Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I

Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I

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In this month’s barrel racing article we’re going to start going DEEP, really deep into what makes a perfect circle – which is the most foundational and important element of an efficient run.

We’ll actually start with WHY it’s so critical that we focus on circles, as well as include action steps for how you can spot check and improve them, which will ultimately lead to faster turns. Basically, we’ll cover the “how, what, where and why” of perfect circles (not necessarily in that order).

Quality circles equal fast turns!
Quality circles equal fast turns!

Instead of making you dizzy, we’re going to focus on quality instead of quantity. After all, if you’re not sure your circles are correct, you just may end up getting really good at performing them incorrectly. When it comes to barrel horse training, that’s definitely NOT what we want!

In the process, you may find that circles are even more complicated than you thought. However, with the insight gained you’ll be armed with new awareness and skills that you can apply ASAP to strengthen this foundational ingredient of any successful barrel racing run.

To start it’s important to be reminded that any high level athletic maneuver is built upon a foundation of excellent basics. I don’t mean basic, basics – I mean EXCELLENT basics. I’d venture to say that the majority of barrel racers dramatically overlook and under-appreciate the importance of achieving excellence starting with the most elementary skills and maneuvers.

I can’t stress enough that I don’t mean “good basics,” but “excellent basics!”

If you’re not winning every barrel race, or if you’re not just thrilled with every performance you make (or even if you are), then there is probably room for growth somewhere.

To really understand what constitutes excellence in the circle, we’ll remember within every quality circle are a handful of elements – ingredients if you will, that must be EXCELLENT in order to achieve the end results we’re looking for – turns that are super fast but also performed in a way that is fluid, smooth and easier to ride while creating the least amount of resistance, tension, delays and physical stress for the horse.

To put first things first, let’s start with…

1. Connection – Before we can expect our horse’s body to move in the direction and the way we want it, we must have our horse’s full attention. If your horse is mentally checked out and not “with” you, looking off in the distance, wanting to be with his buddies at the trailer, whinnying, prancing, bothered, spooky or resistant, then their idea and your idea are not same, and he’s not connected. Without our horse’s calm attention, not much learning will take place.

Get Connected
Get Connected

It’s important that we get on the same page with our horse mentally before we attempt to do so physically, or else we’re skipping a very important step and failing to set ourselves up for success. One of the best ways to create quality connection in general comes through offering appropriate leadership, not just in moments of distraction, but all the time. When your horse feels safe and secure and respects you, he’s happy to keep his attention on you and his concern for what might be going on around him lessens. The better your leadership becomes, the better your horse’s focus will be.

One simple idea to keep in mind is that every time you make a request you’re demonstrating your leadership. In a moment when a horse needs your firm guidance you might ask him for many changes such as trotting a dynamic figure eight with many changes in direction. This doesn’t mean that bossing your horse around and only keeping their feet busy is the key to leadership, it has a lot to do with accurately reading your horse and knowing what he needs from you, then paying attention to the WAY you make requests. A more subtle way to ask for your horse’s focused attention may be in simply asking the hip to yield back and forth off the line of travel, as I’m doing in the photo above. Every time you ask your horse for something and he responds, you’re bringing his attention back to you.

For more on being the leader your horse needs to feel calm and connected, check out How to Build Confidence and Respect with Leadership.

2. Freedom – As the barrel racing world becomes more and more competitive, riders are taking notice more and more to all the little ways in which we can make subtle changes that help keep our horse’s comfortable and make their jobs easier. Just think – it wasn’t that many years ago when not too many people put much care or thought into saddle fit, just look at how that has grown into a science of it’s own!

