Joy Wargo uses tight circles to build strength in her barrel horses.

Photos by Abigail Boatwright

I believe a lot in consistency and being consistent with my routine every day. Every time I cue with my legs or hands, I want the same response. If you do my exercise of loping small, tight circles every day with the same cues, not only will you build your horse physically strong enough to perform the maneuver you want, but your horse will also learn as soon as your body drops to that position, it needs to get really strong and gritty in the turn. Your horse will learn to reach with the front legs and drive with the inside hind leg. The horse doesn’t need to be in a hurry, but it needs to be going somewhere.

Why This Exercise Works
I don’t do much for drills on the barrels. I have a routine I go through every time I’m in the arena with a horse. Loping small circles is the most important exercise I do with my horses, because if I can put a strong turn on a horse, I can take one who is not necessarily the fastest horse and make it competitive. This is probably my biggest tool I use every day on nearly every horse.

Getting Started
I don’t outfit my horse in any special gear for this drill. I don’t use draw reins or tie downs much. Most of my colts are ridden with leather curb straps and a junior cow-horse bit or something with a short shank, such as a Martha Wright bit.

I start working on this drill when I begin riding my horses in the middle of their 2-year-old year. It takes horses a while to build the strength to do it correctly, but that is part of the program.

Doing the Drill
Begin by warming up at a walk and jog to make sure your horse is working and paying attention to cues from your hands and legs. Move your horse’s body parts around, bend and flex and make sure it is responding.

Next, lope a few big circles and then bring the horse down into a small circle, sitting the turn just like you would around a barrel—setting your weight on the outside hip pocket and making sure you sit down and use the horn. Try to sit just like the turn at a barrel so there is absolutely no mistake later on—your horse will recognize that cue. When you put your body in that position, your horse knows what to do.

Set your hand and draw it toward your hip a little bit so you have the horse’s nose. Then, sit and really drive from the outside hip pocket. Expect your horse to keep its shoulder elevated and reach forward, really driving from behind, reaching up underneath itself with the inside hind leg to make a strong turn.

These circles are really small—just how you expect the horse to turn around a barrel. You might only do this for four or five circles each direction, but it’s an important part of the riding session to make a horse strong in the turns. It also takes a lot of time to get the horse’s muscles strong enough for a correct, powerful turn.

You don’t want these circles to be runoff speed, but they should be as correct as a barrel turn. The lope should be strong and the horse turning hard at a medium- to high-speed lope.

After you have loped four or five tight circles, let your horse straighten out for about three strides and then stop. Let your horse stand for a few minutes to process the drill and then change directions.

I like a broke horse who is light and responsive. The horse should stop when I say “whoa”—I shouldn’t have to pull. I spend a lot of time making sure a horse rides around correctly. If a horse can do these things when you warm up and you are very critical about the way they ride and make sure they are always sharp, you won’t spend as much time working and schooling on the pattern, because the horse is respectful of everything you ask. This allows the pattern to be fun for the horse rather than work. Your horse gets to go fast, which most barrel horses enjoy, and have a good time when you work on the pattern.

Make sure you’re riding correctly during this drill. Sit up square in the middle of the horse and ride the horse forward to engage its hindquarters. Set a little bit of weight on your outside hip pocket for the circles, just like you would in a barrel turn. If you get rocked up over the front of the horse, the horse will drop its shoulder. The more you sit square and ride the hind end forward, the better you’ll do.

If you can’t unlock your horse’s shoulders easily, the horse will drift its hips to the outside. It’s still moving forward, but it’s not as engaged and strong through the turn. It is important for the horse to stay soft in the ribs to open its stride and move forward throughout the turn.

It’s best to only do a handful of circles each direction. Don’t spend a ton of time on it, because you can overdo this exercise easily. Especially in the beginning, a few circles each direction is enough. The horse will learn to use its body correctly, and if you have a horse who is sore, it’ll start to show, so moderation is key.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BHN.