You seldom hear a rider complain that they have too much control of their horse. Whether you’re running at a gallop or loping a perfect circle, control is a product of the horse’s foundation training. Clinician Clinton Anderson teaches that to control the whole horse, you must be able to control its five body parts; the head and neck, poll, shoulders, ribs and hindquarters.
The Fearsome Four
Anderson repeatedly hears four common complaints from barrel racers:
The horse is hot and nervous.
The horse doesn’t want to rate or stop.
The horse dives into the barrel and knocks the barrel over.
The horse misbehaves in the alleyway and won’t go into the arena.
“All of those problems come from a lack of foundation,” Anderson says. “They’re not getting these horses soft and supple before they go and do the barrel racing pattern on them. So getting control of the five body parts is a big deal. If you can control the five body parts, then you can pretty much teach your horse anything. Any problem you can ever imagine for any horse for any event revolves around one or more of those five body parts not listening to you.”
Control and softness go hand-in-hand. When you ask the horse to move its body, it should willingly do so. Control of anything, be it horse or machine, becomes more difficult as speed is added.
“Everything gets worse with speed,” Anderson says. “If you only have a little bit of softness at the walk, you’ll have less at the trot, even less at the canter and none at the gallop.”
A simple analogy is to imagine driving a car that has a bad wheel alignment.
“If you’re driving your car at 40 mph and the steering wheel starts vibrating,” Anderson says, “then when you speed up to 60 mph, it’s going to vibrate even more. At 80 mph, it’s going to vibrate out of the car.”
Similarly, a horse that is stiff when rounding a barrel at a lope will likely be even more stiff and difficult to control when running the pattern.
Keeping control of the horse’s mind can be a battle for barrel racers.
“It’s inevitable. They will get excited,” Anderson said. “They will pull on the bit, and they will lose their marbles. You can’t train a barrel horse to be a perfect angel that you can whip his butt off and then come back out of the alley and ask him to lope off like an old pleasure horse. That’s just part of that type of horse.”
Anderson says barrel racers should spend time in the saddle during the week working on control and softness—some of which he feels is lost during competition on the weekends.
“When you’re running a barrel pattern, you’re going balls to the wall,” he says. “You’re going to do whatever you have to do to get around that barrel, and then when you come out of the arena, you want him to be quiet again. You have to fix them during the week to keep them soft and supple and listening.”
Starting with the head and neck and working back, Anderson shows how to gain control of the five body parts of the horse in order to achieve suppleness and help the horse work in a collected and relaxed manner.
Head and Neck
Every ride should start and finish with lateral flexion. Gaining lateral control of the horse’s head and neck will increase vertical control of the horse’s head. When the horse’s head is elevated, it can brace against the rider. Flexing the head and neck properly from side to side encourages a lower headset, ideally keeping the horse’s head below the withers. Lateral flexion will help you correctly shape the horse to turn a barrel and to run straight lines in-between the barrels.
One Rein Stop
A One Rein Stop is a continuation of flexing the horse’s head and neck laterally. Think of it as your emergency brake. The One Rein Stop will enhance your horse’s rate because it will teach the horse to listen to subtle cues from your seat. It will also improve the horse’s lateral flexion and suppleness.
Walk the horse forward five strides. Sit deep in the saddle and remove leg pressure to warn the horse that you’re about to stop. Pull the right rein back toward your hip and follow the seam of your jeans up to where the seam meets your belt. Maintain pressure until the horse’s feet stop or at least slow. Do not put any pressure on the left rein.
Drop the rein as soon as the horse stops moving his feet and gives his nose to point where it even touches your boot, jeans, stirrup or fender. Repeat the steps on the other side and very gradually progress until you can ask for a one-rein stop at a trot or even a canter. Eventually, the horse will start to rate back to you when he feels you sit deep in the saddle. The more you practice, the softer and more responsive the horse will become.
Poll Pressure and Vertical Flexion
The rider is able to communicate via the bit through the horse’s mouth to the feet. You can increase control of the horse by increasing communication between the mouth and feet. When you pick up on the reins the horse should soften its face, tuck its nose in by bending at the poll and begin to collect by transferring its weight to its hindquarters.
Poor poll control is evident when the horse sticks its head in the air and hollows its back when pressure is applied to the reins. Hollowing out the back stops the horse from carrying its weight on its hind end and makes it impossible for any horse to rate and stop correctly. It also forces the horse to go around the barrel on its front end.
When the horse fights the bit and does not give at the poll, communication between the reins and the feet is interrupted, and a negative chain of events unfolds.
“A horse that fights you through his mouth when you pick up on the reins will flip his head,” Anderson says. “When there’s resistance in the mouth, there’s resistance in the feet, so you have to get rid of the fight going on against the reins. A lot of people try to fix that by putting a tie down on the horse, but that just masks the problem.”
Anderson contends that with better control of the poll, some barrel racers would be able to get rid of the tie down and, in many cases, use less severe bits.
