By Martha Josey and Ashley Schenk
Barrel races start in the alleyway. The alleyway is key to a consistent first barrel, but sometimes we can get into trouble before we ever enter the arena. Let us look from the alleyway and learn how to get that winning approach to your first barrel.
Visualize the run you want to make as you start down the alleyway. Know your horse’s attitude in the alleyway and what is required of you to begin the race positively. If you are riding a laid-back horse, get him fired up. On the other hand, if your horse is high strung, you will have to calm him down. Keep his body in the correct position while you are coming up the alleyway.
Handling your nerves is the first key to helping your horse in the alleyway. A lot of barrel racers think their horses know your name. This is a common belief for some riders because their horse comes alive and is ready to run when they hear your name being called. However, horses do this because they feel your change in energy when you get in running position with your hands set on your reins, leaning slightly forward with your body in the forward-run position. This lets your horse know that it is time to run.
It is important to stay relaxed and keep your horse relaxed in the holding pen. I always liked to keep my horse’s mind busy in the holding pen by flexing them, walking in correct round circles or keeping rate on their mind by stopping and backing up a few steps. Sit on your horse like you are in a Western pleasure class while doing these exercises rather than a running class. These relaxed exercises will channel any nervous energy you have into positive energy by giving your horse something to do. When it was my turn to run, I set my hands in the correct position while staying relaxed. I did not que my horse until I was ready and in the correct position in the alleyway to make a perfect first barrel.
Many people tense up and hold their breath in the alleyway. Inhale and exhale several times, taking deep breaths to help you stay calm. Relax and ride your horse like you would ride him at home.
How to Practice for the Alleyway
Not everyone has an alleyway to practice in at home, but there are a few things you can do to prepare for your weekend races. First, make sure your horse is comfortable walking through the pattern. If all your horse ever does is run when he sees the barrels, that might be part of your problem. The barrel pattern should feel like a safe place for your horse. Somewhere he can walk calmly and wind down after a workout. After a practice run, walk your horse through the pattern. If this is not something he can do, it is something you need to work on.
It would also be good to drive to a local arena that has open practice nights. Here you can spend some time walking in and out of the arena to let him get relaxed and confident.
The alleyway is a good place to finish a good positive work out. Get off your horse in the alleyway, rub and pet him to let him know that this is a good place to be.
How to Keep from Getting an Alley Sour Horse
Alley sour is a term we hear often in the barrel racing industry, which simply means they fight or refuse when going in the arena. This can be caused from confusion, soreness, fear or several other things. It is up to you to know your horse and identify the potential causes. A vet check and lameness exam from an equine performance veterinarian is a good place to start to rule out or investigate physical causes.
The alleyway is where horses get their adrenaline rush, they see the barrels and know that it is time to run. On a horse that gets nervous or excited, it is important to keep your body and energy levels calm. Horses can feel and feed off your energy. If you are nervous, it’s very likely that your horse is too.
One of the most common problems we see at our clinics is a horse that spins away from the alleyway. If your horse has gotten into the habit of turning away from the alleyway in the holding pen, this is something that will have to be fixed with practice.
When your horse tries to turn away, be quick to react. If your horse is turning away from the alley to the right, correct him with your left rein and make him turn back to the left and vice versa. It is also important to look where you want to go. This keeps your body in the correct position to direct your horse. It is important to keep forward movement when your horse is acting up in the holding pen. By keeping your eyes where you want to go, it’s much easier to get there. Make sure you reward your horse for positive improvements.
Correct Alleyway Positioning
Finding the correct position is key to a good first barrel. When I am in the alleyway, I want to line up with the third barrel. This will line me up with the center of the arena. From here, I can find my pocket area for my first barrel.
Remember, if you do not have your horse’s attention in the alleyway, you are not very likely to have it at the first barrel. I was very fortunate with my barrel racing horses and did not have any alleyway issues. When they went in the alleyway, they were ready and wanted to go make a good run.
For more information on training, conditioning, motivation, seasoning, and hauling, read my book “Run to Win with Me.”
Find videos from several top trainers on alleyway issues in barrel horses here.