Small Saddle, BIG Lessons – What I Learned about Barrel Racing from Riding English

Small Saddle, BIG Lessons – What I Learned about Barrel Racing from Riding English

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When I was 12 years old, I connected with a neighbor who turned out to be a very influential friend and mentor. I was fortunate to have this amazing horse(wo)man help me sort out countless problems with my first horse.

Gypsy was a 14 hand step-up from my pony, and at 10 years old was “green broke” and had more issues than you could count.

I didn’t have a set of wheels (truck and trailer) back then but with my mentor’s help, I was able to prepare my mare to show at the county fair, AND hitch a ride to get there.

But we didn’t just enter the speed events – she encouraged me to learn about AND enter. every. single. class.

Even though I didn’t LOVE the idea of showing at halter especially, because I trusted her insights (and just plain LOVED horses), I did it ALL – and I did learn a ton.

Even if my crazy little mare lapped everyone in western pleasure, wouldn’t stand still in showmanship, and traveled like a “bad banana” in hunt seat, we had a blast – and gradually improved. The following year we swept all the classes and took home the Jr. Horsemanship award.

Pistol – not exactly looking enthused about his new wardrobe.

Although barrel racing has always been my primary interest, ever since those days so long ago when I sported borrowed breeches, knee high boots, and the neighbors “suicide saddle,” I’ve always been interested in learning even more about what English riding has to offer.

You may have noticed that I often stress the importance of quality movement. Quality movement is what makes the dressage world go round – english riders aren’t just concerned with getting from point A to point B, but HOW they do so.

The thing about barrel racing, is that the higher the quality of movement we ask for and develop in general, the more efficient (FASTER) the movement will be at speed, and the quality of the approach to a barrel determines the quality and efficiency of the turn.

The same goes for jumping. Consider this quote for example…

Most of the elements that make a good jump possible must be established during the approach, rather than during the act of jumping itself. Ideally, the jump itself is no more than the logical-or even inevitable-consequence of the preparation for it.

Since the success of the individual jump depends heavily on the quality of its approach, the level of the horse’s jumping skill depends heavily upon the level of his basic training on the flat.
” – from “Riding & Jumping” by William Steinkraus

A while back I set and met some goals for myself and my gelding, and no surprise – came across some unexpected and powerful lessons.

The first was just how awkward and un-secure I first felt in that postage stamp-sized saddle at first!

I hadn’t ridden English more than once or twice since my short stint in the show ring more than 20 years ago, but let me tell you – it’s NOT like riding a bike.

Our first ride felt a bit awkward for us both.

My gelding was feeling particularly sluggish on the muggy spring day when I first set off on a hack across the pasture. When I began attempting to use subtle body language to communicate with him as I would in my barrel saddle, I was no where near as effective.

It was almost like riding bareback – where if you feel the least bit compromised you’re not going to ride as sharp, because if you ask for a particular maneuver and your horse over-delivers, your balance and security will become even more compromised!

After a couple rides, I felt much more balanced and my gelding was more responsive, but the lesson from that initial feeling was that if my security DEPENDS on my western saddle, then I don’t TRULY have an “independent seat,” meaning my balance and security is conditional.

It was a light bulb moment pointing to the fact that there’s room for improvement – no surprise considering the many hours I’d spent over the winter riding my office chair as I brought my book The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion to life!

While saddles darn sure come in handy for high-level barrel racing, the less dependent we are on them, the better. Going without one (or trying an English saddle) is a great opportunity to get a feel for how much we’re bracing or relying on our equipment as our safety net.

The fact that I didn’t feel as effective with Pistol meant that there was room for improvement in another area. It felt as though I needed more support, like a platform, structure you could say, to get subtle messages to his feet. What this essentially meant, was again that successful communication was dependent on a base of support for myself.

