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As a four-time NFR barrel racing qualifier, Michele McLeod has plenty of valuable knowledge and experience to pass on to others. Thankfully for barrel racers, she’s been doing just that lately and I was grateful for the opportunity to catch up with her and multiple-time AQHA World Champion Calf Roper and Super Horse trainer, C.R. Bradley at a clinic they put on in Denton, Texas.
It would be easy to assume that a competitor of Michele’s caliber has lofty secrets to success that may difficult for the average barrel racer to grasp and develop, but that’s not the case. Although her years of experience, genuine positivity and humble confidence translate to the horses she trains and rides in a way that’s unique to her, both through the example she sets, and now the quality instruction she offers, Michele confirms that big time success is really all about the simple things done with excellence, such as walking a perfect circle around a single barrel – which is something we all have the ability to do.
In fact, doing so was the difference between her first NFR, where she claims to have never really perfected the first barrel – or even had the same first barrel turn more than once, compared to later years when she had much greater success.
“The first year, I didn’t ride a lot during the day because I didn’t want to mess anything up. After that I would ride in the morning and work one barrel, and I won a lot more money.”
Looking back on her early years a professional barrel racer and trainer, she acknowledges that initially she didn’t work the barrels enough, which she now realizes is important, because “Speed takes the turn out.”
Although Michele doesn’t necessarily work the pattern itself as often, walking perfect circles around a single barrel especially, has become a staple in her program and something she does every day with horses in training, in the warm-up pen, and yes – even at the NFR, saying that “walking perfect circles can’t really be emphasized enough.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between working the barrels and working them with excellence, or walking a circle and walking a perfect circle. So below I’ve shared a bit on what that looks and feels like for Michele and C.R. so you can perform them as well!
On Walking Perfect Circles
Start by riding with two hands, with the goal of eventually using one.
“We want their body arced just enough to see their inside eye, so they have bend through the ribs with the shoulder and body in alignment.
Keep subtle leg contact, and when you release it should mean stop or back up.
Avoid an over-bent in the neck, which can cause the outside shoulder to disengage, and result in a loss of balance and power for the horse.”
Especially for a horse that tends to run past the first barrel, Michele’s found it’s beneficial to keep reiterating small, relaxed, perfect circles, which brings balance to the horse mentally and gets them thinking more about turning vs. just running.
As for Hand and Rein Position…
“Keep your hands wide on the reins, which opens and frees up the shoulders and allows the horse to find their “sweet spot” vs. confining or blocking them, which prevents them from really learning for themselves where they need to be. Shoulder mobility and maneuverability is important. With wide hands, there is nothing to lean on… the horse has to find where to be in that quiet, steady contact without a crutch.”
On Collection and Engagement
Michele shared that it’s normal for a horse to feel like they’re slowing down as they get aligned in a small circle around a barrel, because they’re taking fewer (but longer) steps.
“The hind end is slowing down and the front end is reaching.”
Speaking of steps, when it’s time to apply perfect circles to the actual pattern, she feels as though a straighter/longer approach is faster, where the turn takes place on the backside of the barrel.
For a horse that tends to disengage at this point, correcting this habit can be achieved by transitioning into a larger (easier) circle, and using less inside rein.
“They tend to give too much nose, so use less rein, sit deep, drive with your seat and stay quiet as you let their body come around without losing the hind quarters.”
A horse that drops on their frond end will tend to feel rough and choppy, but Michele explained that we want the barrel turn to be a comfortable place where the horse stays collected and pushes off vs. getting strung out.
“When finishing the turns, the third especially – keep the hip to the inside of the circle… don’t let a horse anticipate and leave prematurely, or they’ll tend to fishtail and lose engagement. We don’t want to hustle too much on the back side and cause them to whip to the outside.”
A horse that is tense, emotional and tight through their back will tend to kick their hip to the outside due to a lack of flexibility through their body. Once this stiffness is resolved however, more suppleness, and therefore athleticism, becomes possible. On the other hand, some horses avoid the work of moving correctly and getting collected by rushing the turn, simply because they just haven’t been educated or conditioned well enough yet.
Michele stressed, “It’s important to have a horse thinking and methodically placing their feet vs. sloppily hurrying,” which reminded me of the wise saying that “Fast & wrong doesn’t make a right.”
For a ratey horse, she gathers them up even more, using repetitive transitions while especially emphasizing the upward transition.
