Article and Photos By Danika Kent
“Going to the first barrel was always Rootie’s hardest spot,” two-time NFR qualifier Britany Diaz said of her mare Dasher Dude.
Diaz was having a hard time keeping “Rootie” from fading into the first barrel. Barrel racers who have experienced the same challenge on their own horses describe what feels like a magnetic force pulling the horse to the barrel and out of position.
“Numerous girls will say it happens in Denver,” Diaz said, referencing the National Western Stock Show Rodeo each year in January. “It’s not a normal, straight approach there; you’re coming across, so they start to drop early. That’s a bad feeling because you can try to straighten them up with an inside foot and they just push into you more. I can feel it from the get-go when Rootie does it. It’s not so much when you get to the barrel that she pins a shoulder; you can feel it leading up to it. In Denver, all I had to do was keep the barrels up and I could feel her dropping all the way across the pen.”
The problem was, Rootie wasn’t staying square or responding to the cues Diaz was giving with her inside hand and leg. Diaz turned to her hauling partner and veteran NFR qualifier, Lisa Lockhart, for advice. Compiling Lockhart’s suggestions with Rootie’s needs, Diaz created this month’s problem-solving drill.
“If they’re going to shoulder a barrel, a lot of times they wait until their rate point and drop. Fading happens more in the approach than right at the barrel,” Diaz explains. “They start laying into your foot and hand and all you can do is kick and drive them by it, and then you better hope the ground holds because it puts them out of position for their turn.”
Keeping a horse collected and square is key to keeping it from fading and also to managing adverse ground conditions.
“A horse that isn’t collected will start to fade,” Diaz said. “I used to hit a lot of barrels going in that way, or Rootie would slip because her footwork was off. A lot of times, people will blame the ground, but the horse was out of position going into the turn.”
In order to keep a horse gathered up, it must be sensitive to cues from the rider’s inside hand and leg.
“At a standstill, I want to be able to apply pressure with my inside foot and rein and have the horse respond by keeping its hind end in place and moving its shoulders around,” Diaz said. “I believe you should be able to do everything with your inside rein and inside foot—you should be able to pick the horse up and move it out on a bigger circle, and then bring it in and make a smaller circle.”
Diaz develops these skills in a horse away from the pattern to make sure she’s got its full attention.
“When I pick up my inside rein, he should pick his shoulder up away from the turn. I do a lot of counter arcing, all the way up to a lope, keeping collected the whole time,” Diaz said, although she opts not to counter arc around the barrels, keeping that zone as simple and stress-free as possible. “I would never ask them to do that in a run.”
Putting it Together
Diaz’s drill is helpful when preparing for a tricky arena setup, as it teaches a horse to stay off inside pressure and wait for the rider’s cues to get in position for the turn. She starts at the same point in the arena she would begin her run. At a walk, she’ll ride up to her rate point at the first barrel, and when she sits, she expects her horse to “sit” with her.
“I take him up to my rate point, or wherever I start to feel him fade, use my inside rein and inside foot to really over-exaggerate and almost sidepass toward the center of the arena,” Diaz said. “I’ll come into my pocket really wide and get tight on the back side again, using my outside foot to help him finish the turn. Allowing that extra room coming into the turn helps to keep a horse free.”
She will continue making right-hand turns around the barrels, going from the first to the third barrel—noting the drill will also help a horse that wants to bow off the first. Reaching the rate point at the next barrel, Diaz picks up the nose and shoulder again with her inside rein and foot, keeping the horse moving forward and away from pressure but making sure the hindquarters stay engaged.
“When I’m doing this drill, it doesn’t matter if it’s a colt or a finished or problem horse, if I feel him start to pop his butt out, I will break him down and keep him collected and make him come back to me,” Diaz said. “When I set a horse at the barrel, I always make sure he keeps his hip in. When I over-exaggerate that turn, I also over-exaggerate moving the hip so it’s pointed in with the shoulders up and out. I’m making sure he’s engaging his hip and not throwing it out, which will cause him to fade.”
If a horse is having a hard time keeping his hindquarters engaged, Diaz will break to a complete stop and move the hip in for him. If it drifts out as she moves forward again, she’ll take him around a second time to be sure he understands to keep that part of his body in position.
“There’s no way you can pick up the front end if he’s swinging his butt around,” Diaz said. “Nothing can be collected if his hip isn’t in, and a horse won’t be as quick if he’s not getting underneath himself.”
Diaz works around all three barrels at a walk before starting again at a trot. Then, she breaks down to a walk when she sits down and picks up her horse to move him out. When she kicks up to a lope, she’ll break down to a walk or a trot at the barrels, depending on the needs of the horse she is riding.
“With Rootie, I go down to a walk usually because I want her to slow down and stay correct,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to stay correct at a lope when you’re going way out like that, and at a run, I don’t want her running out like that. But even at slower speeds, it helps her stay free. She’s so easy to tune, she understands what I’m asking so she will be freer at a run.”
Diaz adds that high-strung horses like Rootie tend to get hotter as you work them, so they benefit more from slow work.
“When they think everything’s got to be fast, that’s when they panic and drop into the turn,” Diaz said. “Some need to do it faster because that’s when they start to act up, but I don’t want a horse to panic and think he needs to go fast through this drill. He needs to understand to do it right.”