Today, most of the horses we breed for barrel racing are smart and super fast. Being such keen learners, once the become focused on the barrels, most horses have a tendency to anticipate the turn from the early stages of training. There are very important physical and mental reasons for teaching a barrel horse to wait and not start to turn prematurely. It is crucial for the rider to understand how a horse’s body moves and how a horse actually sees the barrel in order to effectively prevent this common problem. I always encourage people to seek out and understand the reasons why our horses do the things they do which dictates how riders handle all situations, both in and away from the barrel pattern.
Physically speaking, a horse is built to be the most efficient and balanced with his weight shifted to his hindquarters. This allows the horse to easily move his front end and change directions quickly. When a horse begins to turn a barrel too soon, it causes the horse’s weigh to shift onto his front end, throwing the rider forward and removing the balance from the horse’s hindquarters. Without balance in the horse’s hindquarters, the horse looses the power and drive that comes from the inside hind leg. Once this happens, in order to complete the turn, the horse will have to work a lot harder to physically lift the bulk of his bodyweight and the rider’s weight off of his front end in order to change directions. This action kills the horse’s forward momentum and oftentimes it causes a ‘dead spot,’ or hesitation, in the turn, thus robbing him of his speed and efficiency. Because it is not a natural, smooth transition, it is much harder on the horse and much more challenging for the rider.
How Horses Sees It
Mentally speaking, starting the turn too early effects the horse’s mind just as much as it effects the horse’s body. The visual perception of horse and human are opposite. Understanding how a horse actually sees a barrel can have a profound effect on how the rider communicates. Humans see binocularly. Both eyes view an object at the same time and we most clearly see straight in front of our bodies. This means that in order for a human to focus on an object, we must turn our head directly towards it to see it clearly. Horses are the opposite. They have monocular vision and are lateral-eyed, which simply means they see each side of their peripheral surroundings separately. Horses view objects most clearly on one side of their body at a time. A horse can see your hand grabbing the bridle rein, your leg and the edge of his own hipbone, but his vision is blurred when viewing 3-4 feet directly in front of his head.
It is very important for barrel racers to understand the way horses see. Starting the turn too early or asking the horse to turn his face toward the barrel, places the barrel at the horses shoulder and in front of the rider’s leg. Because the horse doesn’t see things clearly out in front, the horse will immediately perceive the barrel as an obstacle in his way. This may cause him to stiffen, raise his head and slice the barrel, hit it with his shoulder, go by it or all of the above. When you ask a horse to turn with the barrel out in front, it creates stress and anxiety in the horse’s mind, making him dread the turn and react accordingly. In contrast, a horse that has been trained to get the “barrel behind the rider’s leg” or “to his hip” before starting his turn can zip around a barrel in one smooth fluid, unobstructed motion. Positioning the barrel in the horse’s peripheral vision, where the horse sees it most clearly, mentally gives the horse a free and clear path around the barrel instead of seeing it as an obstacle.
When you are tuning or starting a young horse on the barrels, this concept of not starting the turn too early is simple, but not necessarily easy at first. It is important as a rider to focus and feel when your horse is beginning the turn too early and correct it before it becomes a serious issue. I often explain it in three different ways:
1. Keep the barrel behind your leg. 2. Make sure your horse’s shoulder is passed the barrel before starting the turn. 3. Place the barrel at the horse’s hip.
One Smooth Motion
Time is another very important reason to avoid starting the turn too early. Thousands of a second is all that separates the winners at a barrel race. Therefore, the fewest number of steps that a horse has to take around a barrel is often the most efficient and fastest way to improve your time. I believe every horse has a “perfect path” that allows his body to get around a barrel with the least amount of strides. If he starts the turn prematurely and it becomes an obstacle, he will have to take an extra stride to get around it, costing time and money.
Some horses seem to have a natural ability to place the barrel at their hip and will move themselves into proper turning position naturally, but as stewards of these special animals, it is our job to give each horse the best possible chance at success. If you are starting a horse on the barrels, it’s best to show him proper placement from the very beginning. It is just the same as teaching a small child how to color inside the lines from a very young age; it is a simple lesson that will have an effect for a lifetime.
Also, a finished horse can be improved by some simple repositioning. Sitting deep in the saddle and using your feet to drive a finished horse up into the turn helps them get the barrel “to the hip” or “behind your leg” and into a smooth, balanced position around the barrels. Once a horse feels and sees a clear path to turn, making it more comfortable, he will hunt it that clear path on his own. The reward for the horse in this case is that the turn feels natural, making him look forward to his job instead of dreading it. The more efficient and natural the horse can turn the barrel on his own, the less the rider has to do and the faster the clock will stop.
Whether you are training one horse or 20, or tuning on seasoned horses, keeping the barrel behind your leg will allow your horse to turn in One Smooth Motion. So by the next barrel race, you better be prepared to sit deep, slide by, suck back and hang on.