By Danika Kent with Candi Zion
“Barrel racing is all about lines and circles,” said Candi Zion, a Montana-based barrel racer and trainer. To instill precision and softness in her young horses, she employs a drill that has been in her arsenal for more than 20 years. “I picked up this drill in the 1980s. A reining horse trainer that I transition reiners to barrel horses for taught me how to get a more effective and dramatic hinge.”
Phase 1: The Hinge
“Hinging is a reining technique in which you move in a straight line with the horse’s neck bent around to bring the nose to the shoulder,” Zion said. “If you watch reiners in the warm-up pen, they’ll have the horse’s nose back to their knee. By hinging a barrel horse, you’re able to keep that horse in a forward motion on a straight line and at the same time, use your inside leg and hand to prepare for the turn and control his front end.”
Zion practices this drill about four to six feet from the arena fence. To start this drill to the left, she brings the horse’s nose to the inside of the arena using her inside leg, foot, and hand. She aims to bring her inside hand to her saddle horn without crossing the plane of the horse’s neck. It is natural for a horse to want to drift toward the fence to get away from the pressure on the inside of his body, so she uses her outside leg to hold the horse on a straight line. If the horse wants to drift into the arena, she uses her outside rein to gently pull the horse back into position.
“When you start doing this technique, you can really tell if your horse is more flexible one way or another, and hinging will help even that up. You can’t always gauge that flexibility when you’re doing circles, but it’s extremely evident when you try to work your horse in a straight line with a hinge,” Zion said. “I prefer to use a Greg Dutton colt bit with heavy rings and a tiny twisted mouthpiece. For horses that are resistant, I’ll use a draw gag with a leather pollpiece, or in the case of a very resistant horse, a cable over the poll. The pressure on the poll helps them break a little easier so when you ask with the inside rein, it helps bring them around a little bit more and pull against your hand less.”
Zion adds that a round spur can help the horse adjust to positioning its body in this way if the horse is stiff.
“A bumper or a round-ended spur can make this easier for the horse, because it can be difficult for one that has never done this before,” Zion said. “You have to take that into consideration, because it’s just like a person exercising—it takes a while to get your muscles tuned into that position. Patience is key.”
Phase 2: The Counter Arc
Zion maintains the hinge on a straight line for the length of the arena. As she approaches the corner, she allows plenty of room for a counter arc circle. Stepping her weight into the outside stirrup and increasing the pressure from the inside leg, foot and hand, she reinforces the cues to move away from pressure and into the counter arc.
“If you’re coming into a barrel and your horse is in the wrong spot, you should be able to move your weight to the outside, use your inside leg and pick up your inside hand to move the horse over,” Zion said. “This part of the drill helps us with the mistakes we make that put the horse in the wrong spot, but it also helps a horse that wants to dive into the turns or work on his front end.”
When she completes a full circle, Zion is back on her square again, where she will go back to hinging on a straight line across the end of the arena. She will make the same counter arc circle at all four corners of the arena before switching directions and working through the drill in the other direction. Because of the level of difficulty of this exercise, she is constantly reading the horse to gauge how he is handling the pressure.
“I don’t like to do a lot of this at one time, because it’s tiring for them. I do start this on young horses, but a 3-year-old may not make it all the way around the arena,” Zion said. “It’s a matter of what the horse can tolerate. If it’s too much pressure, I’ll back off and work on something else, like crossing over in the hindquarters to step around their front end to loosen them up after a session of hinging.”
Zion says she keeps this drill slow, beginning at a walk and gradually moving the horse up to a trot.
“I start the hinges at a walk and work up to a trot,” Zion said. “The counter arcs I do at a walk, so there are some transitions in there, too. Hinging at a lope is advanced, so make sure your horse can do it comfortably at a trot before you ever progress to a lope. If your horse is advanced enough, you can do the counter arc circles at a trot. It would take an extremely well-broke horse to do this at a lope, because he would be counter cantering and counter arcing on a very small circle. We can leave that to the Lipizzaners.”
Meet Candi Zion
Candi Zion resides in Havre, Montana, where she trains and sells barrel horses. Zion began barrel racing and pole bending in the 1970s and continues to add to her decorated career in the arena. Some of her many accomplishments include American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show qualifications, multiple Montana State Quarter Horse Association barrel racing and pole bending championships, an Intermountain Quarter Horse Association championship and trips to the International Professional Rodeo Association, Southwest Rodeo Association, Northern Rodeo Association and WPRA Montana circuit finals on several different horses. Two of her horses, Harrys Doc and Get Honor Easy, were voted Barrel Horse of the Year in the Northern Rodeo Association. When she is not barrel racing, Zion helps her rancher husband, Jeff Solomon, and chairs both the Havre Hill County Historic Preservation Commission and Recycle Hi-Line.
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