Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing

Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing

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Although riding with bit contact and learning to do so well IS not only an important part of our development as riders/trainers, AND our performance horse’s education, unfortunately it’s all too common for our horse’s athletic abilities to be DEPENDENT on that contact.

I had some first hand experience with this recently as I set out to master BRIDLELESS flying lead changes with my barrel horse.

Although I’d had quick and easy success with flying lead changes with other horses in the past, performing them with him initially had been a challenge for us both.

Eventually we mastered flying changes, and he’s been going beautifully bridleless, so I didn’t quite expect that combining the two would be so difficult.

BUT, where there is challenge, there is change, and I was committed to persevering through what it would take to achieve my goal, having faith that there would be some valuable lessons on the other side.

What I realized right off the bat, was that when I didn’t gather Pistol up with the reins and support his collected frame with my hands, his body “fell flat,” and all hopes of performing bridleless flying changes fell with it.

It became obvious very quickly that in order for my goal to become a reality, I needed to teach him to hold HIMSELF in good form independent of rein contact; basically “hands free collection” – in other words, the beginning of self-carriage.

I can assure you it’s not as easy as it sounds!

Reaching our goal was even more challenging for a barrel horse who doesn’t seem to have high aptitude for flying changes, OR a desire to do much of anything on his own (Pistol is what I call “an energy conservationist”).

My seat controls his hind legs.
My seat controls his hind legs.

BUT, we did it, and today I’ll be sharing HOW and WHY it can greatly enhance the development and success of any barrel horse.

First, on the subject of hands, I’ll say that it’s very common for riders to use them too much and their legs and body language not enough. We’re a very hand oriented species after all – it’s not like we wash dishes with our feet or drive a car with our seat – we do it all with our HANDS! So it’s natural to want to use them primarily to ride a horse, and it’s no wonder we tend to micromanage horses with our hands.

The big benefit of educating our horses to respond to our legs, seat, focus and general body language better, is that we create more opportunity for refinement. In doing so, not only do we ensure that we’ll never “run out of bit,” but beyond that we also ensure that everything communicated through the reins will have even more meaning – essentially enabling us to do more with less.

The problem I ran into was that Pistol was depending on light rein contact to shape his body vertically/latitudinally, meaning to lift his back and become more round over the top line, which enables him to reach deep underneath himself and transfer more weight to the hindquarters.

These characteristics of quality movement are not just critical for barrel horses, but they were also necessary for Pistol to successfully perform a smooth, clean, lead change. I had to train him to carry them out himself independently without help from my hands if we were to master bridleless flying changes.

You can imagine that once a horse becomes empowered to take responsibility for proper SHAPE in general, that doing so on the pattern (where all the same qualities are necessary for power and quickness) becomes a lot easier as well!

Now the reason more of us don’t make runs without headgear is that the precise footfall, timing, and body positioning necessary at top speed to make a winning run IS legitimately challenging for horses (and riders). Headgear and certain bits are tools that help us and our horses with precise positioning and placement. They are essentially the icing on the cake, or more accurately – the tools that allows us to put the final icing on the cake. With communication through bit/rein contact we can create body shape that would be awfully hard for most of us (and most horses) to have without it.

In a RUN, it’s also logical to use our hands as a primary mode of communication because we tend to be faster with our hands than our legs for example. This reminds me of what my team roper husband shared about getting ready in the roping box – you don’t sit there with a big belly of slack in the rein, then kick your horse to go when the steer leaves the chute. Instead, you gather your horse up and hold him with a little contact so he’s poised and ready, then you just move your hand forward (which is much faster than kicking) and BOOM, you’re in position to stick your loop on an ornery Corriente!

So again, in a sense, it’s possible to do higher level things, faster, with contact, that would be really hard, if not almost impossible in some cases, without contact… but as I’ve said – the more we can develop our horses to not rely so much on this contact, the better off we’ll be.

Now, when it comes to the type and amount of contact – I’m not talking about hard, high pressure, mouth gaping contact. There is actually responsibility and FREEDOM that lies within the contact I have in mind to help enhance my horse’s athleticism. I suppose you could call it “feel.”

When it comes to the ideal amount of contact, there CAN still be be a little slack in the rein because a well-developed horse can follow a feel that subtle, BUT they are also often responding in combination with other forms of communication, like the life in our body, etc. If we do our job to develop our own skills so we can then develop our horses, there’s really no need for a barrel horse to be bound up tightly with mechanical means, and pulled on firmly to put a run together.

Horses that “must” be pulled hard or bound tightly to make a run, are quite simply NOT honoring their responsibilities (maintain direction, gait and shape) on the pattern, which all traces back to a human that has not taken responsibility to teach the horse theirs.

It’s not just ugly, it’s also not very effective, consistently successful, or fast either!

So by diving deep into all this bridleless riding, it’s not that I aspire or expect to do everything without any contact. After all, contact is an important part of teaching our horse’s to perform without it, and it’s how we can enhance what we have developed. YET the less dependent we are on it, the more meaning contact has, and the more our horse can do on their own.

Maintain DIRECTION, maintain GAIT, then maintain SHAPE.
Maintain DIRECTION, maintain GAIT, then maintain SHAPE.

For example – when your horse can maintain really great quality movement in a run under normal circumstances (they can transfer weight to the hind end to prepare for the turn, hold their bodies balanced in four wheel drive, etc.), then when you DO have a challenging angle to the first barrel or bad ground for example, you’re still likely to come out in relatively good shape (as determined by the clock), because the subtle help you offer (with contact) will have more meaning.

When your horse DEPENDS on contact just to put together a decent run under average circumstances, chances are that things will fall apart under more challenging conditions. Chances are that your “help” won’t have enough meaning to pull off a decent run.