Freedom of Movement
Freedom of Movement

As riders, we can impede the freedom of our horse’s movement on a circle (or any time) similarly to how a pinching saddle does. As barrel racers we are always striving for the fastest time so it’s no surprise that in general we have a habit of leaning forward to hustle our horses through the turn and to the next barrel. Staying in the middle of a 1,200 point powerful animal with a hair trigger is no easy feat by itself, so without developing our ability ride perfectly balanced in general first, it’s only natural that we end up with little ways in which we throw our weight around to compensate for our own faulty balance. When we do, it throws our horse off as well and we become more of a hindrance than an asset in a run, which actually blocks the free flowing, forward energy we want our horse to have through the pattern.

Rather than lean forward and pull your horse through a turn, experiment with sitting back slightly, riding your horse’s hind end and allowing the front end to elevate slightly to encourage a longer, more powerful stride. Even experiment with focusing your eyes up higher vs. on the ground.

Also, check out Bareback Balance for Barrel Racers for more tips on how to test and build your own side to side balance to ensure you’re not getting in your horse’s way when racing through the pattern.

3. Education – Ask yourself this: Can you REALLY position any part of your horse’s body anywhere, at any time – in an instant? That includes asking your horse to lift and move his front feet over at a gallop, just as you may be required to do in a run. Is he super light and responsive to your reins, legs and seat at all gaits so that you can position his shoulder, rib cage or hip under any circumstance? Or, is there a delay?

Education, education, education!
Education, education, education!

It’s not unusual for a horse to lose some of that responsiveness as you add speed, but we still need to have that responsiveness at speed. The way to develop that is by creating absolutely perfect and lightning quick, yet soft responsiveness going slow and then building from there. If you can’t “place your horse’s feet,” or if he gets resistant and blocks you out in a run, the percentage of competitive environments you’re likely to succeed in will drop dramatically. For example, if you don’t have high level responsiveness to shape your horse’s body in the alley, you’ll be at a huge disadvantage, especially in the event of an odd angle to the first barrel or a short run to the second barrel.

If we ask our horse to travel in a circle and they get off track, for example drift out or cut in, we must have the education in place to be able to correct the mistake in an instant – and be able to do so at any speed.

Controlling a horse’s body all starts with teaching them to yield to steady pressure on the ground. You can apply steady or driving pressure with your hand in the area where your leg would fall until your horse steps over to side pass. Do the same with your leg and move it a little forward or back to ask your horse to move their shoulder and hips. Build this education from a standstill and then ask your horse to yield their body parts at a walk, trot, lope and so on.

This process takes time and skill! Check out How to Fix a Wide Turn on the Barrels for even more tips on building body control.

4. Footfall – We all seem to have a slightly different path that we prefer our horse’s feet to follow around the pattern, but if your horse has a habit of going past the first barrel, or anticipating the second barrel, or even blowing off the third barrel, it may make sense to take a closer look at your horse’s precise footfall to ensure you’ve trained him to follow a path that makes it easy for him to turn efficiently.

Foot placement is everything.
Foot placement is everything.

If we allow our horse to float out to the side just a bit in our approach we may just creating a hole for him to slice into, if we don’t allow enough room, we might just be setting our horse up to go by completely or come out very wide. Have you ever wondered exactly how many feet you are from the barrel at the start, mid-point and finish of the turn? How about your exact rate point? Do you know how, when, where why to make adjustments to these points based on the arena set up? Study your own tracks closely, and study the tracks and the footfall patterns of winning horses. Observe, remember and compare!

Your precision in a turn all starts with being precise on a circle. To test you and your horses circling ability, try this simple barrel racing exercise: draw a  20 foot diameter circle with chalk, lime, or even by dragging your boot in the dirt. Now make it your goal to travel on that circular path, starting at a walk or trot and only when you’re doing well, advance to a lope or gallop. You might be surprised how “easy” it is to stay on a perfect circle that isn’t marked, but how difficult it may be to keep your horse’s feet on a pre-marked path. If you struggle with perfect accuracy on the circle at a trot, it might reveal why there may be challenges with staying on track in a run. Change things up by marking out circles of different size.

