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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).
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.
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!
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?
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.
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…
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!