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The success of any athletic maneuver, no matter the sport, comes down to preparation. Even the most lightening fast moves (especially the most lightening fast moves), can be traced back to proper preparation, sometimes as subtle as a shift in weight that occurs in a fraction of second.
Multiple time NFR barrel racer, Lisa Lockhart explains that anyone who has driven a truck pulling a horse trailer knows that turning safely and efficiently requires more preparation than what is required behind the wheel of a sports car. Horses are similar to a truck and trailer rig in that their back end must follow their front end, and that they need to be properly prepared in order to turn efficiently. As “drivers,” it’s important for barrel racers to have an understanding of what proper preparation consists of, and how work as a team with a horse to bring together all the elements in a way that results in the fastest time possible.
There is a high level of communication and processing that must take place in order for messages to be relayed back and forth between horse and rider to prepare for the turns. The ability to get ready quickly comes easier to some horses (and riders) than to others, but the horse’s ability to do so is very much connected to how correct and responsive we’ve trained them to be.
If you imagine driving a truck with bad breaks, a sticky accelerator or no power steering, you can better understand how any stiffness, resistance or lack of responsiveness in a horse is sure to create a delay in a run. It’s crucial for our horses to respond to us like well oiled machines when we ask them to be supple and willing to bend through the rib cage and in response to bit pressure applied through the contact we make with the reins.
One of the first keys to prior, proper preparation comes though training our horses to transition downward in gait or stride length when we sit deep in the saddle. Although we all may use a differing combination of body language (such as rein, seat & leg pressure) in a run to help prepare our horses for the turn, sitting deep in the saddle at the rate point is a commonly used and effective way to communicate to our horses that it’s time to prepare. This is because when we shift our own weight, it encourages the horse to do the same in his body, which puts his body in a more balanced, athletic position, making it easier to turn.
If a horse doesn’t slow down or shorten stride in response to a rider that sits deep in the saddle, then training a horse to do so involves first sitting, then applying rein contact until the horse stops, and asking the horse to back a few steps and repeating this process until the horse responds to the rider’s seat by shifting downward in gait. When performing slow work, Lisa transitions down to either a slower gait around the barrels (ex: trot to barrels, walk around them) or slows down within the gait (fast trot to barrels, slow trot around them) to reinforce rate. With this policy in place, she finds that stopping and backing at the barrel usually isn’t necessary in the training process.
Prior preparation for the turns also requires that our horses “stay between the lines.” Keeping a horse’s feet on the appropriate path as we approach the turn and go around a barrel is critical. Lisa advises students to stay on the same road, and follow a path that is widest (approximately 5-7 ft.) at the start of the turn, that gradually decreases on the back side and is narrowest at the finish (approximately 1-3 ft.). These measurements should allow for some give and take, as each horse is different and adjustments should be made to balance out their tendencies. In some cases it may be necessary to over exaggerate in order to correct an issue on the pattern. For example (similar to how we would turn while pulling a horse trailer), Lisa might ask a horse that tends to “cut the corner” to go further on up into the “intersection” before he turns.
In addition, it’s essential that our horses position their bodies correctly both laterally and vertically to achieve a fast, efficient turn. Vertically, our horses should elevate the front end slightly while keeping the hind end engaged underneath them. Laterally, it’s ideal for our horses to maintain a degree of roundness and bend through their body. Achieving proper body position in a run starts by asking for proper body position in slow work. Lisa explains that when a horse prepares their body by getting into the proper position, it’s similar to how a basketball player assumes an athletic position on defense – they are balanced and ready to make a quick movement in any direction, at any time. If there’s any point on the pattern and/or in the body, where the horse gets stiff, a rider should focus on suppling these areas in slow work to address the issue.
Helping a horse stay round in a run has a lot to do with the degree of contact that is maintained through the reins. Lisa notices that many riders tend to make contact with their horse’s mouth before a turn to prepare them, but then release slack back in the rein, often causing a horse to drop on their front end. Not only can keeping consistent, supportive, guiding contact through the turn help keep a horse round, but it helps a horse utilize their hind end properly so that their “trailer” (hind end) doesn’t fishtail (disengage). At the same time, one must be careful not to use too much contact, as this can actually restrict movement of the front end too much and contribute to the disengagement of the hind end.
The timing in which we prepare our horse for a turn and the specific methods of communication we use all depend greatly on the horse and the environment. Lisa feels as though she can’t really designate a specific, generic spot on the map for the exact rate point because some horses need more time/room than others. A rider on a very sensitive, finished horse may sit deep in the saddle, and make contact with the reins to prepare a horse for the turn only ten feet before the barrel, where another horse and rider’s rate point may be twice that far from the barrel.
Not only will the rate point be adjusted depending on the horses tendencies, but it can also depend on the competition environment. Because horses tend to run freer outdoors, a rider may need to prepare a horse sooner for the turns outside than they would inside. Understanding how to help each individual horse prepare for the turn may require some experimentation to determine the timing and combination of cues (seat, rein & leg pressure) that the horse responds best to.
When helping to prepare a horse to turn, it’s not uncommon for riders to make miscalculations in the timing and application of their cues. When a horse responds to these incorrect cues, it can cause them to go by a barrel or it can result in a tipped barrel if the horse turns too soon. Studying videos can be a great way to determine what kind of adjustments must be made to help a horse prepare.
When a horse prepares for the turn too soon (or too late), it’s often because he lacks one of the elements described above and a slower time is likely to result. The most successful barrel horses prepare for the turns over the course of a relatively short distance. When a horse…
- Is responsive to the riders cues,
- Stays on the desired path,
- Positions their body properly…
- At the ideal time/place in relation to the barrel, and
- The rider does their part (applies appropriate cues with appropriate timing) to help the horse…
A fast, efficient turn is the result!
Even when the fastest turns look like they occurred with no preparation at all, remember that they were fast, because there was prior, proper preparation – it just took place very quickly, and allowed the horse to run even longer and faster between barrels.
Prior, proper, preparation can make or break the turn – it’s both a process and a team effort! It’s critical that we instill confidence in our horses and train them to take responsibility for their body position and placement of their feet. At the same time, when we do our part and use good timing and application of body language, we can make the turns easy and fast for our horses, and that’s what precisely what prior, proper preparation is all about!
South Dakota barrel racer, Lisa Lockhart has been a force to reckon with at the National Finals Rodeo for several consecutive years.
Lisa is quick to credit her loyal sponsors for their support, each of which offer products she has used and been a long time beliver in, those being Martin Saddlery, DeTye Vet Supply, Cowgirl Tuff, Classic Equine, Woody’s Performance Horse Feed and Platinum Performance.