It’s our responsibility to guide our horses, but once our body language suggests that they circle, it’s their responsibility to stay on that perfect circle until instructed otherwise. We’ll address this responsibility in a later tip. See Follow the Barrel Racing Path of Least Resistance to analyze your horse’s path in detail (you’ll be amazed at what you learn)!

For now, you have four areas to more deeply explore the quality of your circles – Connection, Freedom, Education and Footfall, as well as tips for doing so.

In the second half of this two part series on the perfect circle we’ll address five more tips on the subjects of…

5. Impulsion
6. Flexion
7. Collection
8. Balance
9. Independence

This is where we get into the more advanced part of “the basic circle,” so stay tuned!

Until then, share in the comments below – which of the four areas above do you and your horse seem to struggle with most?

Which do you feel you naturally (or have worked really hard to) do well?

With the reminders in this article, which areas do you plan to pay especially close attention to?

If you’re anxious to speed things up on the pattern by diving even deeper into creating quality movement, click here to order your copy of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success,” and receive the “Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development” FREE instantly!

24 replies
  1. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    My horse struggles in the footfall area. He drops his shoulders no matter how I ride him into a turn and comes out wide. He has a hard time getting his hindquarters under himself as well. I can do all sorts of exercises to fix this problem off pattern but he does not apply what he’s learned to the pattern. Also when I see professional shots of us going around a barrel his legs seem to be going everywhere at once or just be all tangled up. I’m surprised we haven’t fallen yet! Recently he’s been practicing better than ever at home with less guidance from me, and his turns have been smooth and snappy. But he has practiced like this in the past, and as soon as I take him to a barrel race he will make a fool of himself again.

    Reply
    • Diane Guinn
      Diane Guinn says:

      Replying to Audrey….it sounds like to me that your horse may have a physical problem that is preventing him from making the turn at a high rate of speed. If he KNOWS how to do it correctly and does it well at practice speed, but falls apart at a barrel race, it usually is a physical problem, and physical problems lead to mental problems, which are much harder to fix, thus where you get “crazy barrel horses”. 🙂 I “rehab” a lot of horses, and if this was my horse, he would first be evaluated by an experienced lameness specialist, not just a regular vet. You need someone with digital X rays, ultrasound, and hopefully, a thermograph. I would think from your description, that he probably has something going on in the back end, since you said he doesn’t want to use his rear end, and drops his shoulders….he’s anticipating the pain, and it’s always much worse at speed. Barrel horses are notorious for being sore in the hocks and stifles, and this is where I would start. It could also be misaligned angles in the feet, a previous fall or slip, or a multitude of things. Also, since you said his feet are going everywhere, I’d have him tested for EPM, just to rule that out. They have an excellent blood test for that now, called the IFAT. If they’re doing the Western blot, don’t waste your money; it’s no good. Elisa or Ifat is the test you want. Riding a horse with a physical problem is like riding a bike with a flat tire. You can ride it, but it’s not going to be fun, and pretty soon, you will ruin the bike. The same thing happens with a horse. If any physical issue is ruled out, then I would recommend riding him deeper into the turn before letting him turn, so that he has to keep his butt up under him and can’t drop his shoulder. Eventually, if he doesn’t have anything bothering him physically, he will be able to keep his focus at a race.

      Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Audrey, Diane has offered some great advice. You might also have a look at How to Fix a Wide Turn on the Barrels, Keep ‘Em Standing – Four Tips for Reforming a Barrel Crasher, The Barrel Racing Path of Least Resistance, and How to Build Confidence and Respect with Leadership. Remember that horses are our mirror – what we get out of them is a result of what we put in. If your horse is different at a barrel race, this is usually because in some way WE are different in competition. It’s also possible that in more high pressure environments your horse doesn’t have the leadership he needs from you to feel secure and perform his best. When things fall apart in competition, it’s an indicator that the foundational elements that seem good enough at home need to be even more solid. Put your detective hat on and look closely at the little symptoms that show where your weak areas are and work toward developing them and taking responsibility for the feedback you receive from your horse. It’s always a great idea to work with a reputable professional who can look at things in person and help give you another perspective. Thanks for sharing and I hope that helps! 🙂

      Reply
    • Kay
      Kay says:

      one thing you can do to lift that shoulder is to hold your hand (with the reins) straight up bringing his shoulder up with you. Think what you do if a child holding your hand just drops their shoulder; you pick your hand staright up bringing that childs shoulder up. I agree with Diane he could have a physcial problem or it could just be a habit. A lot of things (when dealing with a horse) are guess work and trial and error.

