Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Fast Turns – Part II

Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Fast Turns - Part II

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Have you ever heard of “recycled information?” It’s just as good as new!

Who would have guessed something so simple could be so complicated (and important)? Or that it would take years of hearing the same information and already knowing how important the “perfect circle” was, before it would REALLY sink in?

It wasn’t until I heard the importance of the perfect circle stressed over and over and over by about a half dozen NFR barrel racers that I REALLY understood just how important they were – AND that my circles weren’t so perfect after all.

We can perform barrel racing drills and barrel racing exercises until the cows come home, but if there are problems in the WAY we’re executing them (poor quality circles for example), then we aren’t positioning ourselves to receive near as much benefit (or results).

Unless you’re willing to open your mind and consider that even if you’ve been riding and racing your whole life – that your circles could still stand some improvement, well then you’re quite possibly limiting your barrel racing success. exists to remove roadblocks standing in your way, which is why we explored the first four of nine steps to create quality circles and quick turns in the first post in this two part series.

In case you missed it, click here to check out Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I.

There, I shared tips for spot checking and refining these four aspects of the perfect circle:

1. Connection
2. Freedom
3. Education
4. Footfall

This week, we’ll explore the remaining five to make sure that THE most important foundational element of a barrel racing run is not just “good enough,” but EXCELLENT, which will ultimately lead to turns that are more fluid, correct and FAST!


5. Impulsion – One of the most important aspects of a perfect circle is strong forward motion. It might seem like a great accomplishment to have a barrel horse calmly trot the pattern, but trotting calmly isn’t a “win” if your horse is moving lethargically. If you find yourself having to work hard yourself to keep your horse going (ie. YOU get tired when loping circles) OR the other extreme – you have to constantly “check” your horse to prevent him from just continuing to gain speed, then something is amiss. A lot of us can get a big, forward, straight long trot out of our horses, but when trying to combine it with the other elements that make up a quality circle, such as flexion for example, things often go haywire.

If you don’t have a habit of asking your horse to move with a lot of forward energy, start by asking for more of that in a straight line. When your horse gets more in the habit of moving with positive forward motion, start asking for that same forward energy with accurate footfall on a large circle. When that goes well, advance to asking for forward impulsion plus body shape on a smaller circle.

Most of our horses will fall toward the extreme of being either impulsive or unmotivated. What we want to shoot for is a perfect balance of “whoa and go,” not more of one or the other. Most riders would be surprised at the connection between our horse’s emotions and impulsion. I don’t believe impulsion is generated in the hindquarters alone, it’s more mental/emotional first, then physical. The mental/emotional part is the cause, the level of physical impulsion is the symptom or result, which is why if our horses aren’t calm and responsive first, we’ll always find our horses falling too far to the impulsive or unmotivated extreme.

Understanding impulsion and then educating our horses properly does play a HUGE part in creating this balance, so for more tips check out A Barrel Racer’s Guide to Impulsion, and How to Use Body Language to “Whoa and Go.


6. Flexion – A horse that is stiff, tense and resistant is like riding a 2×4 around the barrels. As you can imagine – if the entire run isn’t choppy, rough and slow or erratic, that at least parts of it certainly will be! Proper body shape helps set our horses up to prepare for the turns, then glide around the barrels with ease and free flowing energy. We can’t expect all horses to have a snakey barrel wrapping style, but focusing on proper bend and body shape will help prevent a horse from developing the common tendency to stiffen up, resist and drop into the barrel.

As we add speed, we lose some suppleness and body shape. Even though most horses turn with their hind quarters just a smidge to the outside, asking for more than enough softness, suppleness and bend through the body in slow work is a way of ensuring that we will still have enough of it even at speed.

On a circle, it’s important that we not only ask our horse to carry bend through their neck, but their entire body. Remember, the bend doesn’t have to be extreme, but it must follow a line from between the horse’s ears all the way to their tail.

