The success and longevity of your barrel horse depends upon a solid foundation.
Barrel racing is unique in the sense that in many cases, people train their own horses rather than sending them out to a trainer. That’s one reason the importance of instilling a solid foundation in a prospective barrel horse cannot be overemphasized enough.
You must build the right foundation so the horse knows how to stop, back up, collect, arc through its ribcage and move its body parts in response to your cues. A solid foundation goes beyond the horse being gentle to ride. It means teaching the horse to slow down and prepare to turn. The horse must understand cues to go, to rate and to turn.
You might not know with a prospect if the horse will be a free runner or ratey, but if you’ve taught it to rate and collect for the turns away from the pattern correcting issues once speed is part of the equation will be much simpler—and there will be fewer issues since you built a solid foundation into the horse.
Rushing through the basics creates confusion and resentment in horses. Investing time in building the correct foundation is worth the long-term rewards of having a solid, confident barrel horse. I think it’s advantageous if you have access to cattle or ranch work to instill basics while doing a job, because it’s good for the horse’s mind.
Putting a good stop on a horse as part of its foundation is imperative. Horses without a good stop, tend to throw their heads up and become hard to handle. In response, some riders will pull straight down in attempt to gain control. Pulling down toward the withers forces the bit down on the bars of the horse’s mouth, which is painful and creates a brace in the horse. I want my horses to slow down and stop in response to me sitting and applying pressure on the reins. When they stop, I release pressure—that is the reward.
After I stop a horse, I like to back up a few steps, turn and go in a different direction. Backing and changing directions puts the stop on a horse, because mentally they start to wait on me. They learn a stop, back and turn sequence is coming—which I do not rush—and it teaches them to wait for direction. They start listening and reading my body language, which is a huge advantage when running at top speed on the pattern.
When you take a horse to the barrel pattern, you need rate and control. Regardless if a horse is ratey or free-running, if the horse can’t be slowed down and collected, it will panic as speed is added and bigger problems will result. I want a horse to lope at the speed it’s asked, slow down to a slower gait when asked, and stop at the barrel if asked.
You need speed control to teach a horse to prepare to turn a barrel. Training a good stop is how you teach a horse to slow down, collect its body and turn the barrels. I am not a huge stopper at the barrels, but if a horse is not collected, I will stop it at times, frame it up and reset to attain proper body position on the pattern.
The next part of building a solid foundation is teaching your horse to break at the poll with its head pointed down and level. I don’t want a horse over-flexing with its nose tucked way back. It’s ideal when the nose is pointed toward the ground with slight flexion in the poll.
Part of teaching a horse to break at the poll is knowing how and when to use your feet to drive it into the bridle. It’s about 50/50 using your reins and 50/50 using your legs, because to get the horse’s head in the correct position you often have to squeeze with your feet to drop its nose and encourage the horse to lift its back. Once the nose is dropped and pointed at the ground, you can take the horse in circles and ask it to drive from behind, loping correct circles. Don’t take the horse’s nose with only inside rein pressure, because getting flexion only through the neck ignores the importance of having shape through the horse’s ribcage. If you bend the horse’s nose too much, the shoulder drifts out and the hip disengages and floats out. The power to stop, turn and drive away from a barrel all comes from the horse using its hip.
The only way to avoid floating the shoulder and hip out is to stabilize the horse’s body using a bit of outside rein to help the horse stay framed up. You keep the horse’s body straight and collected so it can turn the barrel with its hindquarters engaged. Coming into a barrel with the nose overly bent will get a horse turning too soon, in which case it does not have enough room on the backside of the barrel and its hip has to flip out—which causes the horse to lose its balance. The biggest destroyer of a horse’s confidence is not having enough room at axis-point three, because most horses will try to kick their hips out of the way.
Side to Side
Beyond stopping, rating, flexing at the poll and staying soft in the bridle, horses need body control from side to side. They should be able to sidepass and move their front end and hindquarters independently. This foundation to control all the horse’s body parts before training the horse to run barrels makes a more confident horse in the long run.
Without these basics you have very few tools to fix issues that crop up if you don’t take the time to develop a solid foundation. A horse that works framed up and collected will also hold together physically and mentally a lot longer than one that’s strung out and scrambling.
For the career longevity and overall mental and physical soundness of your barrel horse, a solid foundation is well worth the investment.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.