      Reply
  2. Myrissa Gates
    Myrissa Gates says:

    My horse struggles in the footfall area as well. Every time we come too close to the first barrel, she cuts right over and side passes it. I’m working on giving her enough/more room in the pocket. However, as soon as we are coming out of the turn, she goes too wide and can’t focus on running to the next barrel. Her excitement for the pattern is so obvious, but I think fixing some little things would be so beneficial in our time!

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Myrissa! Thanks for sharing. It think you’re on the right track to be fixing the little things. You might refer to the links above I included in my response to Audrey, I think they’ll be helpful!

      Reply
  3. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    Fooball, My horse has started to duck the second barrel. I had him checked by a lameness expert and they injected his hocks. He is still doing it. I am afraid he is turning into a crazy barrel horse.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Crystal,
      There are plenty of things you can do to resolve an issue like this so don’t lose hope! Here’s a past Q&A that should help – “Solutions for Running Up the Wall.” Keep in mind as you go forward this your horse ducking may not really be the problem, but the SYMPTOM of a problem. If you address the issue as it’s source and remove the reason for him wanting to duck, then you should be able to create a lasting solution.

      Reply
  4. shyanne miller
    shyanne miller says:

    I have problem with my mare, she is willing to run fast but she doesn’t want to turn, but when she does she stiffens up and refuses to move her feet,

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Shyanne,
      This sounds like a foundational problem to me. She may need to be more soft, fluid and responsive to you when you’re going slow and learn to move with quality and good posture. Once you have this at a walk, get it at a trot, then lope, so you can gradually be able to have that with more speed as well.

      Reply
  5. Mia El-Hajj
    Mia El-Hajj says:

    I have a gelding who seems to put too much pressure at his front end when slowing down to turn the first barrel. I have watched videos of the practice runs and it almost looks painful. It’s like when a dog jumps out from the back of the truck bed and lands front end first, is an example of what it looks like when slowing down and prepping to turn first barrel. He turns second well and digs deep, or from what I feel he’s doing. When I watch the video, it doesn’t seem like he’s deep at all. Third barrel he starts to lean left too soon and when I reset him while he’s running, it throws off his focus and he sometimes passes the barrel a little too far out. Not too far to where it’s too wide, but it adds seconds to our time and when riding, it feels like it’s slow motion-stalling. When he turns the third barrel he pivots sharp and takes off. That’s more added time we don’t need. Turning him at first we used to enter wide then turn. When we did this in the pocket, he would drop his shoulder and lean towards the barrel causing us to sometimes knock it over. We changed this to going closer into the pocket, then turn wide. It seems to have helped but sometimes it feels as though we take too long going around the first and we have to make up for lost time around second and third and that puts too much pressure on me and my horse. He knows this. It’s that- “Oh crap” moment we realize it’s do or die and we have to hustle that much more. I noticed a flaw in my reining and it’s a tough habit to break; sometimes I have the knack to lift the rein right when we reach the barrel in order to get his body away from the barrel because I know he’s leaning in too far. By that point one hand is on the horn and one is on the rein and I end up lifting the rein in order to get him to shift over a bit. It’s not good and it only happens on second and third sometimes. Can I get some tips on how to change our practice run and my bad habit? Anything will be help thanks a bunch! 🙂

