When I got together with a few barrel buddies recently there was a lot of awkward silence, broken up with a few verbal “WOWs.” You could almost hear the wheels turning.
We were measuring and comparing where our horse’s feet travel on the barrel pattern. The uncertainty in the air was palpable, so I reminded these gals (both with 1D horses) that “different” didn’t necessarily mean wrong.
But like me, I knew they were ALSO thinking about how these measurements related to how their horses used themselves in a run. The possibility of taking something good and making it much better was exciting!
I thought back to times I had ridden with Charmayne James, who teaches students to travel the same distance around the turns, or Lisa Lockhart who advises folks to follow a path that is widest (approximately 5-7 ft.) at the start of the turn, that gradually decreases on the back side and is narrowest at the finish (approximately 1-3 ft.), then there’s Lynn McKenzie who teaches a straighter longer approach, which includes more room on the back side of the barrels.
I was also reminded of two horsemanship clinicians who taught the same program fundamentals, but one prefers to swing the shoulders to prepare a horse to perform a flying lead change, whereas the other preferred to move the hips over.
The same idea could apply to each barrel racer’s preference when it comes to pre-turn positioning – do YOU push the hips in, or lift the shoulders up… both, or neither? It’s not that one way is right or wrong, and to a degree they each accomplish similar goals.
They key I believe, is to “Be firm on principle but flexible on method.” – Zig Ziglar
Remember also that if something works for one person and not for another, it’s often due to how the technique was applied, OR even the makeup of the raw material they had to start with (the horse’s foundational understandings). I encourage you to always go deeper before writing something off as “not working!”
When we took a stroll through the pattern, first on Lucky then on Kat with each rider placing the horse where we felt they should be. This is what we found at the second barrel:
Below are adjustments Reba and I made and settled on for Kat before we finalized a line connecting the axis points on the ground with flour. We had to adjust the points (and line) one more time once mounted because as it turns out, what feels right when walking the pattern, seemed to vary a bit when horseback.
The second barrel is unique in that we have the shortest run to it, we run directly into a wall usually in close proximity to the barrel, with the most extreme angle of the three turns, and the longest distance through the turn – all contributing to it being the most challenging turn and commonly tipped barrel.
My personal preference is to allow for just a hair more room through and on the backside of the turns (as evident in my initial measurements). This is in part because it’s what seems to work best for my current personal horse, Pistol – who is BIG!
Your horse’s size and style might influence the footfall you decide on. With that said, always keep in mind that a horse’s movement patterns (HOW he uses his body) are only partly innate and are often even more so a product of his environment (training and conditioning). In other words – never underestimate the influence you have over how your horse uses himself, or rule out the possibility for creating positive change!
While it’s never my intention to teach a horse a footfall pattern in slow work that will be different in a run, it’s also my experience that things DO tend to tighten up a bit with speed.
Also, while consistency leads to confidence in horses, you may occasionally need to consider making adjustments to where and how you guide your horse based on the specific event conditions. For example, a short distance between the first and second barrel might require you to over turn the first in order to be prepared for the second.
Once Reba and I made adjustments, marked the path in the dirt then laid down flour, we each took a spin on Kat to test ourselves. Staying perfectly on the track is more challenging than you might expect!
For one, it’s really a test of your horse’s responsibility – you’ll know pretty quickly how well HE knows his footfall. Second, when you have to make a quick but subtle correction, you’ll know whether your responsiveness needs brushing up – how effective can you be in an INSTANT!? Remember if there’s a delay in response going slow, there will be a much bigger one at speed!
Of course, it doesn’t seem like rocket science to guide a horse on the pattern at a walk, but as you know, doing so precisely in a run is another story entirely. Our horse’s ability to stay on track will depend on our ability to accurately guide him with feel and timing.
So as you put all these ideas to good use, also keep the “Three R’s” in mind:
- Responsibility – If you plant your rein hand on the withers and guide your horse only with your focus and subtle body language, does he stay on track or veer off?
- Responsiveness – Can you can correct and reposition your horse in an instant (less than a second) when necessary, primarily with your legs?
- Riding – Do you subtly guide your horse smoothly, and fluidly through the turn (using your seat to encourage reach) – or blast into the hole then abruptly pull their head around?
A horse that goes by barrels or gets slightly off track isn’t being RESPONSIBLE for his job – it’s OURS to teach him his! (Be sure to rule out emotional or physical problems in this case a well.)
Here are a few posts for help in that area:
- Instill Independence and Refine Body Control for Faster Times
- How to Give Up Micromanaging and GAIN a Horse that LOVES Barrel Racing!
- Encouraging Independence on the Barrel Pattern with NFR Barrel Racer, Kay Blandford
A horse that gets off track, but pushes against rein contact, through leg pressure, or doesn’t respond in a timely manner when a correction is attempted isn’t RESPONSIVE.
Dive into these past posts for more on that topic:
- How to Create Quicker PHYSICAL Responsiveness through Deeper MENTAL Connection
- A Checklist for Training an Educated Body and Willing Mind
- Three Exercises for Testing (and Teaching) Precision to Increase Speed
Getting a horse to work perfect circle drills in dry work, doesn’t to much good when they are roughly sling shotted in and out of the turns by the jockey. RIDE & GUIDE smooth to be FAST!
To brush up your timing, feel and balance, check out:
- Bareback Balance for Barrel Racers
- Ride Your Barrel Horse Better with the Power Seat
- Three Sequential Steps (and Exercises) to Become a Better Barrel Racing Jockey
I can’t say enough how valuable and eye-opening this measuring, comparing and flour-laying process is at ALL barrels – whether you’re a barrel racing newbie or an ol’ pro.
It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy not to do. But when WE are 100% sure and confident in our own mind and body about where our horse’s feet must be, HE will better understand his job, and we’ll both be able to perform more confidently and correctly, which means FASTER!
You might even experience HUGE lightbulb moments like I did the first time I packed a bag of flour with me to the arena for one of these “research experiments.”
It’s exciting to realize what could be the ACTUAL cause of delays on the pattern you may have otherwise struggled with over time and not quite had complete success resolving.
Aren’t AH HA moments amazing? I LOVE having them, and I love facilitating them for others!
So are you ready to take the “Mark Your Pattern Challenge?”
1. Start out with the pattern set up in a freshly groomed arena or hand rake around each barrel to create a “blank canvas” (no hoofprints)
2. Walk what feels like YOU and YOUR horse’s “perfect pattern”
3. Dismount and measure the distance from the barrel to your horse’s tracks at the entry, back side and exit of the turns
4. Mark the axis points then connect the dots by first drawing a line in the dirt (the first and third barrel has three axis points, the second has four.)
5. Walk your marked perfect pattern on foot to see how it FEELS
6. Walk it again horseback staying perfectly on the path you drew – are any adjustments necessary?
7. Make any adjustments, recheck walking and horseback
8. Commit to the path around the barrels by marking it with a line of flour
9. Practice staying on this line at a walk, trot and lope
*When you and your horse are confidently staying perfectly on track, test yourselves by making a run on a pattern marked with flour.
Study your tracks – where do you stay on path or get off track?
Are there any other adjustments to make?
Is it a Responsiveness, Responsibility or Riding issue?
Report back in the comments below!