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If you’ve been following the action at BarrelRacingTips.com for a while, you know that I often stress the importance of instilling an education in horses that allows us to move their body anywhere, at any time.
We must have a high degree of understanding, communication and responsiveness to have influence over our horse’s body position at speed especially.
Although some barrel racers don’t want their horses too bendy and “gumby-like,” what’s most likely happening in these cases is that the horse is not taking responsibility for staying perfectly on track – causing a need for the rider to micromanage the horse through the turns.
A horse can only over-bend when there’s something to bend against – a pull from the riders hands, which is necessary when a horse’s MIND isn’t committed to the correct path, or the horse isn’t taking responsibility for correct posture.
A flexible, supple horse is a actually a great thing to have at speed, but only if they are “independent” on the pattern and educated to understand how to respond appropriately to any subtle guidance we may need to offer.
When it comes to the subject of flexion through the body, all the importance we place on bend and time we spend on over-exaggerating it is done in an effort to counteract the tendency for barrel horses to “drop in,” get stiff, resistant and/or “inside out” (shaped with their body in the opposite curve of the barrel).
MOST horses (Martha being an exception) don’t curl around a barrel like a snake. In fact for most horses, that extreme style of turning isn’t just awkward – it’s darn near impossible.
Truth be told, even after ALL the focus spent on getting shape and bend, in a run most horses bodies are relatively straight with the hind quarters actually a hair to the outside in a turn.
Even though this is our end reality, if we don’t teach, instill and emphasize bend, shape, flexion and suppleness through the body we can risk losing the hindquarters too far to the outside, among other problems.
One reason I stress quality movement in general is that getting a horse forward and collected helps keep them “under themselves” and less likely to drop a shoulder, tip a barrel, fall down, or fling out a hip in a run.
A horse that is truly balanced and forward is NOT leaning to one side OR on the forehand. His weight is balanced squarely over his feet.
But hust as important as moving with a proper forward, subtle arc – is teaching our horses to move perfectly STRAIGHT.
Seems simple enough, but how straight IS YOUR straight?
This is where we have to amp up our awareness, pay close attention, and ask – is our horse drifting off the path we’re asking them to go?
Are their shoulders, rib cage or hips leading, leaning, bulging, bumping and/or falling out – even subtly?
Next time you saddle up, test yourself with the “Point to Point” exercise I explained in Help for a Horse that Fights the First Barrel.
My challenge for you is to REALLY FEEL just how straight and forward your horse is, and how well he maintains these qualities (even on a circle).
Straight should be like our horse’s “neutral” and balanced impulsion (quality FORWARD movement) plays a BIG part in determining how straight you’ll be.
Remember that teaching your horse to travel straight is every bit as important as teaching them to travel with and maintain bend, and is a critical part of putting a stop to the “dropped shoulder” for good!
Essentially, straightness is what centers the hindquarters under our horses, giving their athletic maneuvers (and turns) POWER and SPEED.
Keep in mind that it’s our horse’s responsibility to maintain direction and maintain gait.
If our horses aren’t upholding these foundational responsibilities, being particular about how they shape their bodies and balance their weight is a futile effort.
Even with all the focus we place on quality circles, if we trot across the arena with our focus on an end point, it’s critical that the horse maintain that straight movement with rhythm until we ask for something else – AND maintain subtle flexion and gait on a circle without micromanagement as long as our body language suggests they do so.
For example, I might use my FOCUS, energy, eyes and torso to turn slightly in the direction I want to go, with a subtle leg suggestion, and if my horse doesn’t, only then will I bring in the reins. I don’t use them to direct my horse, I use them if my horse doesn’t follow the initial subtle instructions from my body language.
Once this becomes habit it all happens in a split second, and when we train ourselves in this way our horses will be able to respond even more quickly and smoothly.
Once I’m headed where I want to go – say on a circle for example, rather than HOLD my horse on that circle with the reins, I’ll just maintain my focus and body position which communicates to my horse “stay on this circle.”
If a horse leans into that circle, instead of picking them up with a rein over the neck or counter arcing, instantly “stand up” your horse up instead by hustling them off in a straight line in the opposite direction they are falling in.
Essentially, you’ll be making a stop sign shape if your horse wants to fall in the circle or drop their shoulder repeatedly. It should be more work to drop in and hustle away repeatedly then it is to just maintain balance on the circle. The degree of the angle you hustle off in is based on how extremely the horse is leaning in (your circle might not look anything like a stop sign at first).
This is effective because horses feet (and therefore their bodies) go where they are thinking about going.
If a horse is thinking about anticipating the circle getting smaller, if they are thinking about doing as little as possible – it’s inevitable that their body will follow by dropping and and/or getting heavy on the forehand.
We can do the work of “picking up the shoulder” for them, but then they tend to fall right back in. We can get even more firm, but this often only makes horses defensive, resentful or even fearful, anxious and tense.
The key is in getting the horse to stop THINKING about dropping in.
By using the “stop sign” exercise the split second they lean, we’re changing the subject and changing where their feet are falling. We’re taking away that over anticipation so that our horses won’t be thinking quite so much about digging into that circle.
Another tip for creating balanced posture on a circle is to experiment with shifting how much weight you put in each stirrup. Typically a horse will step under the side that is more weighted, making it logical to weight the outside stirrup more on a horse that leans in.
Some folks prefer to discourage leaning by leaning even more to the inside to motivate the horse to “stand up” – play with it and see what YOU feel! As you do, also be sure that you’re staying relaxed in your body and not tensing up when your horse leans.
It can be helpful as well to just let the simple act of loping A LOT of circles do the work for you. The longer your horse lopes, the more he’ll realize the importance of carrying himself well. A horse can’t maintain imbalanced posture for long periods and they’ll often find more balance on their own if motivated to do so with enough time spent loping circles (a rest reward is in order when they finally do!).
This way of going about it makes it the easy choice for the horse. It’s another way of using psychology to get the horse to choose to do what we have in mind.
I also have a couple tricks up my sleeve for using a little rein contact to create even more advanced, round, collected movement on a circle – but I’ll save those for another time (or another book, or a video coaching session)!
If you’re looking for even more effective strategies for resolving this issue, you’ll also get a lot out of the exercises in Your Arena-side Guide for Developing a Winning Barrel Horse
The bottom line is that of you can get into your horses brain, you’ll have the keys to getting their body to do whatever you want, when, and how you want to do it.
No amount of drilling, micromanaging, or correcting can create what a solid education established with psychology can. When you add this to the mix, you can stop babysitting because you’ll have opened a door to solving problems permanently (AND you’ll have a much more happy, enthusiastic horse!).
All of this requires a perspective shift, but I encourage you to ride smart, so you and your horse can create better results without having to WORK so hard!
In the process, when you make “balanced” the new default, you’ll find that you won’t be required to continuously chase body parts around and make constant positioning corrections.
I hope these insights will help YOU “take a stand” and put an end to leaning and shouldering in the turns for good.
Now, I’d love to hear your experiences, success and challenges with “stopping the drop” in the comments below!
Also enjoy these additional resources…
- Keep ‘em Standing – Four Tips for Reforming a Barrel Crasher
- Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs
- It’s All About the Ribs – Flex and Elevate Them for Ultimate Athleticism & Power!
- How to Use More Leg and Less Hands for Higher Education & Higher Performance
- Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing