Successfully coaching others to winning performance in barrel racing is a challenge for a challenge for anyone. With so many variables in personalities and learning styles, it’s difficult to know just how to “get through” to the student. And when the rider is a kid, that task can seem even tougher for both parent and trainer.
Not all horses run the same, and not all kids ride the same. However, there are some mistakes that are common to many young riders. Recognizing them and knowing how to effectively fix them can help coaches take young riders to the next level.
Jyme Beth Cochrane of McAlester, Okla., is familiar with the pitfalls that kids might face in their barrel racing careers, and she lists five common problems and explains how she teaches kids to fix them.
Getting Into The Arena
Sometimes problems occur before the horse ever gets into the arena. Often, the motor is racing, but a lack of control means the horse and its tiny rider might be going everywhere except into the pen.
With others, the horse vehemently avoids the entry gate. Although older riders can also have gate problems, their size gives them the advantage of strength,
allowing them to more easily control their horse.
Getting young riders to relax is job one. Cochrane says, “When kids get nervous, they tense up – from their faces to their toes. They don’t realize it, but the horse knows immediately that he is about to make a run. The key is not to let the horse feel the rider’s nervousness.”
Talking and even singing to the horse can sometimes help since it has the dual effect of relaxing both the horse and rider. But the most effective remedy seems to come from coaching kids on how to breathe.
Cochrane says, “Have them take big deep breaths – really letting the air out after each breath. And get in the habit of ‘show and tell.’ Remember to show the kids exactly what you want. If you just tell them to breathe, they will continue to take short, shallow breaths. Show them how our bodies relax when we breathe deeply, and then remind them over and over again each time you see their bodies tense up.”
Losing Balance and Hand Position
Many kids – especially the younger, smaller ones – have difficulty with the transition to a run. When the horse accelerates quickly, it pushes the rider back in the saddle, and that can jerk the reins and bump the horse’s mouth. The rider is out of position, and because he or she is pulling on the reins, the horse’s nose turns out and his shoulder drops. Cochrane’s solution is a special technique that allows kids to ride one-handed to the first barrel, while using their other hand on the saddle horn to stabilize their position.
In a right-handed barrel pattern, the rider should hold the reins in a loop in the right hand. The ring and pinky fingers will only be around the right side of the reins, while the pointer and middle finger will also hold the left side. With the left hand on the saddle horn, it is easier to stay steady when the horse takes off. At the barrel, the rider can rate the horse, then drop the outside rein to already have the right rein position to keep the necessary bend and complete the run.
Find proper hand placement on the reins by holding the reins two-handed. The hands should be an equal distance down the reins on either side of the horse’s neck. The inside hand for the first tum should be holding both sides of the reins at this spot.
A good aid for finding that position is to mark the reins so that the rider can easily find the correct placement. Although tape can be used, it’s better to have knots in the reins, so the rider can feel the correct position without having to look down.
Quickly finding the correct position for the hands after the first barrel is difficult, so Cochrane teaches all her students, young and old, to “touch and slide,” using knots as indicators.
Once the horse leaves the barrel, the hand that was on the saddle horn will bump the hand that is on the reins. Because a person can touch his hands together without looking, it’s simple to touch hands and grab the reins. Then the rider spreads the hands by sliding that “next barrel” hand down the reins until it hits the knot. Cochrane has her students touch and slide after every barrel, even at a walk. That exact repetition helps the action become second nature for the rider and eliminates the need to look at his or her hands. The rider should always be looking ahead.
Cochrane says “A lot of times you will see a kid running to the barrel, and you can tell that she has no idea where she is running to,” she laughs. “She’s just going. It’s important for kids to know exactly where to position their horses.”
Cochrane has found that some young riders will run straight at the first barrel, resulting in the horse hitting it or having to make a big move away from it. The other approach is running directly down the middle of the pen and then trying to pull the horse over to the barrel when it’s time for the turn. Most young riders do not have the strength to move a horse that much.
A bad approach to the second barrel is a common reason for hitting it. The rider steers the horse in the general direction of the barrel, but doesn’t push it to a specific point. Then, when he or she gets somewhat close, the rider just drops to the horn to hold on, allowing the horse to shoulder in, or rate too soon.
Young riders are notorious for “looping” the third barrel. When a rider does not have a definite spot in mind, he or she allows the horse to make too wide a pocket. From that position, the horse will either drop in and hit the barrel or swing out really wide as it leaves the barrel.
To practice approach, Cochrane places a cone or other marker just to the inside of where the horse and rider needs to get to before beginning the turn. This is where the “pocket” is approximately ten feet from the approach side of the barrel. The distance can vary slightly with different horses, but it’s important to have a visual for the rider to concentrate on. This shows the rider exactly where he or she needs to go, and working through the pattern with these visual aids in place helps ingrain the correct pattern.
Cochrane often has her students go through the barrels at a walk so that they can continue to imprint the correct pattern firmly in their head. After negotiating the pattern perfectly at a walk, they will go through at a trot, until they have perfected the exercise at that speed. Then they will have to perfect the pattern at a lope. Throughout, it’s important to give kids prompt and repetitive feedback – praise for doing things correctly, and schooling if they are doing something wrong.
“You have to watch them constantly, and let them know when they aren’t correct. If you let them practice wrong, or be wrong when they’re going slow, they’ll make the same mistakes during a run,” said Cochrane.
Leaving the Barrel Too Wide
Young riders often leave the barrels very wide because they fail to finish their turns. “The horse’s head will be pointed in the direction he needs to go, and the rider will just quit turning. The rider doesn’t wait for the rest of the horse’s body to complete the turn and straighten up,” explains Jyme Beth.
Not finishing a turn costs time and will affect the approach to the next barrel. Because the horse comes out of one barrel wide, the horse will likely get to the next one in a position that is way too close.
To help kids learn to finish their turns, Jyme Beth utilizes the same cones she uses for working on the approach. Riding to the turn, they must stay just outside the cone or marker. As they finish the turn, she has them over-turn the barrel by going between the cone and barrel.
“This emphasis on completing the turn keeps the horse and rider thinking about turning,” says Cochrane. “When speed is put back intb the equation, they won’t over-turn, but they will have gotten that motion into their muscle memory.”
Looking where he or she wants the horse to go is extremely important for the rider at this point. The horse will go where the rider is looking. Along with eyeballing the perfect path around the turn, the rider needs to look to the approach for the next barrel, or to the alley or gate. Cochrane prefers to have her students “look up” to the next barrel when the student is about three-quarters of the way around the turn. The rider’s body will follow the eyes.
Not Sitting Down to Slow Down
Either from excitement or from trying to work against the torque from the speed, young riders often lean forward and get way up out of their saddles when the horse is running to the turns. Then, they try to stand up in the stirrups to stop or check their horse. Because of gravity and their lack of strength, they get pulled forward, and their legs can swing back and hit the horse in the stomach.
If this happens on a turn, the horse is likely to run past the barrel because he is receiving conflicting cues from the rider- the “whoa” from the hands, and the “go” from the feet and forward body position. Riders are also going to be ineffective in the turn because they are not in a position to utilize what strength they do have.
A horse running to the finish line at high speed with a similar “out of position” rider can be difficult to stop. Teaching kids the most effective way to turn, slow or stop a horse increases the safety level.
Kids, more than any other riders, need to learn the correct body position for “whoa.” Here again the challenge is to explain that position clearly. Kids might not understand if you tell them to “put their weight in the stirrups,” so it’s time to show them. Move their body into position by pushing here and there, so they can feel what is correct – that their legs are slightly forward and heels are down. Demonstrate and explain. Tell them to tuck their butts under them and push their heels down. Showing them what you want them to do, then telling them and letting them know when they get it right or wrong gives them information in a form they can understand.
“It’s vital to instill the correct positioning at a young age. I know people who I have seen ride from the time they were young, and they still make the same mistakes they did then. No one corrected them when that bad position would have been easy to fix,” Cochrane said.
Looking at the Barrel
Because many young riders don’t know where they are supposed to e looking, they develop a habit of looking directly at the barrel. This is one of the worst mistakes a rider can make.
“Looking at the barrel increases the likelihood of hitting it. Your horse will go where you look, so never, never look at the barrel,” Cochrane says.
This is because the body moves in relation to where the eyes are looking. If a person is driving a car or riding a bike, and looks to something on the side of the road, what happens? The vehicle or bike will drift towards what the person is looking at. It happens the same way in barrel racing.
The other consequence of looking at the barrel can be a drastic change in body position. Because the rider’s body is following the eyes, the rider begins to lean into the barrel. This position will adversely affect the rider’s ability to control the horse. The rider is unable to sit down correctly in the saddle and therefore is unable to maneuver and control the horse.
Young riders need a specific place to direct their attention. Cochrane suggests having them look ahead at where they’re going- through and between their horse’s ears. Not only will this keep the rider from focusing on the barrel, it will also keep him or her looking where he or she should be going.
Putting It All Together
Cochrane cautions against putting too much pressure on the horse and rider. It takes time to break bad habits and instill good riding techniques.
“Be patient with the student, and don’t try to fix everything at once,” says Cochrane.
Kids learn by repetition, whether it’s good or bad. Parents should help their kids by constantly reminding them what they need to be doing. A kid may say he or she already knows what is being taught, to which Cochrane replies, “I know, but I’m going to tell you again!”
Article and Photographs by Savannah Magoteaux published in the June 2007 Barrel Horse News