Although creating flexion has a lot to do with educating a horse to yield to pressure, as well as balancing their emotions, one of the best ways to battle stiffness and encourage bend is to adapt the position in our bodies that we want our horse’s to have in theirs. Ride as though your upper body is your horse’s front and your lower body is your horse’s hind end. Let your outside shoulder lead ahead of your inside a bit, tip your own rib cage (at the bra strap vs. the waist) to the inside a hair, and then be amazed as your horse will tend to do the same.

Also consider that most photos of stiff horses show riders with stiff arms – so it’s ideal to not let your elbows float too far out and away from your body. For more bend in a run, and when riding in general, put more bend in your elbow.

If you’ve ever dealt with a stiff, tense horse that drops in and tips barrels, then Keep ‘em Standing – Four Tips for Reforming a Barrel Crasher may be just the help you need!


7. Collection (an excerpt from the Quality Movement chapter of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success”) – Collection turns a performance horse into a hovercraft, making it possible to change direction, speed or stride length quickly and easily. It gives a horse balance and strength in his body to power through a turn or accelerate on the straightaway. Collection is a gathering of energy as the physical body parts also become gathered underneath the horse. Words like big, elevated, strong, energetic and springy all help to describe what collection feels like. When riding a horse that is truly collected, there is a feeling of being actively carried, it’s a wonderfully light and effortless feeling, a feeling that unfortunately not many barrel racers are familiar with.

Collection does not require the rider to physically hold a horse in a collected frame. Collection is self carriage, something we teach horses to take responsibility for. If a rider has done her homework up to the point where collection is desired, then the horse should be familiar with and willing to take responsibility for things such as maintaining direction and maintaining gait, so although it takes time to develop strength for collection, taking responsibility to maintain it should be nothing new.

Bumping or pulling is not necessary from the rider to achieve collection, only steady but giving hands that allow the horse freedom within the light contact. Constant pushing and driving with the legs is also not part of true collection, instead horses carry the responsibility to maintain quality forward movement. If we do our part to regularly require our horses to maintain this quality movement, they are likely to take responsibility for performing with the same quality movement that is signature of a winning run.

Although there are numerous precursors to true collection, for many barrel racers, when they all come together, it’s often the key that will unlock the door to success.

To read the rest of the Quality Movement chapter, including a step by step guide for starting on your path to achieving true collection, click here to get your copy of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success” (+ receive FREE gifts!).


8. Balance – In each gait, there is a general percentage of weight that carried on the front vs. hind end. We can influence those percentages to our benefit IF we know how, and can teach our horses to carry themselves differently through careful repetition, strength development, and through simply making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. Some horses by nature tend to be better movers than others. Some tend to already move in a way that is condusive to barrel racing. In most cases, to help our horses reach their potential it requires a highly skilled trainer and rider to inspire higher quality, balanced movement.

The common tendency is for horses to transfer more of the weight to the inside and on the front end, especially when approaching and through a turn. This happens for several reasons and to an extent this is necessary, however often our horses take this too far to the extreme and it create blocks in the free flowing, efficient movement on the pattern.

The solution then, comes in asking our horses to circle with more weight on the hindquarters in general, as well as in slow work on the barrels, then gradually introducing speed back to the pattern while being very particular about how the horse is using himself. We can also make subtle adjustments to our riding to help counteract the tendency for barrel horses to lean too far to the inside by stepping very slightly to the outside stirrup, or performing exercises like mentioned here.

Incorrect positioning and imbalanced movement not only creates delays, it can put horses and riders at more risk for slips, falls and injuries. It’s up to us to help our horses learn the subtleties of correct body position in order to maneuver the pattern in the most efficient and safest way possible. It’s also our responsibility to stay out of their way, to make sure we, as riders, are not creating blocks in the way of their movement.

For even more tips on this subject, especially if your horse tends to be tense and nervous, you’ll get a lot out of Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement.


9. Independence – As riders, we want to teach our horses how to use their body property, while following a set pattern. If we mess up in a run, it’s ideal for our horse to have a level of confidence and independence that will make up for our mistakes. However, we also need to be able to help our horse when HE struggles or needs guidance, without blocking us out and ignoring us because “he knows the pattern.” It’s a fine balance to achieve, and it becomes even finer the more we add speed.

