Three Steps (and Exercises) to Become a Better Barrel Racing Jockey

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If you jumped on a horse bareback in a round pen with no saddle or bridle, how confident would you feel in your ability to “go with the flow” and remain seated on that horse’s back as he loped around – as he was free to move when and however he wanted?

Now, I’m not saying you should go out and DO this, but just consider what it’d feel like.

You might think – “Well if I just had a bridle rein, or even a lead rope connected to the halter on one side… OR a saddle horn to hang onto, or stirrups to balance in…” OR maybe you’d feel confident as long as you were on an easy going, familiar or trust-worthy horse that responded well to body language?

Truth be told, most of us never learned to be great passengers before we aspired to become great barrel racers. When a horse zigs quickly, we have the tendency to zag. And if our ability to go with the flow is compromised (even a little bit), that means our passenger skills are lacking which ultimately means that our ability to jockey a barrel horse at top speed will be too.

Today’s article was created to help you take your riding skills from good to excellent!

First, I’ll share that there’s a little something that can be referred to as a “balance point.” It’s a place where we sit and balance our body on a horse that is somewhere between riding on our pockets (tailbone) and riding on our crotch (pubic bone) – feel for it next time you saddle up!

This is a position where everything is centered and in balance, and when we’re in this zone staying with our horse no matter what kind of quick or erratic move they make becomes almost effortless (or at least improves by a HUGE margin).

But if we don’t intimately know this zone and spend a lot of time there (AND because we’re ALL a lil’ unbalanced to start with), our bodies tip to and fro and we develop compensatory habits that over time become even more well established due to muscle memory.

We tend to compensate in many different ways, but below I’ve shared the top three most common in barrel racing, PLUS solutions for each!

I started better understanding why leaning occurs many years ago when I first realized just how much more I weighted my left stirrup vs. the right.

If you’ve been following along for a while, you may have read about when I decided to trot some forward, yet small circles bareback and with every stride my keister slid further and further off to the side until I was scratching may way to stay mounted – talk about eye-opening!

You could also call the habit of leaning “bracing in the stirrups,” meaning that if the stirrups suddenly disappeared, you’d be in the dirt. Seriously. Think about your own tendency to lean, or barrel racers you’ve seen who really put a lot of weight over that inside stirrup on the way to the first barrel – they aren’t using the saddle for subtle support – in these cases they are completely reliant on it (not good).

We want to establish a foundation in our horse’s education that stands solid on it’s own and is not dependent on anything artificial, and we need to have a foundation as riders that’s not entirely and unhealthily dependent on “crutches” either. The tack we use, such as saddles and reins, etc. are all important tools, but they only reach their potential when we’re not longer so reliant on them.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to develop the ability to speed through the pattern au natural, (saddleless and bridleless), but if you are DEPENDENT on the stirrups to remain seated (you push hard on one side to stay secure) then you’re bound to run into problems in a run, whether you’re aware of the connection or not.

Throwing weight around makes it confusing and difficult for your horse to use himself in a balanced and powerful way as well. You may even notice that your saddle gets crooked quite often, or that horse is REALLY one sided, cranks the barrels a lot better one direction vs. the other, OR if you look closely you might even see uneven development through his shoulders, etc.

You might even tend to step hard with one foot, while the other hand moves excessively to create sort of a supportive brace for surviving the fast & furious motion. But we don’t want to just survive a run – we need to have the ability to be specific and purposeful about HOW we guide our horses.

So how can we create a more secure and solid foundation in the saddle that holds up in a mach 10 barrel run?

Image Description
Heavy in the left stirrup.

Here’s how to Test for & Fix LEANING:
Have someone take photos or video of you riding straight toward and away from them (even put your iPhone on a fence post and hit record) – which stirrup is lower, or are they even?

Buy two bathroom scales at Wal-mart, then weigh yourself with one foot on each side. Have someone check the numbers (when you look down it throws your weight off). I step five pounds heavier on my left – no surprise!

It’s very common to lean to the inside in the transition to the turns. When you’re working on the pattern, make a point to exaggerate how much weight you place on the opposite side, especially at certain places on the pattern where your leaning is more extreme.

Like I described in the Rider Responsibilities chapter of Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, next time you’re riding, kick your feet free of the stirrups and trot small but forward circles – which direction to you tend to lean into “the well” to compensate?

Make a practice of losing the stirrups (both and/or even one at a time) for at least 10 minutes each time you ride. As you do, keep your butt centered to encourage your body to find it’s true balance point and as you train your body to rely less on excessive (and/or uneven) dependence on the stirrups.