For example, if you only need a tiny bit of fingertip contact in perfect conditions, then in less than ideal circumstances, you’ll just need a little more – and it will be there, because your horse has a firm education and foundational understanding to take responsibility for direction, gait, and especially shape – all by default.

How many times have we needed to make a split second adjustment in a run, and whoops – our horse ignores our request by a narrow margin and the delay costs us a check. Truth be told, our timing, and our horse’s timing has to be so instant – that means NO resistance, it means they must be responsible for their job, all while still being open to receiving guidance in a split second.

Basically, we have to build up our horse’s foundation so firm, that any guidance (contact) we offer them enhances what is already really good as it stands alone, but we don’t depend on it (contact) to try to create something that isn’t good enough to start with.

When we come into a turn and offer subtle, guiding contact without pulling, but by being right there with a little bit of feel, then we’re prepared to engage the bit quickly IF needed, but we can still stay out of our horse’s way and let him work at the same time.

If you’ve been running barrels long enough, you very well know – it’s easier said than done (but still worthwhile to work toward)!

Not only can this kind of “feel” be challenging to master in a run, but so is knowing what kind and how much contact each individual horse prefers. This is where we get into the details of bit selection to enhance performance based on our horse’s needs (and ours).

Dot Com for example, even though he’s very sensitive, due to his insecurity, prefers and works best with some hand holding (contact). But here’s the thing though – my goal is still always to develop my horses so well that they don’t necessarily NEED it, but that it supports and enhances their ability to perform.

My barrel horse gelding Pistol, doesn’t want much contact. In fact, he’s so confident that he resents it a little bit. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t educated him to learn to receive guidance softly and quickly in a run if I offer it, but it does mean that he generally prefers less handling – and I acknowledge and have reverence for that.

When the horse knows it’s his responsibility to maintain gait, direction and proper shape, he’ll just DO IT, and any contact/support we offer will just be subtle, but delicious icing on the cake – those little adjustments we make to WIN!

The more you can do with less, the more you can do.
The more you can do with less, the more you can do.

Of course, there is a lot of education that must take place before we can unsnap all the tie downs and toss our bridles over the fence (don’t do so without plenty of prior, proper, preparation)!

What if comes down to is that if you want to advance your horsemanship, mastering the development (training, not just executing) of flying lead changes on a variety of horses will provide a huge learning experience that has the power to benefit any barrel racer.

You could say I had already “mastered flying changes” on Pistol a few years ago, with a bridle and contact anyway.

So what did it take to do that? In summary…

  • I had to teach him to lope strong and elevated with more weight concentrated on his hind end.
  • I had to really refine his lateral (forward + sideways) movement off my leg so that he could do so easily even at a lope.
  • I had to sharpen up his responsiveness – I practiced switching from a left leg yield to a right leg yield back and forth very quickly.

With Dot Com, mastering flying changes at liberty was one of our greatest challenges because it required speed and precision, quick timing and responsiveness all while he stayed physically and mentally connected to me without any actual physical connection (very difficult for such an emotionally sensitive horse and a person with a tendency to add too much pressure).

I feel like I had to become a WHOLE NEW PERSON to create Dot Com’s flying changes at liberty!

Flying changes from the saddle without any headgear proved to be a challenge in the same kind of way, it required…

  • That Pistol fully understand that leg pressure does not always mean GO, to make NO assumptions!
  • He had to learn to carry his frame even better, and do so on his own, with nice vertical/latitudinal shape and weight on the hindquarters without any rein contact (I went back and forth to the bridle, on and off repeatedly with lots of transitions from lope to back up, lope to back up, etc. to accomplish this).
  • He needed to become more emotionally balanced. Doing anything very quickly (like a lead change – NOW!) caused him a bit of anxiety. Only when he could be super quick and responsive without any tension did a bridleless lead change become possible (again lots of lateral work with and without the bridle to build up to a shift in weight and a split second response to my seat and leg cues).

Maintaining quality, correct form in a run with only subtle, soft contact is no small feat, especially considering that when a horse gallops, most of their weight is on the front end.

But when the quality form is there, things like tipped barrels, leaning, dropped shoulders, hind end disengagement, hang ups and delays, slow turns, etc. become a thing of the past.

I’m confident that when I return to competing with Pistol that he’ll be able to take even more responsibility for maintaining good form on the pattern thanks to the new found skill I’ve developed, AND the new found responsibility for SHAPE he’s acquired – with no strings attached!

The more a horse learns to move with quality independent of “support” from our hands in general, the more they’ll be prepared to do so even under challenging circumstances, and even at high speed – where any assistance we do offer is likely to be met with an even quicker response.

There’s no doubt that the more we can do with less – the MORE WE (and our horses) CAN DO!

So is there room to improve your horse’s ability to take responsibility for SHAPE?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

4 replies
  1. Nikki N.
    Nikki N. says:

    I love hearing about your training adventures (and mishaps) with your two horses. They are so similar to my own mares and I love hearing how you have to go from “Get Moving!” with Pistol to “Calm Down” with Dot Com. It really helps me know that I am not the only one who is crazy enough to have two COMPLETELY different horses and who has the same type of things to work on as I do.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Ha ha, yes there is never a dull moment with two polar opposite horses. It makes things challenging at times, but also offers a lot of opportunity for learning through comparison, essentially making us better horsemen in the process! 😉

  2. shelbyt
    shelbyt says:

    That sounds a lot like my mare, she seems to be in her own world sometimes. I took her off the pattern because I have a hard time keeping gate with her, she likes to go faster without me asking, especially at the lope! If I take her in a smaller circle she tends to get more anxiety and doesn’t want to stay in the circle, basically getting flat and wont bend at the ribcage. Any ideas? Also, going into the circle there is quite a bit of delay. What is the correct way to ask for a circle? I may be asking incorrectly!


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