For our horses to be confident on the barrel pattern, we have to develop them in a way that builds their self-esteem. When we micromanage our horses, it’s almost as if we insult their intelligence. The more they are picked on, the less try they will put forth, for fear of being wrong. Certain horses are born with more confidence than others, but no matter how much we have to start with, it’s something we want to protect and go about developing very mindfully.

When we are too perfectionistic, are constantly correcting our horses, and don’t fully understand HOW to develop independence, what we often end up with is a horse that just keeps on making a million small mistakes, without ever really learning to take responsibility for staying in frame and on track.

Instead, put your horse on the honor system by first developing all the ingredients – all the pieces that make up the perfect circle individually before putting it all together. THEN do your part by riding with your own body in proper position, while being mentally present and focused, and expect your horse to stay shaped while he follows the track he’s been trained to follow. If he gets off track or out of position, correct him, then leave him alone rather than hold him in perfect position.

There’s no way we can hold our horses together throughout an entire run – we can help them and guide them, but we must encourage and train them to move with quality on their own. When we do, we’ll have a horse that is much more consistent, fast and easier to ride.

For more on encouraging responsibility, you’ll enjoy Instill Independence and Refine Body Control for Faster Times.

To summarize, here is a complete list of all nine aspects of the perfect circle:

1. Connection
2. Freedom (no restriction from the rider)
3. Education
4. Footfall
5. Impulsion
6. Flexion
7. Collection
8. Balance
9. Independence

To make the tips in this series even easier to apply, click here to download and print your Quality Circles & Quick Turns Checklist PDF to bring to the arena. It includes the list above with brief descriptions of each, as well room for taking notes!

Then, share in the comments below – which of the five areas explained this week do YOU and your horse seem to struggle with most? Which do you feel you do well? Let’s hear it!

If you enjoyed this post, use the links below to share with your barrel buddies, and if you haven’t already – don’t forget to sign up for our FREE weekly barrel racing tips!👇

12 replies
  1. Nicki McKay
    Nicki McKay says:

    I think this is the best article so far! I did a clinic this weekend, and this was by far the skill everyone needed to work on the most! Way to go! And CONGRATULATIONS on the new place! Blessings to you! Enjoy every minute! Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Peggy Schmitz
    Peggy Schmitz says:

    Hi Heather, yet another great article, I need to remember to bend at the bra line and shift my weight s little . So happy you found a place. Also here are some natural books on healing and health. Nutritional healing by Phyllis a balch encyclopedia of natural medicine by Michael Murray and Joseph pizzorno. Encyclopedia of natural healing by Siegfried gurus he and salt on Rona. Blessings to you and family. Enjoy your new home.

  3. Liliana
    Liliana says:

    Hello, It’s a pleassure to say hello to you.. Iam a Barrel Racing Instructor Here In Mexico..I Like to ask this, One of my has been having troubles with her horse.. He always kicks when she rush it with spurs.. what do u think we should do..

  4. Kaden
    Kaden says:

    hopefully this works I have two weeks to have a horse ready for my first high school rodeo due to my main horse being injured.

  5. Jesyka Moore
    Jesyka Moore says:

    I love this article as well as the last. For me personally, I would like to get your opinion for your own body position. So many people do so many different things with their body’s that really affect everything they’re trying to achieve with their horse. When I’m spotting or coaching, I find 95% of a horses problems are due to rider error. Generally fixing the rider straightens the horse out. Everyone has their own method and for me personally I’ve learned to position my body as to how I want my horses body to shape, form and move. I’ve watched you ride for quite some time and have always admired your style. Maybe the next article to help put all of this together?! Would love to get your input regardless! Thanks so much for all of this information and breaking everything down. There’s so much in these articles no ones taught or broken down. You rock!! Thank you!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Ah, thanks Jesyka! You’re so right that the horses tend to do in their bodies what we do in ours so I like to be super conscious of that. I’m planning content for March, where the topic will be “Physical Conditioning” so look for riding position to be addressed in more depth soon!


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