“A barrel race is won and lost on the back side of the turn,” said Molli Montgomery, and though many would like to know the leg lifting secrets that she’s evoked in the name of saving a barrel, that’s not what she’s talking about. At least not right now.
With three turns involved and a lot of money to be won, she’d rather rely on finely tuned mechanics. From the first few rides, she takes small steps to prepare her colts to make some big moves.
The Outside Shoulder
“I like to have my horses really broke. You can always go back to that baseline, but if you never get them broke before you ask for that speed, it’s hard to go back,” Montgomery said.
Long before she puts a horse in a high-speed situation, she builds on the basics and supplements with shoulder control exercises away from the pattern.
“In barrel racing, people pay a lot of attention to the inside shoulder, but I don’t think they pay enough attention to the outside shoulder. When you’re loping circles and only using your inside hand, for example, your inside shoulder is picked up but your outside shoulder is dropped,” Montgomery said. “On the pattern, the outside shoulder has to drive forward to bring the horse out of the turn. He can’t do that if the inside shoulder is in the way, but if he can square his shoulders up, it puts his body in a better position to be fast.”
In the early stages, the key to reining in that outside shoulder is the often-forgotten outside rein.
“When you ride with both hands, both shoulders are picked up,” Montgomery said. “I like to imagine that there is a string coming out of each of my horse’s shoulders and when I pick up on those strings, both shoulders are picking up pretty underneath me. I’m kind of fanatical about their shoulders because if you’ve got control of their shoulders, their hind end will follow. Your outside rein controls the horse’s outside shoulder and inside hip. It stands him up and wrangles that hip in from stepping out, which is another thing that will start to happen if you only use your inside rein.”
An accomplished futurity trainer, Montgomery prefers to break her own colts. From the beginning, she uses pressure from both hands as well as her legs to teach them to stay square and balanced.
“Whether I break the colt or get one that has already been started, one of the first things I do is see if he knows how to pay attention to that outside rein,” Montgomery said.
Utimately, she wants him to understand that when the outside rein touches his neck, that shoulder needs to drive, not drift. Later, she’ll use a shorter barrel rein to be able to do with one hand in a run what she would normally do with two in the practice pen.
“It all transfers over to the barrels when you start speeding them up,” Montgomery said. “It makes for an easier getaway from the barrel.”
The Figure 8
To instill this type of responsiveness in her colts, the homegrown Dawson, Texas trainer uses a simple figure 8 exercise.
“I do figure 8s, but they’re really small. I keep the horse square, push him up into the bridle and bring the front end across the back end with my outside rein and leg,” Montgomery said, adding that if the horse is counter arcing, you’ve gone too far with the outside rein and the horse will start to drop his inside shoulder as a result. “I’m teaching them how to be quick on their feet, that when that outside rein touches the outside of their neck, I want them to come back.”
“Small” is the key to the effectiveness of this exercise and Montgomery emphasizes that if the circles get too big, the drill loses its impact.
“I do this at a trot, and I almost want the horse’s butt to stay in one spot,” Montgomery said. “When the horse’s hind end is at the center of the 8, his shoulders are moving into that turn. It’s similar to how reiners teach their horses to spin, but it does have forward movement to it. I want the horse to keep his hind end moving through the turn, he just needs to slow that part of his body down and keep the front end reaching and moving around it.”
Montgomery keeps each circle to a 5- or 6-foot area, but when introducing this exercise, a complete 8 is merely something to work toward.
“I don’t use an exact point of reference; I go off of feel and how they’re responding to me,” Montgomer said. “When I’m starting a colt, if I ask him to move over and he takes one or two steps, I change directions because my reward to him is to not keep drilling it into him. The part he should look forward to is switching directions; that’s what gets them quick on their feet.”
Starting them young, she believes, makes the movement a natural fit into the pattern later on.
“I do this when I start all of my colts. If they’re never taught to push that shoulder and drive across themselves, they’ll scramble and bow off of the barrels,” Montgomery said. “But once they cross over a couple of times, they think it’s fun and it makes the back side of the turn a lot snappier. When they feel your body move like that in a turn, they automatically know what to do. They go to that comfort zone.”
Meet Molli Montgomery
“Be the best you can be when no one is looking,” is the motto I live by. I work very hard to be the best I can possibly be at all times. I think back to the summer of 2010; not only was it was one of the hottest summers on record, rain and hay were virtually nonexistent. I had to clean all of my stalls, feed, ride and water all of my horses seven days a week. I was tested to the max that year because of all the trials, but I just kept working towards my goals and I still do. Never give up on your dreams. I am just like any other barrel racer – super happy about a fantastic run and crying over one that’s not so great. The challenge of taking a horse from being halter broke to running barrels in a year drives me each day. I want to produce solid horses that people can enjoy for a long time. I love talking to other trainers, owners, vets and horsemen about what works for them. I always try to learn from others and help others if I can. I come from a long line of horsemen; it was in my blood from the start to be in the horse business. I enjoy the sport of barrel racing because it is a very competitive yet supportive group of individuals. A strong support group is what I attribute any success I have had to. Everyone needs reassurance and a helping hand at times – it’s not a weakness, it’s just being human.