While a good fitness program designed for riders can help you build more strength and balance, you may need to specifically work even more on your week side. In fact, just last week, I was doing an exercise that involved standing on one foot. I not only wobbled a bit on my left side, but I actually felt my upper body lean forward and to the side to compensate for the lack of balance – ding, ding, ding!

You’ll tend to push harder on the side that you have the most insecurity. To make up for the imbalance, do twice as many balance exercises on your weak vs. strong side.

A rider fitness program like Success in the Saddle will help.

Yet another sign that we have not yet become a great passenger is that we are riding our barrel horses like passengers.

Now this isn’t always or entirely bad. In fact, the less you do, the better some horses perform, and it’s certainly possible to get in our horse’s way by over-riding. You could also think of this as the opposite problem as the excessive motion, BUT it can be caused by the same thing.

You’ll see that children and some aged riders tend to ride more like passengers – relatively quiet, not a lot of aggression or pushing, then they just throw a hand down, lock their elbow while good ‘ol grey gets down to business.

When you’re a passenger you’re just kind of sitting there and hanging on. While we do need to learn to be a great passenger in the beginning as riders, if we want to ride barrel horses well, we have to go waaay beyond this.

If I rode my laid back barrel horse like a passenger, he would seriously do next to nothing. I have to be quick and aggressive to ride him well through a run, AND I have to make certain he’s being responsible for his job which is to maintain direction (stay on path), and maintain shape (good form), while I guide as subtley as I can, yet with a lot of life in my body to inspire life in his.

A person who is not real secure may have some excess bouncing, giving them sort of a “loose” look in the saddle. This definitely connects back to fitness and building strength and enhancing athleticism for greater stability, but some of us need to be more committed and intentional about how we train ourselves to be quick as well.

Someone who’s riding through the pattern like a passenger may ride fairly quietly but they’ll tend to be slow, late or behind the motion a bit. They’re riding in almost victim mode, sort of just going through the motions and letting the run happen. Their horses often come out of turn wide, because their late in turning their own focus and body.

Again, this isn’t all bad if the horse is very correct, self motivated and works and does their job automatically, but to be consistently competitive we want to develop our skills so that we can help our horses navigate the pattern even quicker and be there to help them if and when they need it – to essentially be the kind of rider that can ride the hair off any horse, and intentionally make a run better (and faster) because we’re there, no matter the conditions and what our horse’s individual tendencies and/or needs are.

A balanced, secure rider can guide more effectively.

The erratic hand fix above is actually a form of passenger riding more of us should have done when we started riding horses early on – before we developed the habits that don’t always serve us on the pattern.

Without our hands to depend on and compensate with, our bodies learn to better go with the flow and flow with the go!

If you’re riding like a passenger and want to become more quick and purposeful, then again, building strength through the core is your best bet. Also do some standing in your stirrups – it’s one of the best ways to train your butt to say down! Again, add 10 minutes or so of this into every ride.

Stand in your stirrups, keeping your heels down and your body as straight as possible (try not to lean forward and don’t rest on the pommel). At first when trotting, you might even feel like you’re being yanked down on your bum – a sign you need to do LOTS of standing!

In those moments you feel out of sync (in the alley for example) really push your heels down and engage your abs by bringing your belly button to your spine for greater stability. Also be conscious of where your eyes are going. To keep your butt down in the saddle, lift your chin UP!

On top of that you’ll want to include speed drills! Think of it this way – if you played sports as a youngster you probably remember being fairly athletic and adept. Then, when we “grow up,” most of us don’t RUN anywhere unless something is chasing us, and how often does that happen? You might not even remember the last time you sprinted from point A to point B?

If you do, you probably noticed that you felt like you were running through molasses. A calf roper’s hands are lightning fast because he practices. A sprinter is lightning quick because they condition for it. When we feel like we’re off the pace as riders, it’s in large part because we rarely do anything at speed!

The good news is that speed drills that primarily involve our feet will condition our hands and brain to be quick also – it’s like a three in one deal. This doesn’t even have to be complicated. So get your tenny runners dusted off, because just sprinting from the house to the barn once a day can be all you need to make a big difference – as long as you do it consistently.

There are an endless number of speed drills out there for athletes and I encourage you to incorporate this type of athletic training into your workout routine.

Also, don’t forget that when it comes to riding faster, sometimes this issue needs to be addressed from the inside out. Check out The Confident Barrel Racer or In Search of SPEED – How to BE Explosive on the Barrel Pattern for more on that topic.

Think of what people look like when they’re crossing a balance beam or a tight rope. Think about what YOU might look like vs. an Olympic gymnast. For amateurs (which includes people like you and I), when balance is compromised there will be sudden and exaggerated arm/hand motion.

Using our hands and arms is how we counter our bodies when we sense we might fall or subconsciously sense a lack of security.

