Patterns for Precision – Follow the Path to Greater Accuracy and SPEED!

Patterns for Precision – Follow the Path to Greater Accuracy and SPEED!

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Whether you call them patterns, exercises, or drills, there’s no denying they’re an important part of any barrel racers program.

And it’s no wonder – high degrees of speed and precision are required to beat the clock, and our horses must not only understand their responsibilities for staying on track around the barrels, but also use their bodies in specific ways that put the odds most in our favor for efficiency and speed.

In The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion, I went into great depth explaining the power of patterns and WHY they are so important based on how our horse’s minds are wired.

I also included the specific ways we can use patterns to achieve even more positive results. The truth is, we can perform drills until we (and our horses) are blue in the face, but if we don’t use psychology as we apply them, we won’t get nearly as far.

What I mean by this is that our horse must be engaged with us in a two-way conversation that allows him to be an independent thinker vs. a puppet. Body control is great, but it’s not enough to have communication only going one way. What we REALLY need (and what is actually somewhat rare), is to create a connection that goes from our horses mind all the way down to his feet and back to us.

Think of it this way – if my horse got separated from his herd-mates in the pasture and didn’t know where the gate was, I could walk over and lead him through the gate OR I could allow him the time to process and figure it out himself. I can assure you which method would cause him to better learn where the gate is – the one that requires his mental wheels to turn on their own vs. me turning them FOR him (micro-managing).

Of course, there’s a time and a place to help our horses understand new concepts. While we don’t want to throw our horse’s off a cliff or leave them “hung out to dry,” we also must be careful not to deny them learning experiences, spoon feed them, or do for them what they should can (and should) do for themselves.

I have my horse’s body, but do I have his mind?

So often we don’t give horses near enough credit for the truly intelligent animals they are, and end up treating and training a finished horse much in the same way we would a youngster – OR we mistakenly think we’re hurrying up the process by helping a youngster too much – which only creates delays and limitations later.

It’s better to use patterns in a slow, methodical way that over time buries positive habits deep withing our horse’s minds and bodies vs. just achieving what might “look good” today. When we take the right steps, patterns can empower our horses and build confidence, OR burn our horses out and contribute to bad habits and resentment.

The key to success is all in HOW we go about it.

“The First 51” offers even more insight about patterns, but in today’s article I wanted to explain how and why they can become even more valuable to us as trainers and jockeys, not only by using them to teach but especially to TEST – ourselves AND our horses!

My personal enthusiasm for studying footfall on the pattern was reawakened a couple years ago and eventually lead to creating this video post -> Follow the Barrel Racing Pattern of Least Resistance.

When I started paying closer attention, I realized that each top barrel racer seemed to follow a slightly differing path around the barrels. Some still allow for a bit of a pocket, some prefer to create more room on the back side, some claim to stay out as far out as seven feet at certain points and come in to as close as one foot or less at others.

You may find your own personal preferences over time, as I have, which is a 12 ft. “cross point” straight out from the barrel, a four foot distance from the barrel at the entrance of the turn, six feet on the back side, and three feet at the exit.

Claiming my personal preference in this area simply involved working the pattern then stepping out of the saddle to measure so I could actually put a number to the tracks/points around the barrels. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I had been running barrels for 20+ years before I actually measured! I always simply “felt it out” – but when precision is so critical, doesn’t it make sense to measure, compare and be precise vs. just wing it?

While we DO need to surrender and let ‘er rip in competition to a degree, we are better able to do that when we’re particular, aware, precise and accurate in our training!

Another BIG breakthrough came through my time spent walking the barrel pattern with Jane Melby. Her preferred rate point is a “cross” ten feet to the side of the barrel.

Most valuable however, was the measurement she threw out when I asked about the angle she took to that cross point before the first barrel. Backtracking, we stepped out the distance between the first barrel cross and the spot where she goes from running straight into the arena (as in not diagonal), THEN arcing to the cross. As a side note, whether you line up to the left, centered or right side of the third barrel as you head straight into the arena will depend on the score and arena size.

In all my years running barrels, this was also something I just “felt out,” and as a result, sometimes struggled with rate and timing before the first barrel. It was empowering and refreshing to put spots and numbers together so that my mind and body could more intimately know when and where it needed to be to increase the likelihood of nailing the first barrel and pulling off a winning run!

YOUR personal pattern may vary from this. But studying the preferences of myself and other successful barrel racers provides guidance and framework.

What I realized was that we have to know our points and path around the barrel better than we know the back of our hand – we need to get down in the dirt and “get intimate!” While the rate points may change just a bit depending on the conditions or the horse, it’s not something we can just shrug off and leave as “grey area” in ANY way, shape for form!

If we’re going to nail the first barrel every time – it must become black and white, in our mind AND body – so it can become the same in our horse’s mind and body.

With a new approximate measurements in my mind, from that day forward when presented with a pattern for practice or competition, I repeatedly walked out my rate points (each big step = appox. 3 ft./1 yd.), and would stand there, look around, look at the point on the ground, look at the barrel and FEEL it – memorize it, and sensualize it. We can do the same for ALL our personal points on the pattern – mounted or not!

