Have you ever found yourself loping endless numbers of circles trying to get your horse to slow down and “give it up?” You may finally get it done, but the next day does it take even longer? This is a common problem amongst barrel racers that we’re all familiar with and have probably battled at one time or another. I’ve found with some of my horses and my students’ horses if you continue to lope the same circles trying to calm them down, you could end up with just the opposite—a fire breathing dragon that can’t be ridden down. Barrel racing is a speed event, which requires our horses to feel their best for competition, thus having to ride them to a controllable exhaustion isn’t productive.
This month’s article is the breakdown and description of a training exercise I’ve implemented into my program over the last several years. Hopefully, I can describe to you how this exercise can help your training program immensely and give you a tool to engage your horses’ minds without wearing out their bodies.
Six-plus years ago I had the privilege of being introduced to a fantastic Australian horseman named Ian Francis. I quote him often in my articles and at my clinics. He and I have put on many clinics together, and the knowledge I’ve gained from our relationship has become imperative to my program. One of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned from Ian is an exercise he calls the “Flower Pattern.”
Ian originally designed this exercise a long time ago to get his performance horses guiding better with one hand. After doing it with several horses, he found that a horse benefits from the drill in many ways. The Flower Pattern gets a horse more balanced coming through the turns. After a few turns in the pattern, a horse knows the turn is coming, so he prepares for it. This helps horses that are too aggressive and freewheeling and helps “front-endy” horses to stand up better. Using direction changes in the pattern will cause horses to center themselves under the rider more naturally, according to Ian.
After using Ian’s exercise for a while, I modified it a bit to benefit my barrel horses even more. Much of what I teach I learn from the horses themselves, so my adaptations of his original drill resulted from one horse in particular. It was a young mare who had an extremely hard time holding her inside leg up under her in the turns and would use her lack of coordination as an excuse to buck, which she was quite good at. I found that if I made two or more round, slightly larger circles at the end of my straight line, she would balance up, hold her form and stop trying to buck.
Executing Ian’s Flower Pattern
You will be riding within an imaginary 75-foot circle, so plan your arena and riding area accordingly. You can also set a small cone or paper cup in the center as a guide. Start by riding through the center toward the outside edge, framing up your horse in the bridle as he travels. Once you approach the edge, prepare to turn by sitting down in the saddle and make a half circle to either the left or right, then double back through the center point, riding toward the on the opposite side of the circle. Repeat this for seven or eight turns each way. The foot path of the horse will make a flower pattern on the ground like the drawing shown here.
I modified Ian’s Flower Pattern for my barrel horses by making two or three circles when I reach the edge of my 75-foot imaginary large circle, then going back through the center to the opposite side of the imaginary circle and making two or three circles, back through center and so on. The foot path of a horse doing this pattern resembles pinwheels, thus we started calling this adaptation the “Pinwheel.”
Executing the Pinwheel Pattern
Ride once around your large imaginary circle to establish a boundary. Then turn and ride with both hands on the reins straight through the center of your large circle toward the opposite side. You may also frame up your horse in the bridle as you ride across the middle if needed. As you near the opposite side of the large circle’s boundary, sit deep in your saddle before starting the small circle, go to one hand on the rein and one on the saddle horn (exactly like you would around a barrel). Ride two or three perfectly round circles, then get two hands on the reins, straighten the horse’s body and ride through the center of the large circle to the opposite side. Repeat this until the horse executes it in a smooth and relaxed manner. It’s important to make sure that you square up your horse’s body in the straight lines through the center. It’s equally important that you sit deep in the saddle just before you start your smaller circles. The small circles I make at the end of my straight lines vary in size ranging from 8 feet in diameter at the smallest to 12 feet at the largest. I choose the size of smaller circles depending on what the particular horse needs. I start inexperienced horses making the larger size circles until they gain strength and balance.
Both Ian’s original exercise and my adaptation are continuous patterns and can be used creatively with gait and direction changes. I always teach my horses both patterns at a trot prior to loping. This gives them the chance to understand before adding the pressure of speed. Once you start the patterns, you can go the same direction or alternate directions, depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your horse. When first asked to lope the pattern, some horses get on the muscle and want to speed up too much. They will drop leads in the turns or change leads leaving the turns. I usually turn the direction of the lead the horse has chosen for itself the first two days I do the drill. On the third day, I insist that the horse turn the same direction for five or six times in a row at a lope and hold their lead the whole time. If my horse is in the wrong lead when it’s time to turn, I turn anyway. Turning in the wrong lead is very uncomfortable, and most will break to a trot and pick up the correct lead on their own after a few times. They quickly understand they need to balance up and hold their leads. This is not a speed drill, so trotting and loping is all I recommend.
This exercise helps improve every skill my horses and myself need without pressuring them on the barrel pattern. It encourages the rider to ride the back end of the horse around and through the turn, to ride centered and improve hand technique. For the horse, it creates balance, strengthens their hindquarters and encourages them think for themselves about how to prepare for a turn. This pinwheel pattern will build confidence in an inexperienced horse and should ultimately help your fire breathing dragon to be much more pleasant to ride.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments on this article to [email protected].