However, high level communication is light and effortless. It doesn’t require brace, structure or leverage – it’s almost weightless. Pistol needed to be more connected to me so that he would respond to the most subtle forms of body language which doesn’t require strength, but simply more mental connection between us.

Relaxed, long & low – barrel horse style!

Second was that I was unpleasantly surprised by how much Pistol gapped his mouth in his thick, three-piece “confidence snaffle” bit. Folks in the English world prefer to see a horse’s mouth quiet – it’s a sign of a calm, content mind.

Although I rode with a loose caveson to complete our English wardrobe, cavesons are used by some to prevent the horse from working their mouth (expressing feedback). When this happens, it’s not so much a bit problem as it is a mental/emotional problem.

As a barrel horse, I suppose Pistol has somewhat of a habit of working his mouth at times, as many barrel horses do. As a barrel racer, it had never crossed my mind or been something I noticed or paid attention to until I was we were outfitted in English gear. So often we don’t think anything of it – because nearly all barrel horses work their mouthes.

From that point on, with my new awareness I vowed to pay more attention to what he was communicating to me through his oral habits and other subtle body language. Just because “all barrel horses work their mouth” doesn’t mean it doesn’t signify something – it means the horse is mentally/emotionally unsettled. I promised myself to do what I can to address that in the future no matter what outfit or headgear Pistol was wearing.

Just like tie downs, they can also be used to prevent a horse from expressing the truth, I prefer to allow my horse the freedom to communicate with me so that I can resolve issues at their source vs. disguise the symptoms.

Third was that although Pistol moves pretty darn well with contact (for a barrel horse), the quality of his movement went downhill significantly without contact. Like I shared in Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing, I want my horse to move with quality independently of me holding him in a frame (self-carriage), and independently of certain head gear, for example.

Some horses are better movers by nature than others, some horses want to move their feet more in general. But in all cases we can build a horse’s desire to move, and move with greater coordination, IF we develop them properly.

To bridge the gap between quality movement with contact and without, I often held my own body in a way that I wanted Pistol to move his, then went back and forth from contact to no contact, expecting him to maintain good form and releasing or rewarding him with a rest when he did.

There were moments when he started to feel heavy on forehand, and again I asked for soft contact, we smoothly stopped and backed up a bit to rebalance and then went forward more correctly.

Searching for a rounder topline and more elevated shoulders.

Yet a fourth surprising lesson came when I started experimenting with Pistol’s lateral work. He couldn’t seem to leg yield with his body straight to save his life! By leg yield, I mean move sideways and forward at a trot for example, with NO bend through his body – easier said than done! In fact, this is actually more challenging for a horse than a counter arc or half pass (lateral movement with the body bent in the same direction of travel).

To help Pistol with this, I used an outside, steady, supporting rein to straighten his body and again released and brought it back in as needed and rewarded his slightest effort toward straightness. Just as I want my horses to travel collected based on my subtle body language, I also don’t want to have to hold them in place with a firm rein for lateral movement or bend.

Although dressage riders may primarily ride with contact, it’s not exactly the same kind of contact I want to ride my barrel horse with. I want just a little bit of freedom within that contact. Think “iron hands in velvet gloves.”

Remember – a horse CAN actually follow a feel with slack in the rein.

Although contact can be an amazing tool for teaching, reinforcing, and supporting, and there is a time and place to use it – I also don’t want to become dependent on it.

Speaking of a time and place to use it, if your horse has a habit of “dropping their shoulder,” try implementing the dressage trick of fixing your outside rein (hold it steady at your thigh) and softly guide your horse’s nose on a circle with your inside rein.

The support of the outside rein helps your horse balance and encourages him to weight the outside of his body so that he’s standing up more evenly and not leaning to the inside – amazing! Once you feel an improvement, again reward your horse and build from there and “Wa La!” NO more shoulder dropping!

A more lengthened stride but behind the vertical.

As a primarily western rider, I want my horses mentally and emotionally balanced, responsive and responsible with plenty of free rein the majority of the time – it keeps everyone honest.

