Teach your horse to snap around the barrel with this drill from trainer Whitney Godinez.
Not all horses have a big stride to easily get around the barrel. Some horses, like one I’m working with right now, are heavier on the front end or shorter strided. For a horse like that, you need to change the way you handle the first barrel in particular. That’s where this drill is helpful. I have built on techniques I learned from Sue Smith and find this drill to help my horse’s shoulders come across as they turn rather than placing their weight to the outside of the turn, and also take the fewest steps around the barrel as possible. Here’s how I do it.
I compete on this horse with a combination bit, which helps me stiffen her up a bit, but when I’m training I prefer a square-mouth O-ring snaffle and draw reins. The draw reins allow me to keep her front end picked up and have her broke at the poll. I like my horses to be very responsive, and this gear helps achieve a light-handed touch. I keep my reins short so I can cue easily when I’m one-handed around a turn. I teach this drill using both hands the whole time, and as my horse improves I’ll do it one-handed as we go around the barrel.
Place cones around the first barrel. Typically, you put out four cones to practice a turn, but I sometimes remove the first and fourth cone and leave the second and third on the backside of the barrel, because instead of making a four-point turn, you’ll be making a two-point turn.
I think it’s easy to overwork your horse on barrels, and I’ve done that myself before. I work this drill two or three times each time I work my horse at home, and I do it at the walk and the trot. I also like to do the drill without cones or barrels, just the turns, right before I go make a run to make sure my horse is listening to my seat and hands and there are no sticky spots.
After you warm up, approach the first barrel normally with enough room to maneuver around the barrel on the backside. Keep your hands even on both sides of the horse’s neck, and keep your horse centered between your legs.
When you get to where your leg is even with the barrel, break your horse down and rate by sitting down and holding lightly with your hands. Then, go to one hand and turn its body at the cone in a two-stride turn with pressure on your inside rein while bringing your outside rein across the neck to bring your horse’s shoulder around. Point the horse to the next cone. Keeping your horse square in between your hands and legs, break it down again at that cone, bringing its shoulders over in a rollback with your reins as you turn at the cone. Send your horse on to the next barrel.
During this drill, I squeeze with both legs as I sit down and then take leg pressure off and use my hand as I go around the turn.
I do this drill until I feel my horse is sharp. It could be one time; it could be four times. But once the horse is responsive and sharp, I will move on.
Focus on keeping your horse nice and relaxed, and communicate what you are asking as clearly as possible.
On this drill, I am making my horse a bit flatter around the turn, versus more stood up with its weight to the outside. With this drill, sometimes horses can get sticky on the backside of the turn and quit moving their front end. So on that second cone, make sure to roll your horse over its hocks and really ask it to bring its front end around so it’s pushing off the hind end as its front end is coming up and out of the way. Just because you’re boxing the turn doesn’t mean you’re cutting off forward motion.
You also need to make sure you allow your horse room to clear the turn. Don’t start turning until the barrel is just behind your leg. If you start the turn too soon, the horse will get its shoulders jammed and panic, and you’ll have to bail out of the turn.
This is not a drill for a stiff horse. But as long as you keep forward motion and give your horse room, it should work well to lighten up your horse’s front end. It will help keep your horse balanced and forward with the front end coming across the hind around the barrel.
Meet the Expert
Whitney Godinez has been competing in barrel racing since she was a child. she was a youth reserve world champion and futurity winner, and she’s placed in the finals at events such as the Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Horse Classic futurity and other futurities.
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.