By Fred Hunter with Laura Lambert

Question: I need more “whoa” with my horse, but I don’t want to compromise any flexibility. Can you please suggest bits that would be good? —Linda Thomas Leonard

fred-nancy-hunterThe husband and wife team of Fred and Nancy Hunter train and campaign winning barrel horses. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

Fred Hunter: If your horse is not wanting to rate at the barrel, I would suggest that, rather than switching bits, you start in the round pen. Many things that apply to the barrel pattern start with something basic. For instance, in order for a horse to drag his hind end at the barrel, his back has to be supple, and he has to be broke at the poll.  

The first thing I would do is make sure the horse understands and knows how to be supple in the back and break at the poll in the round pen, asking him to turn around, stop and slow down all without resistance when bitted up.

When a horse won’t give you his mouth in a stop, he isn’t ever going to rate in a run on the barrel pattern. Horses sometimes learn to elevate their head and their back stiffens. If their backs are stiff, they won’t rate or stop.

Many times, I see barrel racers work on bend and flexibility, as you mentioned, but when you are getting the flex, it’s also very important to keep the horse’s hind end engaged. If you get too much bend and the hind end becomes disengaged, you will lose the ability for the horse to rate. When you work your horse, you can keep bend and flex, but you need to be conscious that your horse is still using his hind end in your dry work exercises as well as on the barrel pattern.

I would start on the ground in the round pen with this horse by bitting him up and working with him on stopping, turning and rating. I would also work on backing your horse up, because the easier the horse backs, the softer his back is—a desirable response in barrel racing. When a horse will only back a few steps, his loin will not be strong enough to hold him through the turn.

After the round pen, I would do dry work away from the barrel pattern. Again, I’m going to work on getting the horse to break in the poll and keep his hind end engaged. I’ll do some fence work, turning the horse into the fence and keeping him collected.

As far as bits go, if your horse is running through the bit, you have to start over by going back to slow basics and getting the horse to give you his mouth in a responsive manner. I would start with putting a tie down on the horse. Don’t put it on really tight, but it is definitely a form of control. With no tie down, a horse is free to throw his head in the air or even just elevate his head. When the horse elevates his head, he can’t collect and there will not be any power in the turn.

Be aware that bridles and bits are tools. The bit should define what you want your horse to be. Barrel horses need to lift their shoulder, break at the poll and come back to your hand. I have a series of bits I have designed that are intended to do all of those things.

The most important thing to be said in all of this is that by slowing down a little bit and going back to the basics, you can teach your horse to collect every time, and to do it correctly.


For more information on Fred and Nancy Hunter visit, fredhunteronline.com. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected]

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