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Mia,
      Here’s a quick idea to consider – before a horse drops their front end, or leans in, their rib cage is bent to the inside of the turn, rather that in the shape of the turn. Also, it really requires a horse to transfer their weight to the hind end when the prepare to turn so their front end needs to be more elevated. That is the shape we want in the turn, sounds like you have the opposite. Really focus on getting better quality posture and movement in your slow work. Speed amplifies everything, so what is “so so” in slow work will be terrible at speed. You may also need to correct her in the very moment she gets her body out of position to help reestablish a new habit. Hope these ideas help get your wheels turning and give you a little guidance for going forward! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Haley C.
    Haley C. says:

    my horse Iron Man and I are just starting out,I cant seem to get him stop fighting me when trying to turn the barrel. he seems like he enjoys doing it when i eventually get him to cooperate. what should i do to get him to listen?

    Reply
    • Kay
      Kay says:

      I can tell you a thing to do that will cause him to turn that barrel on his on. It works but it is an old method and should not be used unless you know that it is just an attitude problem. When you get ready to turn and he does not turn take your crop and tear his neck up. If you are turning left use the crop on his right side.

      Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Haley,

      This sounds really frustrating but the first key to resolving the issue is changing how you THINK about the problem… instead of focusing on making Iron Man listen, start to get curious about WHY he doesn’t want to, and then develop a game plan from there.

      We have SO MUCH power to influence our horses and help them really enjoy barrel racing and want to do what we ask.

      A lot of this has to do with proper leadership. I’ll post a couple links below that may be helpful…

      Help for a Barrel Horse that Fights at the First Barrel

      How to Build Confidence and Respect with Leadership

      Reply
  7. Rhiannon
    Rhiannon says:

    I have just started working with a gelding on barrels. And we have really been working on balanced circles. He seems to do really well to the left, but when i start to circle him to the right, he throws his nose up and its like he throws his shoulder out of the circle. I have been working on keeping him balanced but he cant keep it consistently at a lope. i have broken it back down to a slower gait and he keeps it at a trot and loses it again in a lope.. HELP?

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Rhiannon,

      I would schedule an appt. with a really good equine performance Vet. to rule out a physical problem then stay patient and keep at it.

      Lots of going back and forth between the trot and lope will help.

      Reply
  8. Kayleigh Sullivan
    Kayleigh Sullivan says:

    I have a horse that was trained for barrels and roping. She does great when I rope off of her but when I try to run barrles she acts up. Its like she scared of the barrel. The last time I tried to run them, she started crow hopping and then took off in a dead sprint around the arena. How can I fix this? Or is there a way I can?

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      I’m sure there is a way to fix this problem Kayleigh, but it does take some time and a lot of skill.

      There’s much more involved in it that I can go into here, but basically consists of making sure that you don’t allow the bad habit to repeat itself and become more ingrained… it requires you to establish a higher level of responsiveness and education, as well as develop relaxation and emotional fitness.

      My book might be a good place to start!?

      Reply
  9. Faith
    Faith says:

    My family owns four horses and I ride one. Every time we take them into the arena to run the barrels they become buddy sour. They hop around, whinny and are just not focused on what we are asking the horses to do. A couple weeks ago my horse wouldn’t listen in an arena at all but then I was able to get her up to a gallop in the arena. When we first come out of the chute she wants to walk or just trot. I have to back her up the way I want to go then turn her and then she listens. I hate using the whip but it seems to be the only way to get to go that I know of.

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Faith… the key to resolving this is to become the kind of person your horse looks to for safety and security instead of other horses. Sometimes there’s a learned behavior element in there to deal with too. It’s a lot about doing the right thing at the right time, which is often moving their feet and making lots of requests when they are worried to refocus them on you, and then giving them a rest when they do. It’s also helpful to give them comfort away from the other horses.

      Reply
  10. kayla
    kayla says:

    I need help! What can I do to make my horse use his butt more and really dig around the barrel. He runs the pattern fine but I feel like he hopes around the barrel sometimes. What exercises can I do to help this?

    Reply

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