“The reason why tie downs and the severe bits are around is because we’re covering up bad horsemanship,” Anderson says. “The better broke your horse is, the less you’ll need tie downs, and the less you’ll need severe bits to get him to work well.
“It’s the same with cutting trainers using martingales, brain chains and noseband tie downs. They’re all doing it because the horse throws his head up, but if the horse was soft and supple, it wouldn’t want to throw its head up. I’m not saying that every horse is going to run perfectly in a snaffle or without a tie down, but these suppling exercises will definitely help to bridge the communication gap between horse and rider.”
Severe bits and tie downs can limit a horse’s speed, especially if they are adjusted incorrectly, and the tie down is extremely tight—where the horse is fighting against it.
Teaching Vertical Flexion
Anderson explains that vertical flexion can be taught in a series of very simple steps:
Step 1. At a standstill, slide your right hand down the rein and grip it. Then slide your left hand down the rein and grip it.
Step 2. Pull the right rein back toward your knee and hold it there. This will tip the horse’s head slightly to the right. Then pull the left rein back to your knee and hold it there. These movements should be done rhythmically in a one, two, three, four pattern. Brace your hands against your legs so the horse cannot pull its face away from you. Only apply enough pressure to make contact with the horse’s mouth.
Step 3. As soon as the horse stops moving his feet and softens vertically, even a tiny bit, release the pressure on the reins by releasing them up onto the horse’s neck. Just because the horse has his head tucked in does not mean he is soft and has given to the reins. Only release the pressure when the horse has created slack in the reins. Eventually, progress to the walk, trot and canter.
The more control you have over the horse’s shoulders, the easier it will be for you to steer the horse. A common problem for barrel horses that often results in five-second penalties is when horses drop their shoulder at the barrel. Shoulder control will enable you to guide the horse effectively around the barrels by achieving the correct body-arc and position around the barrels. You can practice shoulder control and shaping your horse for the turn during training sessions by using reverse arc exercises or riding in serpentines.
Anderson offers some great shoulder control exercises that can help soften and correct problems before they get out of hand.
Shoulder In/Shoulder Out
Ask the horse to move its shoulders to the left and right of where his feet are tracking. Before attempting this exercise, ensure that you have vertical flexion of the poll.
Rollbacks on the Fence
To perform a rollback, the horse must be able to move his shoulders. This is a great exercise to teach a horse how to collect, pick his shoulders up and use his hind end for impulsion.
Control of the Ribcage
To shape a horse correctly for the barrels, you must be able to arc its ribcage. If you cannot control the ribcage the horse will just dive with its shoulders and ribs into the barrel, tipping its head and hindquarters away from the barrel. This causes a horse and rider to hit barrels and also takes away the power the horse must have from the hindquarters to drive out of a barrel. Losing position of the ribcage actually stops forward motion around the barrel.
“Horses don’t have hard mouths, they have hard bodies,” Anderson says. “When a horse is stiff in his body, you feel that resistance through his mouth.”
Bending circles will encourage the horse to soften through his head and neck by teaching him to bend his ribcage around your leg.
Up until this point, the horse has only been asked to bend laterally from the standstill. Whenever you ask a horse to soften and move his feet at the same time, the resistance doubles. This is why it’s normal for barrel horses to become stiffer as you try to ask for a turn around the barrel.
Circle the horse to the left. While maintaining forward motion, bend the horse’s head to the inside of the circle by pulling the left rein up to your hip. Press with your inside (left) leg in the middle of the horse’s ribcage to push the ribcage to the outside of the circle. If needed, use your outside leg up by the girth to keep the horse’s shoulders following his nose.
In the second phase of this exercise, after the horse drops his nose down towards your toe, release the pressure on the rein by dropping your left hand down to your knee. Release your inside leg at the same time. If you are having trouble keeping forward motion, ask for a little less bend in the beginning. Continue to pull toward your hip and release to your knee for three or four circles, then let him out of it and go the other way. Remember to use your inside hand and inside leg at the same time.
Controlling the Hindquarters
Control of the horse’s hindquarters is the key to collection, lead departures and rate. When you are patterning a horse, you will be able to use your outside leg to push the horse’s hip underneath him, enabling him to carry his weight on his hind end. This ensures that the horse is using his inside hind leg to drive around the barrel. If horses carry all their weight on the front end, they will drop their shoulders and hit barrels because they are not balanced through the turn.
Yield the Hindquarters at a Standstill
Suppling exercises should always be done in a snaffle bit. While you may not be able to run your horse in a snaffle or without a tie down, ensuring that it is soft and supple in a snaffle during training sessions, will help when you transition to leverage bits or additional tack to help gain more control of the horse when working at high speeds.
For more information on Clinton Anderson and Down Under Horsemanship, visit downunderhorsemanship.com.
Bridget Cook is a Texas-based freelance writer who enjoys barrel racing in her spare time. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].