Many years ago, one of my barrel racing mentors said it looked like I was doing the Macarena dance on the approach to the first barrel (her comment was meant to be helpful, but it certainly wasn’t a compliment) – there was some excessive hand motion, even as I was running TO the barrel, before I was even turning it.

It’s easy for someone to just see the problem and say “stop doing that!” or “keep your hands still!” But here’s the thing – if your balance is compromised, you can’t!

It didn’t help that my gelding at the time wasn’t really “owning the pattern,” which was part of the reason I felt I had to be in a hundred places at once. HE wasn’t taking responsibility, so I was micromanaging.

Is there a light bulb going off yet?

Ever had certain riding habits you recognized, but they seemed just SO HARD to change? Well, sometimes certain motions or movements our bodies resort to in a run happen because subconsciously we feel like our security in the saddle is compromised.

Like a beginner tight rope walker, whose upper body is all over the place trying to avoid falling – in many cases, especially as we’re approaching, turning and exiting the turns – our hands fly out away from our bodies, unintentionally and unnecessarily bumping our horse’s mouth and relaying confusing signals all because we are simply not rock solid and secure in the saddle, and costing us precious time (and our horses frustration) as it happens.

Just trying to mentally focus on “having quiet hands” will NOT fix this problem at it’s source (read on for how to do that) – you have to correct the balance issue (OR your horse’s responsibility issue) and often the quiet hands will naturally follow.

We use our hands erratically in a run because we lack security AND because we can. While a rider-targeted fitness program will help you create more stability in your legs, set and core and subsequently result in less compensatory hand motion, you can also be proactive about overcoming this habit by spending at least 10 minutes of each ride with your hands frozen in any position other than where you normally hold them.

Drape your roping-style barrel reins on the saddle horn, and on a trustworthy horse, ride the rail of the arena or round pen (any small, safe enclosure), or even circle or a figure eight while guiding them with your body language (FOCUS + legs as necessary) with your hands and arms in any and all sorts of positions – just as long as you’re not holding the reins OR holding your arms in the vicinity of where they normally are in your day to day riding.

Image Description
The neighbors will think you’re VERY friendly!

Sometimes when we use our hands to brace, it’s the position or the weight of them that helps us counter act the lack of security. We may be dependent on a certain hand position or positions, even without ever actually bracing on the reins themselves. So just because you’re not making contact with your horse’s mouth doesn’t mean you’re not relying on the reins for balance!

Trot a few circles holding your hands behind your back, then switch it up, hold them straight in the air, out to the side, do something different with each one – mix it up and (safely) add more speed as you go. As you do, your body will begin to find a more true source of stability, security and balance (think about that balance point!) as you loosen your dependence on hand position and dissolve your old compensatory habits.

The Ride as One exercise in the ‘Your Reflection’ chapter of The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises will be a great help as well!

If all of this sounds a little “out there,” or like something NO barrel racer you know has ever done or suggested, then you’re not alone (and I’m not surprised). BUT if you take action on these steps, you’ll no longer be in the company of thousands of barrel racers who feel stuck and stay stuck – not knowing what’s holding them back or what do to about it.

Like I’ve said, some successful barrel racing athletes are very naturally talented and athletic riders. As a result, they may not need to spend as much time improving in this area, but they don’t always understand HOW to help others become better jockeys either. Maybe you know from experience that just “being quicker,” more aggressive, or changing a certain habit on the pattern is easier said than done!?

No different than ensuring our horses a great “riding horses” before they are barrel horses – what it comes down to is that we need to learn to be great passengers on our horse’s back first and foremost, which is a rider that is balanced and stable and uses tools like the saddle and reins for supportive refinement vs. having an unhealthy degree of dependence on them.

In every aspect of our own AND our horse’s development, when we create a foundation that stands solid independently, THEN we are likely to experience much greater success when we add discipline-specific skills.

Before we can perform the basics well, we must know what they are. We have to walk before we can run, and we gotta ride before we can race (and WIN)!

You can’t jockey a barrel horse well until you can sit a horse well. And sometimes taking away those “artificial aids” temporarily (saddle, stirrups and/or reins) is necessary for realizing just how over-dependent we are on them.

A great barrel racer remains relatively square and balanced on the back of a horse, even with speed and through transitions in and out of the turns. The guidance offered to the horse is no more or less than what the horse needs and is delivered in perfect timing. The rider is quiet, yet intentional about being a ½ step ahead of the motion to create a winning run – on purpose.

When all these qualities are combined, we’re more likely to be successful on all types of horses, in all types of conditions – and THAT is what makes a “EXCELLENT RIDER” and a winning jockey.

Also enjoy these related resources for being a better barrel racer!

Get FIVE ‘Perfect Pattern’ Exercises Now – for FREE!

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