When we depend on a certain saddle or headgear to do the basics well, then those basics simply aren’t firm enough. When we have all the foundational elements established with excellence first, THEN certain, appropriate head gear and tack can help us put icing on the cake and bring everything together in a high speed run.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’re depending on mechanical means, until they are taken away!

The final lesson from my time spent riding English came not so much from what I was FEELING but what I was SEEING in the photos of Pistol and I in our English get-up. You see, true quality movement consists of a horse lifting and rounding their back and elevating their shoulders.

This roundness of the topline allows the hind legs to move even more deeply and powerfully under the horse’s body to propel them forward in a turn. The better they get at moving in this way, the easier it will be to transition into the turns from the more strung out posture that horse’s naturally take on as they sprint between barrels.

I could see in the photos that Pistol wasn’t reaching as deeply under himself as I’d like, but his shoulders were the primary problem. First, I looked to myself and realized that as a rider I tend to hollow my own lower back just a bit and collapse my own shoulders.

To remedy this, I’ve been implementing stretches and exercises for both Pistol and I straight from the pages of “The First 51.” (Click here to get YOUR copy!)

Starting to find balance in the contact.

I also aspired to expect more powerful, elevated, forward movement from Pistol in general, knowing that what felt pretty good wasn’t always good enough.

I double checked that my saddle fit properly so that he wasn’t restricted in the shoulders and I was aware that I kept my own eyes focused up to really encourage the full circuit of forward energy necessary to prevent the “swan neck” posture Pistol sometimes takes on (evidence of this often shows up in a “dip” in front of your horse’s withers).

When Pistol over flexes vertically, I know now that it’s typically because he’s either hesitating to move his feet (not forward enough) or is bracey somewhere else in his body and over-compensating in the poll (C2 to be exact).

As you can see, there’s A TON to learn from the world of English riding that relates to barrel racing, which certainly provides eye-opening lessons and strategies for improvement.

Whether you ever decide to “dabble in a little saddle” or not, my best advice is that you consider the powerful learning experiences available to all of us, in ALL KINDS of unexpected places.

Don’t just “think outside the box,” get rid of the box completely – and you may just open yourself to possibilities greater than you have imagined!

So tell me, how do YOU think English riding relates to barrel racing?

Do YOU have experience with hunt seat, jumping, dressage, or eventing?

Let’s hear it in the comments below!

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13 replies
  1. 'Nicole Farber
    'Nicole Farber says:

    I AM a former competitor in dressage, jumping and basic hunter over fences. It still amazes me how much of what I learned as a teenager and adult in dressage and jumping, crosses over to what I expect out of my barrel horses, or my horses in general. I expect contact on the bit, I expect them to round out and go collected during warm up. I don’t expect level 4 movements, but I do expect compulsion and clean movement from them. I love that what I grew up loving to do has much to do with what I love to do now!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Yes, yes, yes! There is so much finesse and precision in barrel racing! When we pay attention to those details in our horse’s development – THAT is what produces smooth, fluid, fast turns and runs! 🙂

  2. Lisa Tellinghuisen
    Lisa Tellinghuisen says:

    I love it!! For the last couple winters, I have been fortunate enough to work with a grand prix dressage rider and judge who comes to Florida for the” season” I’ve been taking dressage lessons from her on my barrel horse to learn, improve my riding, and improve Sailors movement. We’re actually good at it and she wants me to show him in rated shows. I’m pretty on the fence about that since we’ve only been barrel racing since December and that’s what I really want to do. He’s really good at that too. However, the knowledge I’ve gained and the level we have reached as a team from doing this has been invaluable. It is so nice to hear someone at your level agrees because I have gotten some grief from folks around here. Thank you!!!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You’re so welcome Lisa! When our horse’s are highly educated, I don’t think there’s much risk in crossing disciplines here and there. As you know – there are A LOT of benefits to it! Don’t worry about getting grief, especially from people who tend to judge something they don’t know a whole lot about. 😉

