc, use your imagination and add it and other maneuvers to places where you feel it could logically be of benefit, whether you’ve ever seen it done that way or not.

When you condition yourself to see possibility instead of limitation, accept responsibility instead of place blame, get curious instead of forceful, commit to learning, release judgment, and then take appropriate action, you’ll be amazed by the transformations experienced in both yourself and your horse – which is likely to prove in time that positive change is indeed possible, when you focus on developing your own abilities first.

If you’d like more support in developing successful counter arcs, check out the links listed below, and of course, don’t forget the critical prerequisite to “The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises,” which is “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success!”

Click here to order your copy and receive your FREE gift – The Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development, instantly!

If you enjoyed this article, or have questions, comments or feedback, please share in the comments!

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14 replies
  1. Diana Cory
    Diana Cory says:

    Love the inspiration, the sincerity of makings of the barrel horses, most of all the support! And the incouragement that u can do this! Thank u for sharing all. I study regular . Thanks for the makings of a better person and horsemanship! U rock!

  2. Katie
    Katie says:

    Very well written. As a trainer, I love seeing articles that get down to the bottom of ‘horse’ problems, not just quick fixes that lead to more issues. Looking forward to the new book!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thank you Katie! I felt I should go into more depth here so that barrel racers can get the whole picture of what’s required for successful exercises. In my new book, I’ve done that a little at a time through each exercise so they all build upon one another.
      I couldn’t agree more about avoiding “quick fixes” and instead addressing problems at the source to create permanent solutions. I would rather make a change that gets my horse to stop wanting to slice a barrel than simply try to prevent it. Instead of asking “How can I get my horse to stop doing this!?” the question we should really ask is “What is going on to cause my horse to do this in the first place?”

  3. Ginger Moore
    Ginger Moore says:

    I have a nice 1D mare that is very ratey and starts her second barrel too soon, i don’t think she’s dropping her shoulder just turning too soon and pushing the barrel over with her body. I have a young 3D at the moment mare that needs the turn tight and right method. I sure would love to spend my vacation with you learning how to help my horses. Are you giving any clinics or lessons?

      • Ginger Moore
        Ginger Moore says:

        Located in El Dorado, Arkansas which is in south Arkansas in the center of the state. I barrel race mostly in north Louisiana & a little in east Texas. I am a very visual person and have a hard time reading instructions and applying them so lessons help me the most. Thank you so much for all you do for us weekend warriors.

    • Kay
      Kay says:

      check your position on the 2nd barrel. I find that if I am too far away from the barrel on my approach that the horse will hunt the barrel: “oh, the barrel is way over there and I am suppose to be closer”, so he tries to get closer to the barrel. Go close to the barrel and see what happens.

  4. Kay
    Kay says:

    I find the counter arch is a good limbering exercise that I use. I use it in my circles. We canter in a circle arched to the inside and to the outside. We close the circles up to a small circle and then move back out to a large circle while keeping the arch. Don’t for get to do the correct arch also. I start at a walk, get good at that and move up to a trot, get good at that, and then move up to a canter, get good at that and then go do a barrel run (slow at first). You will be amazed at how much better your horse feels. You can move him in or out while you are going around that barrel and it will not surprise him because you have taught him how to do this at a slow to a fast pace while carrying you on his back. Remember they have to learn how to keep their balance while carrying you on their backs.

  5. Katie Hobbs
    Katie Hobbs says:

    My barrel horse keeps over running the first barrel. It as though he runs by and then changes directions looking momentum. Any ideas. Thank you


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