Don’t let ducking, or turning too soon in front of the barrel, become a habit for your barrel horse.

There are lots of reasons that ducking, or turning in front of a barrel, can happen. Probably the No. 1 reason I see this happening with novice riders is because they’re just starting to feel their way through the pattern. In many cases, they’re working on balance and staying secure. Their brains are working on balance, so what they’re doing with their hands is taking a back seat.

Regardless of if the rider is novice or more advanced, I’ve learned people instinctively want to pick up with the inside rein and hold a horse off the barrels or move them over using the inside rein. I don’t know exactly why this is, but the vast majority of people lift the inside rein first. It’s been a prevalent thing in our industry over the years to teach this, which is incorrect. Here’s the thing—when a rider lifts or pulls the inside rein in an attempt to lift the horse’s shoulder or move the horse off, it puts all the pressure on one side of the horse’s mouth, which actually makes them move to the inside harder. This is how green riders tend to allow their hands to work, because they’re not as balanced riding with two hands in the first place. It’s important to learn how to correctly guide by applying pressure on both sides of a horse’s mouth and using your feet as well.

Break it Down

When riders begin, the way to get started right is to think about what your hands are doing. First, let’s say you’re turning to the right; walking a circle to the right. You have to use your right hand to lift up or pull to the right a little and then ask the horse to move in that direction with your feet. You do not want to use your left hand and cross it over the horse’s neck to turn to the right. Sounds simple enough, right? It’s amazing how often people have the opposite instinct. It’s the same thing if you want to turn to the left. You would not want to pull up and over the plane of the horse’s neck using your right hand. Instead, you cue with the left hand, pointing the horse’s head and neck to the left, and use your feet to ask it to move in that direction. With any parent or instructor, it’s so important to get the rider to think and watch what they’re doing with their hands by breaking things down to the simplest terms before deciding to go fast and discovering they have problems guiding the horse.

Riders have to understand how to apply pressure equally on both corners of the horse’s mouth, point the horse’s head and neck and use their feet to ride in a straight line. Once a rider learns to have really good balance in the saddle, it’s easier for them to keep track of what their hands are doing. I suggest riders take time to do exercises away from the barrel pattern with their horses to work on applying correct rein pressure and using their feet. When you take your horse to the barrel pattern, remember it’s your job to use your riding skills to guide that horse between the barrels.

Often, if a horse ducks, it happens between the first and second barrels. What I’ve noticed from watching thousands of runs over the years is that most riders with horses that duck shift their weight to the inside and look in at the barrel, which ends up being where they ride. Then the rider feels the horse moving in at that barrel and attempts to hold the horse off by lifting the inside rein and pulling up and over the horse’s mane toward the opposite shoulder. All this does is make the horse turn harder and faster because of all the pressure being applied on the inside corner of the horse’s mouth. Horses also move in under your weight, so if you shift your weight to the inside they feel that as a cue to turn just like what they feel when you lift on your inside rein. These movements are cuing them to turn, so they turn too soon.

Focus on the Fix

If a horse has learned the habit of ducking, you have to focus on riding all the way to the right of the barrel—of course I’m talking about riding to the right of the second barrel, if that is the barrel they’re turning in front of. Such is often the case with a horse that takes the right barrel first. Make sure the horse’s flank is past the barrel in order to give that horse the room it needs to get its hindquarters in position to turn on the backside of the barrel rather than committing too soon and turning in front of the barrel.

So often people say to me, “But I was holding my horse out and it still happened.” I watch people’s hands very closely. If you’ve ever been to one of my schools, you know I stand directly in line with where people are riding on their approach to the barrels so I can see exactly how they are riding and guiding. I can see what their hands, feet and seat are doing and where they are looking as they ride. I’ve watched countless numbers of runs this way, and I’ve seen it so many times when a rider holds pressure on the inside rein that horses learn to lean and pull. A rider who can focus on their hands and think about the pressure they’re applying in the horse’s mouth can use the horse’s neck to point it where they need to go, just like pointing the barrel of a gun toward the target.

You’ve got to learn to apply pressure correctly using your hands. You want to use just the right amount of pressure needed for the horse—some need more, and some need less. If you grip too much on some horses, they fight. With guiding, it’s give and take. You’ve got to keep that pressure, but release it too. That’s a really hard thing to teach people. Learning the right amount of pressure and the right amount of release is necessary on a horse-by-horse basis. That said, I don’t just pitch the reins away either—I aim my horse using even pressure in a way that’s very slight.

Once a horse has learned to duck, it can be a big challenge to overcome. A lot of people say to just go faster to get past the barrel, but you almost have to slow down and get the fundamentals in place to fix this problem. When you go faster, it usually compounds the problem. There’s already panic and confusion in the horse. You have to break that fear and uncertainty by using clear signals to support the horse. Slowing things down makes repetition of the correct pattern and correct riding habits much less confusing for the horse. A good rule of thumb is to keep your hands a bit wider with the horse’s mane centered between your hands.

I’ve seen ducking happen with horses ridden by riders of all levels. If a horse still ducks when the rider has taken every step to correct their position around the barrels, as well as with using their hands and feet, in most cases there’s a physical problem contributing to the cause. Sore hocks or a high hind suspensory issue can make a horse try to evade turning the barrel correctly. Horses with ulcers or Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage (EIPH, bleeding) are going to have a panic or fear response that could cause them to duck. At my clinics, I see a lot of people having problems with their horses due to a combination of things. It can be a combination of the rider’s hands being ineffective and soreness issues. It can be a combination of as many as three or four things.

I’ve seen horses duck one or two times, and it’s best to get a handle on it before it snowballs into a regular habit. You can’t compete effectively if you can’t complete the pattern, nor are you likely to sell a horse known for ducking. You’d better go back to the drawing board. Have someone video you from an angle where you can see exactly what your hands are doing on your approach to the barrel your horse is ducking. Watch exactly where you are looking, when you are sitting for the turn and thoroughly investigate any potential soundness issues, ulcers, bleeding or the like.

You can’t really put a timeframe on fixing the problem of ducking, but get 10 smooth runs at moderate speed before trying to speed up much. Let’s say a fast run is a nine on a scale of one to 10. Stay at about a four for a while until ducking is no longer an issue at that rate of speed. Then gradually build up. Don’t go from a four to a nine in one run, step it up a little bit at a time. You can also aim a hair higher to begin with. Practice giving your horse a bit more room for the turn, which also helps you with guiding and aiming more precisely.

It’s so important to look at how that horse moves under you. You almost have to develop the mindset of “If I was a horse, what would I do in this circumstance?” You have to think a little bit like a horse in order to understand if the way you’re communicating is effective.

This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.