She explained that long trotting is excellent to do as long as it’s done while driving the horse up into the bridle, which helps strengthen the back and hind end. She cautioned that “We don’t want a horse extending out too far behind themselves.”
Michele suggests practicing gathered transitions enough that they become fluid, easy and second nature to the horse, by teaching them that they can transition and shift their weight easily while keeping forward motion, which makes the transition to speed work on the pattern a much easier one.
It’s even easier, however when we’re doing our part to communicate well.
More Leg and Less Hands
Michele expertly and patiently coached students at the clinic through numerous drills including ‘Three Barrel Straights’ and ‘All Rights/All Lefts.’ Each student’s effectiveness for achieving the goal of a “perfect circle” throughout each exercise depended a lot on how they were using their own body.
Rather than starting with rein pressure to ask a horse to move in and out of the circle, she recommend asking with the eyes first, for example, by looking down and to the inside to get the horse to move in, which also causes the horse’s body to become more round laterally.
“LOOK where you want your horse’s feet to go… where our eyes are focused influences our horses much more than we realize.”
We can even use our focus to assist with rate in the approach to the barrels.
For a free running horse, keep your eyes focused down at a shorter distance and for a ratey horse, keep the eyes up and focused further forward (ex. two or more strides ahead).
Using less inside rein enables our horses to stay more balanced and square in their bodies. As a result, a horse’s turns will be smoother and they’ll perform more comfortably the more we use our focus and body language.
She reminded students to keep their elbows softly bent at their sides vs. straight and locked out in front. Using our eyes and body language to cue for the turn, while keeping our hands steady lessens the likelihood of bumping our horse’s mouth. We can even use our shoulders to communicate with our horses, after all – they’re connected to our arms/hands/reins, which connect to the horse’s sensitive mouth.
“The more we can stay out of their way, the better. The less we have to touch their face, the less likely it is that they’ll come out of the turn (which costs time).”
As for the position of our lower body, Michele shared that “When our heels are down and we’re firm in the stirrups, they’ll be less bouncing and movement in our upper body/hands.”
“Sitting our butt down and back will help the horse not lean forward, and be much smoother. We want to sit deep, push on our stirrups, and lift our hands as we drive the hind quarters to ‘slide’ around the barrel fluidly. This helps us be more secure and strong in the saddle as riders.”
Sounds like yet another step we can take toward faster, smoother runs!
On Communicating in Competition
When it’s time to enter, Michele prefers a shorter rein to compete in, and feels most barrel racers are running in reins that are too long. She feels as though horses benefit from the subtle feel of the outside rein on their neck in a run, which helps keep them in the turn vs. floating out.
She prefers not to slide her hand down the rein to turn, but keeps it in the same place as when riding to the barrel with two hands, then just drops one side and goes to the horn.
This, she explained, avoids creating too much slack in the rein, and allows for a more consistent feel that also prevents a horse from dropping too low or getting bumped when the rein engages again, as well as lessens the likelihood of the rider getting behind or out of sync.
So although “walking perfect circles” and the other points I’ve shared from Michele and C.R.’s clinic might not outwardly seem like well kept “secrets” to success for studious barrel racers, advanced horsemen know that it’s one thing to understand something mentally, and another entirely to really embody, apply and achieve it.
So although it may sound simple, it’s not necessarily easy!
Thankfully, that’s where Michele McLeod’s expert eye and encouragement comes in – to gently reveal barrel racer’s blind spots and create positive, game-changing transformations, which have now been taking place across the country since Michele has been offering barrel racing clinics.
I strongly encourage you to jump at any opportunities you may have to saddle up with Michele McLeod or C.R. Bradley, so you can directly experience the benefits for yourself!
Michele McLeod is a four-time NFR Barrel Racing Qualifier, an Old Fort Days Derby Champion and All American Congress Sweepstakes Champion. C.R. Bradley is an NFR Calf Roping Qualifier, a 16-time AQHA Open World Champion, and a two-time AQHA Superhorse Trainer.
To stay up to date with Michele, follow Team McLeod on Facebook. For Michele’s schedule or to host a clinic in your area, visit Michele McLeod Barrel Racing Clinics for more information.
If you’re not already aware of just how incredibly inspiring Michele McLeod’s barrel racing journey is, enjoy the 30 minute documentary below sponsored by Purina.
You’ll also enjoy the BarrelRacingTips.com video post with Michele from the 2013 NFR, as well as additional resources from other NFR barrel racers I’ve linked to below: