By Savannah Magoteaux
According to professional barrel racer Kendra Dickson, if you can’t afford or find a top horse, you’re not at a disadvantage. In fact, that is your advantage. You can make up the difference with time and talent, and it takes time to develop that talent.
“It doesn’t cost money, but you do have to pay attention,” Dickson says.
That philosophy is what has helped Dickson advance her career over the years.
Several years ago, Dickson had a problem horse – he just wouldn’t work. His attitude and work ethic were awful. She was at her wit’s end when her friend, Laura Young, invited her to come ride.
“It was explained to me that if we would just look down and pay attention to what our horse is doing, it’s going to improve our communication and results. You have four corners on your horse – the two shoulders and the two hips. I know it seems obvious, but I hadn’t thought about that before,” Dickson explains.
Why it’s important
When Dickson first began training barrel horses, she focused only on the saddle horn and forward – just what she could see. “I’ve learned it’s important to also think about what we can’t see. The horse’s motor is in the back. We need to focus on what’s behind us and keep all four corners of our horse balanced,” she says. “That’s why I’ve numbered the corners of my horse for this article. It may seem obvious, but it helps to have a visual.”
To demonstrate, Dickson uses a shoebox.
“Imagine for a minute you can fit on top of the shoebox, and you’re riding it as it floats down a river. Imagine how that box is going to dip and dive. If the front right corner dipped, the back opposite corner is going to lift. You’ll want to keep everything balanced, so you’d lift the front corner of the box with your reins, and use your seat bones to push the opposite corner down,” she says.
“It’s the same when you’re making a run. You know you’re going to experience some turbulence,” she says “Your horse is going to be climbing, digging, pushing, and running. It’s going to feel like a shoebox on a river.”
To stay balanced, Kendra coaches people to focus on being the ‘X’ in the middle of their horse. If you were sitting in the middle of the box, or in this case, on the horse, you would be sitting on the middle of the X.
“One of my good friends, trainer Bill Fleming, explained it well. He said if you picture that X, and you’re in the middle, the shoulder is controlled by the opposite hip, and vice versa,” she says. “This really made a lot of sense to me, because a lot of times we will struggle and our horses will flounder and scramble through the turns. Everyone talks about collection, but how do you get collection without a quick fix like a tie-down?”
For Kendra, it’s all about balance and understanding the X. Imagine you have a thread that connects your left hand to your right stirrup. When you ask your horse to go to the left, you’ll slide your left hand down on the reins and start the turn, but then use your right leg to bring him around.
“My friend Punk Carter calls it opening and closing the gate. You open the door by moving your hand down on the reins and starting the turn. Once the horse starts the turn, we close the door by bringing our opposite stirrup or spur against the horse,” she says.
Drills to develop balance and spatial awareness
With a background in speech pathology, spatial awareness became a common term in Dickson’s lingo. Generally speaking, spatial awareness refers to a person’s ability to judge where they are in relation to the objects around them.
For Dickson, it makes sense that spatial awareness applies to horses, especially when it comes to placement of their feet.
“That is so important. The more time you spend doing flatwork and working on basic maneuvers, the more coordinated and faster (your horse) will be going through the turns,” she says.
Dickson begins each warm-up with a counter-arc, making sure to keep her horse balanced and in control. When she starts this drill, she asks her horse to move forward before beginning the turn.
When she starts a left turn, instead of the horse’s nose being tipped to the inside, she’ll have him look towards the right. She uses her reins to tip his nose to the outside, and then uses her right spur to move his shoulder over to complete a u-turn.
“You want to make sure, when doing a counter-arc to the left, your horse will take the right forearm, pick it up, and move it left, and vice versa,” Dickson explains. “You always start the turn with forward momentum. You’ll tip the nose to the outside and use that outside spur to push the shoulder forward and over.
“You should feel for stutter steps,” Dickson continues. “If you feel a horse clunk his feet together or step behind, it’s not as smooth. You have to use your core and seat to push him up and over.”
Mini round pen drill
Another one of Dickson’s warm-ups involves an imaginary box or circle. Picture a small square or circle, with just enough room to take a few steps in either direction.
“What you want to do is push this horse forward, start a turn, stop, and back up,” Dickson says. “Do this several times, but focus on the four corners. We’re teaching our horses to be collected. This is going to help the horse use his muscles to be collected and cohesive in his turns.”
Backing around barrels
If you’re having trouble with a horse dropping his shoulder or scrambling through the turn, Dickson says the horse is not utilizing all four corners of his body.
“You can teach him spatial awareness by backing all the way around the barrel,” Dickson explains. “It will take some practice, but it’s going to cause your horse to use all four of his corners, and you to use all four of yours with your hands and legs. When you do this drill, the horse is doing things we don’t ask him to do every day. We’re strengthening muscles we need and bringing awareness to the ones that we have to call on to make a fast rodeo run.”
Dickson’s last drill for balance and spatial awareness is called the flip-flop. At a walk she’ll start the turn, opening the gate with her inside hand and closing it with her outside leg. When she gets to the end of the turn, she stops and “flip-flops” by asking her horse to turn around and go the opposite direction.
“You want your horse to pay attention through the turn,” she says. “Sometimes, rather than just circling the same way, it helps to flip-flop and switch it up a bit.
“This wakes up all four corners of the horse, and both sides of his brain and your body,” she adds, “and it teaches your horse to pay attention to what you’re asking through the turn.”
Dickson uses all of these drills and principals when training her horses, and believes if you pay attention and communicate clearly with your horse, you will reap the benefits.
“These exercises will all help keep your horse soft and teach him where to put his feet,” Dickson says. “They’re awesome!”
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of BHN.