  3. Nikki N.
    Nikki N. says:

    Haha! I loved this article. As an English convert, I used to actually break colts and ride rogue horses in a jumping saddle. I would show up, tiny saddle in hand, and people would be like, “you’re going to ride my bronc in THAT?” Oh yes…and I was fine most of the time. The best thing that I learned in English is to count your strides, and to know WHEN to ask your horse for the turn. Not because your leg is here or you’re in your pocket there, but because the horse’s footfalls indicate that if you ask your horse to turn NOW, his body position is in tune with the maneuver, and will not throw him off balance or make him hesitate. I think the WORST part about crossing over from English is that while we DO ride in a tiny saddle and don’t rely on the security of it for balance, English riders (and myself) tend to have a stronger rein contact and micromanage their horse’s shape and body movements. Still a habit that I am trying to rid myself of even though I am much better than I was, and haven’t REALLY ridden Hunter/Jumpers for 15 years now. :-/

  4. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Growing up I was always taught, western, western, western, but I always had this craving in the back of my head to try English. I’m so glad that I have proof from another source that it would be helpful in all disciplines for me to ride English now and again. A few years ago I tried an English saddle for the first time and it was like riding bareback on a hairless horse! I felt like I was slipping and sliding all over and couldn’t stay balanced let alone cue correctly, and it really made me realize how much I really on my western saddle. I’m going to go back to the English one to better not only my own riding ability, but to work with my horse differently, as well. I’m definitely going to start incorporating some English riding in my training from here on out. I appreciate your topic this week and would love to hear more about your experience in the future on more different approaches like this!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I can relate Nicole – sometimes we don’t know what we got til it’s gone (the security of a western saddle), and you’re so right – we should NOT be soooo dependent on it!

  5. sandra
    sandra says:

    I’ve been taking western dressage lessons and I love them! It has helped us so much in my communication with my horses. I can tell a big difference.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Awesome Sandra! I have been realizing (even more so) the importance and value of the outside rein all thanks to my dressage influences and riding English – it’s amazing! SO much that applies to barrel racing!

  6. April
    April says:

    Great article! As a Dressage rider of 17 years, with my USDF Bronze and Silver Medals, it has been an awesome experience entering the barrel world this year. I have never had any “formal” barrel lessons, and have trained my mare entirely by myself based on basic Dressage principals. She can show First Level Dressage one day, and the next run a 16.3 second barrel pattern in her first year running. Good training is good training regardless of dicipline, and if more people realized that Dressage is not just “prancing horses with their heads held in”, so many horses would benefit. At the lower levels, yes, there is more weight and contact in the reins, but as the levels and training progress, the weight becomes lighter as the horse increases in self carriage. The collection of an FEI horse is so much that you could essentially ride with the reins pinched between the thumbs and index fingers, there is no holding. It is like a finished, fine tuned barrel horse. I take great pleasure in showing my Dressage horses one weekend, and improving with my barrel horses the next. Who says you can’t do it all? 😉

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Way to go April! You’re so right ON – “Good training is good training regardless of discipline.” I LOVE what dressage does for my horse’s quality of movement and the development of their body, and it’s simply amazing what it translates to on the barrel pattern!

  7. Michele
    Michele says:

    I rode western and ran barrels for 30 years. I switched to dressage 11 years ago and never looked back. I used to think english saddles were postage stamps too, until I rode in them and found them to be incredibly comfortable. I absolutely love the correctness and finesse of dressage. I wish that back when I was running barrels I had had some dressage lessons. Lower level dressage will help any horse and rider at any discipline. I like how April above describes contact at the lower levels and then how there is less of it as the horses move up the training scale and self carriage increases. I do know some other barrel clinicians that incorporate lower level dressage into their training programs with great success!! 🙂


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