After all, we can’t wait to decide when to rate for the first barrel when we “get there,” or even when we’re halfway there! We must have movement patterns well-established in advance because a winning run will always be too fast to think through. The synapses in our brain simply can’t keep up.

Although minor in-the-moment adjustments may be necessary, our default movement patterns must become SOLID. Think of it this way – when you started playing basketball, you were probably tempted to look at the ball to dribble it. In time, the ball becomes part of you. You can handle and feel it without looking at it or even thinking about it. Depending on how long you’ve been running barrels, you may remember a time when were tempted to LOOK at the barrels in order to know where your horse was positioned in relation to them. Over time, you started to just sense it through your peripheral vision and bodily “feel.”

What I’m suggesting here is that you take your “sensing” ability to a new level – on purpose! If you dribble a basket ball long enough, you’ll eventually get pretty good at it. But if you took the right steps, you could speed that process up dramatically – just like we have the opportunity to do with our barrel racing.

We can’t become a runaway success by living life on auto-pilot.

Even if you’re not able to ride your horse into an arena before competing, find a way to get in there on foot and feel things out. It will create confidence in YOU and your timing which will no doubt translate over to your horse. Perfect timing and footfall isn’t an accident! If we want to be faster and more consistent, we have to get our magnifying glass out and become more intentional and PRO-active! Do this and with every run you and your horse will build more and more confidence.

Of course, all this may require a few minutes of time away from your regularly scheduled riding and training sessions, but the ways in which it will pay off cannot be understated. Another example is actually going to the trouble of setting up a video camera on a tripod or fence post in your home arena. You can’t improve what you don’t pay attention to. I encourage you to go the extra mile to be deliberate about your future success vs. leaving it to chance!

When I had the opportunity to visit with Mary Walker a few weeks ago, she mentioned that she sets up and NFR-sized barrel pattern and arena at home with panels – with everything to scale including the in and out alley with a side gate.

I had a big AH-HA moment as I recounted her previous wild success in Vegas, and no doubt connected it to her and Latte intimately knowing the competition environment well in advance of them ever putting a foot on Thomas & Mack dirt. She mentioned that it helped her count steps and her timing down with Latte. I imagine it helped her get a feel for how to handle time and space through the alley, the pattern itself, and the barrel locations in relation to the arena walls. She even puts up a fake timer to get familiar with where it will be placed at the Thomas & Mack.

Getting “intimate” with the NFR pattern is something YOU can do too! Last year, the WPRA posted the official dimensions of the NFR barrel pattern as compared to the standard pattern. Click here to check out Barrel Patterns by the Book with the WPRA at the 2013 NFR.

Of course, not all of us have panel arenas that can be easily constructed and destructed (or the time/manpower to do it), but where there is a will there is always a way. You may not be able to create a completely life-like NFR set up, and in a sense there’s no way to achieve that due to the other factors that make the Thomas & Mack set up so unique.

Precision without quality is nothing.

However, you can get an idea even with a few panels, some steel posts, wire, tarps and zip ties to build short walls behind the three barrels. You could also string up an NFR sized arena with (non-live) electric fence tape. Of course, only do this if you’re certain your horse will see it, respect it and always remain completely under control. In fact, I often put up temporary round pens with non-electrified tape in the pasture during times of the year when our arena is soggy. It’s a perfect, fast option for creating a temporary space for liberty work.

Speaking of the contributing factors that make the NFR a one-of-a-kind competition environment, consider this comment from a Nov. 20th Post on Kelly Kaminski’s Facebook page

“Everyone dreams of making the run in the T&M. I was blessed, made sacrifices, and drove all over the country with my child as a toddler on up, in order to get to do just that. I keep seeing folks setting up NFR size patterns for barrel races, and I think that is a great idea! Although, some factors should be kept in mind when comparing.

1. The ground is not the same.

2. Are the competitors willing to run 15 on a drag?

3. It is a blind run to the first barrel into the arena at the T&M.

4. Holding alley with everyone lined up and it’s usually freezing.

5. Side entry into the alley.

6. Crowd noise is louder than anything anyone experiences anywhere.

7. Having a strictly enforced time limit to get into the arena as to not disrupt the production of the event. I’m serious about this. They are hurrying everything to get the show done in a timely manner, unless you are a bull dogger.

8. There are ten runs in ten consecutive nights.

The patterns can be measured but there are so many factors that come into play that make it different, but have fun doing it! And Dream Big!”

Now that I have your wheels turning about getting to know your “personal pattern” even better, I’m excited to share some further ideas for using patterns to condition, train and especially TEST yourself and your horses.

You’ll need a BIG roll of kite string, a measuring tape, an old plastic cup, and a few bags of all-purpose flour or a bag of lime. If you’re really serious, you might consider purchasing an athletic field chalker on wheels.

