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It wasn’t surprising to see a top barrel racer coach new students by taking them on a trip around the barrel pattern afoot. What would have been surprising, would have been to see how much the arena glowed, had the light bulbs above the students heads been real. This was no average trip around the pattern.
What was different, was that each individual student received instruction on how to walk the pattern properly, one approach, turn and exit at a time. Next, they did just that (repeatedly), while NFR barrel racer Jane Melby, and her husband Ryan critiqued and made corrections to the way they RODE the pattern based on how they WALKED it.
I was aware of the way in which our horses tend to mirror our own bodies when we ride them. Until I had an opportunity to walk the pattern with Jane, however, I was NOT aware of the numerous, subtle ways in which my body was out of position in a run, and how that became obvious by how I walked.
The realization that I stepped into turns with my inside hip leading, made total sense of why my horse sometimes struggled at the first barrel. If his body mirrored mine – how could he be in good position for an easy turn? On the second barrel, the way in which I started turning my own body too soon, totally correlated with how my horse also starts the turn there a bit too soon. And that funky little move my gelding tends to make on the back of the third barrel? YEP. ME – Guilty!
Like any other time I’ve had a major AHA moment on my barrel racing and horsemanship journey, I couldn’t help but do a little “happy dance” inside, as I just KNEW I had made a HUGE step in my awareness that would translate into even greater success in competition. There may not have actually been a light bulb shining above my head, but trust me – I was glowing.
Although she just blasted onto the NFR scene last year, Jane Melby’s performance in Las Vegas proved she was no rookie. Before her 2011 NFR qualification, Jane already had NBHA and IPRA world championships to her credit. A lifetime of experience as a professional barrel racer proved that she could not only run with the big dogs, but lead the pack – all the way across the South Point stage to accept three gold buckles over the course of 10 days last December (for future insider details that accompany these articles, sign up for our FREE winning tips via email above).
I was grateful for the opportunity to be on hand while Jane shared the exact body position that is crucial for NFR caliber runs. This winning position applies whether you’re walking OR riding around the barrels. So in order for students to get a head start on making corrections before saddling up, they each received Jane’s expert instruction on foot first.
You might think that “walking the pattern” is only for 4-H kids preparing for a reining pattern at the county fair, or that as an advanced barrel racer, you’re “too good” to walk the pattern. If so, I’ve got news for you…
Jane IS good, BECAUSE she walks the pattern.
Obviously, Jane already has good body positioning and riding habits established, so she may not need to walk the pattern regularly. One of her secrets to success, however, does come in walking the pattern at every rodeo she enters when it’s critically important that she win a check (most rodeos do not allow contestants to enter the competition arena horseback before the rodeo). So even if her horse hasn’t been in a certain arena, when she’s had the opportunity to get in there and study the distances, the angles, and landmarks, and get her depth perception adjusted, it translates into confidence in a run – that is mirrored in her horse. She is better prepared to make any necessary adjustments to the way she rides based on the arena, and do so in a way that sends a subtle message to her horse saying, “Hey, I’ve been here, I’ve got this.”
Anyone fortunate enough to walk the pattern with Jane will be handed actual reins to hold, making the experience as realistic as possible. Jane encourages students to hold the reins two handed to the barrels with a good grip, knuckles up, reins centered and hands positioned about shoulder width apart. When students come to the “cross,” a point approximately 10 feet straight in from each barrel, students are encouraged to “downshift” their body’s energy and go to the horn while they keep walking forward into the turn. This “cross” is the same point that, whether you’re walking or riding, you will travel over as you exit the turn as well.
The key to walking OR riding through the pattern properly comes in staying balanced and aligned in your body, while maintaining smooth, forward cadence in your movement. To avoid leaning too far forward or back, your body should be balanced over your feet and just a hair forward, in somewhat of a “jockey position.” This is a speed event after all, and leaning back with your weight in your pockets doesn’t translate into the fastest way to get around the barrels.
Extra awareness should go to the lateral and vertical alignment of the hips and shoulders. In the turn, the entire body should gradually twist as the head, shoulders, waist and hips should all rotate evenly. This should be done in one, smooth motion without any jerky, whip-like moves on the back side of the barrel.
In addition, a barrel racer should be careful that they weight the inside and outside foot equally as they take each step. In order to be in alignment for a straight, fast departure, it’s important to allow time for a horse’s body to finish a turn, but this can and should be done in a way that still makes for a fluid, round, forward movement as we come around, without hesitation or extreme shifts in position or footfall patterns.
All this is done while traveling on a track that is approximately 3 feet away from the barrel, keeping an equal distance all the way around, except for closing that gap just a smidge at the finish of the turn.
Jane encourages students to keep their knuckles up on the rein hand and bring it out a bit to tip the horse’s nose just enough to encourage roundness and bend, with the elbow bent and slightly away from body. This position, she says, allows for greater freedom of movement, allowing a rider to be better able to help a horse and move their body in response to whatever comes their way in a run.
So you might wonder why I’d choose to write about walking the pattern. I mean, wouldn’t the most important take-aways from an NFR barrel racer happen on horseback? It’s true that the students I witnessed ALSO gained a heck of a lot with their horses, and that they all made major positive transformations after only a short time with Jane. However, there were just too many benefits to walking the pattern gained by students (and myself), not to share!
Walking the pattern confirmed to an even greater degree, that our horses tend to mirror our own body position. Any errors in body position became easier to notice, when a saddle (and horse) was not in the picture, and walking the pattern with Jane’s expert guidance also gave students the opportunity to create new habits that would better serve them and their horse in a run. Another benefit, of course, was that this new found awareness made walking the pattern a great way to work on ourselves, without having to drill our horses excessively.
There is so much more to barrel racing, than barrel racing. In addition, the lessons gained from walking the pattern, once again prove that what we do away from the pattern effects with what happens on the barrel pattern.
At the NFR last year, I’ll never forget seeing large signs held up by “Team Melby” in the stands that read “SEE JANE RUN, SEE JANE WIN!” Run and WIN, she did indeed. A big part of WHY she wins, is because she WALKS. My advice, then, is instead of being tempted to think that “you’re too good” to walk the pattern, is to have an open mind and remember that Jane Melby IS GOOD, BECAUSE she walks the pattern. Until you can walk the pattern under the well trained eye of Jane Melby, I encourage you to give it a try for yourself!
After taking a break from the rodeo trail and focusing on clinics this spring, Jane will soon be back at it with her equine partner “RC Back in Black,” aka “Beauty.” Watch for this dynamic duo to be climbing up the standings, and making a run for another NFR.
Jane, her husband Ryan and children Colton and Cayla are Minnesota natives but relocated last year to a beautiful training facility near the Texas border in Oklahoma where they offer clinics, horse training and horses for sale. Visit their web site at www.JaneMelby.com to view an awesome video montage of Jane’s 2011 NFR success and to find out how the Melby’s can help you become a champion!