By Danika Kent
What does it take to bring a Thoroughbred up from the 5D to the 1D…and then jockey a pro-caliber, cow-bred horse to a winning run in salty rodeo competition? How can you train a rodeo horse of futurity age…that a child can ride? What about correcting bad habits in a seasoned jackpot horse…and then coaching a novice rider to do the same?
If you ask Kelsey Gordon, all of the above share common ground with two key ingredients: proper position and momentum. Find an extra barrel and develop both with the four-barrel drill she shares this month – one she uses most with colts, finished horses and lessons, attesting, “It helps everyone!”
To set it up, Gordon aligns four barrels, set approximately 12 feet apart – close enough that when she leaves one barrel, she’s immediately on to the next.
“I’ll start in the line of four,” Gordon says, “but I do each turn until they get it perfect.”
Where perfection begins
The definition of perfect, of course, is relative to where a horse is in its training, but achievable by any and all. Using this drill as a bridge from the raw basics to the pattern, Gordon is able to introduce her colts to the principles of turning a barrel without patterning prematurely.
“I start a lot of babies on this drill right out of the round pen,” she says. “After 30 days or so, I’ll get them tracking around a barrel, their hind end following in suit with their front end. It teaches a green colt about momentum, which will benefit all of your training, and introduces cues in a way that is simple for them to understand.”
At this stage, forward motion and a consistent path that maintains the same distance around each 55-gallon drum are Gordon’s priorities.
“I focus on keeping them moving and consistent with my leg all the way around the barrel,” she explains, her thigh aligned with the drum at the center of her circle. “I just keep molding with my hands and my feet until they’re tracking around consistently, keeping the same distance all the way around, listening to me and being real assertive – even if it takes three, four, or five times around a barrel. Then I’ll move on to the next one.”
Turning each barrel the same direction, Gordon waits patiently for a colt to find that fluid feel for itself.
“I go around each barrel until it smoothens out, and you’ll feel it. It’ll be rough and the horse will be getting ahead, he’ll be getting behind, and all of a sudden it will start to come together. Once you do a full circle that’s smooth, move to the next one. Just keep molding and molding.”
This drill is also Gordon’s solution for a seasoned horse that is getting sticky in the turns.
“A lot of horses that shut down or start the turn too early do so because they aren’t keeping their feet moving,” she says. “If you look at how a horse is made, they are designed to drive forward in a straight line with their hips underneath them, tracking in line with their front feet.
“This drill gets their legs moving and keeps their body moving forward and able to use the power from their hind end. It keeps a horse standing up instead of leaning. If they lean on you, use your feet and guide them to stand them back up. It makes them pay attention and listen and hold the correct form.”
While she cautions against getting too close to a barrel, at times, she will allow an adamant horse to learn for himself the easiest way to track around a barrel.
“Sometimes, a horse won’t want to move at all and they’ll keep sucking into the barrel,” she says. “I’ll let them stay close and kick them up around it, and they’ll realize it’s easier to move out and fluidly around than it is to crowd the barrel.”
Repeating each turn in the same direction enables a horse to find its most athletic frame, but once mastered, Gordon will mix it up (changing directions from one barrel to the next, for example) to accommodate each individual’s issues.
Timing is everything
Gordon has found a niche in training top-notch horses for youth riders, and touts this drill to be as beneficial to a jockey as it is to a horse.
“This drill applies to anybody and everybody, and when I teach a lesson, this is where I start because a lot of times, the rider’s timing is off,” she explains. “It really makes a person pay attention. Usually, they start with bigger circles at a trot, because the closer you get and the faster you get, the harder it is to keep up.”
Gordon’s key to timing, at any speed, is keeping the rider’s leg even with the barrel – not ahead of it or behind it.
“Their leg needs to be at the same point all the way around the barrel or the whole purpose is defeated,” she stresses. “Focusing on that position and timing helps a rider to not get behind their horse or over-ride one, which, in turn, keeps horses honest.”
As a horse and rider team’s timing tightens up, she makes the circle smaller, and then moves out to a bigger circle again and calls for the lope. Ultimately, she challenges them to lope a small circle (approximately 2.5 feet away) around each barrel, maintaining that same distance, momentum, and position throughout the turn.
“It takes more than you think to get people to that point, and you would think a lot of horses would know how to move around a barrel, but it’s easier said than done,” she says.
Time after time, this drill has proven its usefulness to that end.
“A lot of the horses we sell are 5 or 6 years old, which is still considered pretty young in the industry, but kids can go out and junior rodeo on them. I can tell them how to do a simple drill like this. On paper, it sounds pretty simple, but when you do it, you find that it’s actually a little harder. Yet it’s still easy enough for a kid to go home and use, and it makes such a huge difference.”
Meet Kelsey Gordon
Originally from Summerville, Ore., Kelsey Gordon has a lifetime of training and competing under her belt, from junior rodeo, to high school rodeo, and then to college rodeo.