Before you begin, go through the process of measuring out your ideal barrel pattern and your preferred distances at each point around each barrel, just to file away for now in your mental Rolodex (you may or may not decide that changes are in order once you measure). Based on my 4/6/3 foot barrel, and the fact that a 50 gallon drum is approximately two feet across, my barrel-sized circle works out to be about ten feet in diameter. If your preferred distances are slightly different, chances are still good it will end up close to a ten foot circle.

Before you get started, consider that if you’re working with a solid, finished barrel horse, that you don’t necessarily want to teach them things they might not need to know on the pattern. It’s always best to test, experiment and train away from the barrels when possible or appropriate, unless you’re fixing a specific problem that only occurs on the pattern (which is rare). For this reason, you may want to refine your precision without barrels first. This way, if corrections are necessary you can make the majority of them away from the pattern.

My next recommended step is to build a barrel racer’s version of what is known as a “precision pen.” Before you do, however – check the weather forecast. Because this is fairly involved process, you’ll want to create your precision pattern when there is little likelihood for rain to wash it away (unless you have an indoor arena, which in that case – have at it anytime!). Size up your arena space, come up with a logical grid that allows you to keep track of 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 ft. circles, etc. Then measure, mark, and lay down some string to guide your flour lines from end to end and powder out your grid.

My home arena measures 120 feet x 240 feet so I would mark my grid as pictured below.

Patterns for Precision – Follow the Path to Greater Accuracy and SPEED!

Whichever way you go about it, use the powdered squares/rectangles to primarily focus on CIRCLES of different sizes with the edges being on your gridlines. What this does is give you a concrete, visible reference for making circles of different sizes – it helps you see the truth and keeps you and your horses honest.

Can your horse stay forward and perfectly on path at a walk? If you let the reins go slack on his neck but remain focused, does he stay true to the pattern by following your subtle body language and focus alone? How do things feel at a lope? Can your horse travel with quality and consistency in his posture? What about when you transition from one size circle to the next? How timely and precise are your upward and downward transitions? Do you compensate in your body when your horse gets off track? Just how straight are your straight lines? How is your lateral work? Can you pick points and accurately go from straight forward to diagonal movement, then forward again, then laterally the other way, all while staying truly “forward?” The possibilities for using such a grid are endless – let your imagination run wild!

The idea seems so elementary but you might be surprised by how much focus it requires to stay perfectly on track. You may also be very surprised to find that you’re not as successful at staying on path as you thought you would be. If a horse veers off THE pattern or even A pattern, it’s a sign that he doesn’t know his job, or that he’s not near as tuned in, quick and responsive as he needs to be for success at speed. If your conscious and aware, putting yourself to the test like this can be a humbling experience!

One more test I challenge you to try is backing a perfect circle – one step at a time. Not more than one step, then stop, then one step, then stop. Remember a horse can be out of control at a walk. If there is a split second delay as you direct your horse step by step – you can certainly expect delays in communication on the barrel pattern as well. It’s ALL connected. Barrel races (and world titles) are won by riders who can consistently place their horse’s FEET. It makes sense then to start fixing any subtle failures to communicate now as you’re going slow and are becoming more aware of them.

Keep in mind, that if what I’ve shared in today’s article remains as just a “good idea” in your head or “something to try,” then you’re not setting yourself up for what could be an amazing experience that will take your awareness, feel, timing, AND ability to clock – to new heights!

Be brave enough to face the truth – even if the truth reveals areas to improve.

Putting effort into testing yourself will open your eyes to holes you may have never otherwise knew existed. You’ll reveal opportunities to accurately see and precisely address areas that may have been lacking on the pattern, which is likely to ultimately lead to shaving time off the clock.

At this point, you have a choice to make.

You can continue living in a world of “grey.” You can continue playing it safe and not clocking – OR you can value your dreams enough to do the work and put yourself to the test, learn and then make the necessary adjustments.

Setting up these patterns is relatively easy to do, but it’s just as easy not to do. My intention is for you to take ACTION on what I share, because it’s the only real way you’ll benefit and achieve a new level of positive results.

In fact, take a moment right now to put flour on your grocery list, and consider it your first step toward getting started on the fast(er) track to BIG time breakthroughs on the barrel pattern!

Don’t forget that the book series offers an abundance of information for developing responsibility, quality movement and more. Click here for details.

For more on the topic of patterns, footfall and responsibility, also enjoy these additional resources:

4 replies
  1. betajorio
    betajorio says:

    Dear Heather, I have finally become PRO Member today and I’m loving it! Thank you so much! I have a question: what 4/6/3 means? Is it the distance between the barrels? Thanks for your time! God bless you

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Roberta – that’s the distance from the barrel to each point – four feet as you enter the turn, six on the back side, and three as you leave. 😀 Glad you’re enjoying the Pro Membership, so happy to have you here!

  2. sugarboots2000
    sugarboots2000 says:

    Hi Heather.
    I struggle with my ability to keep my head in the game during runs. I often cant recall each step of the run as I would like. I dont feel my heart beating hard prior to runs. What do you suggest? My horse has rider problems that keep us on the edge of greatness. This is a lifelong problem.


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