Oftentimes I think people perceive that common problems on the barrel pattern can be fixed overnight with a new bit or another piece of equipment, but so many times this is just not the case. With problems like running past the first barrel—because that’s a big one I see a lot of—hitting barrels, shouldering and other issues, you can’t fix those things all at once. It’s really a matter of retraining the horse how to use themselves and place their feet correctly. For instance, a horse that runs too straight into the barrels often runs by because he’s been guided wrong and has bad position going into the turn. It can be difficult for a horse that has been turned too tight around the barrels to relearn how to use the hind end correctly once that pattern becomes ingrained. By correctly I mean the horse knows how to use his body correctly in order to be fast; to stop the clock. Riders need to keep the horse three to four feet to the right and get the hind end three feet past the barrel for the horse to learn to use the hind end properly. Some horses will relearn but it depends on the individual, their age and their foundational training and personality—how much they worry—a lot of variables come into play and some horses can correct problems quickly but there are others who can’t get a bad habit out of their head and move on. Charm_3F9C0132_COPY

I hear a lot of comments from people like, “I tried this or that, I tried a different bit, I tried stopping my horse at the barrels and nothing works.” What I really want to emphasize is how important it is not to always blame the horse. For a horse to run the barrels right it takes a combination of things trained through repetition over time to where the horse learns to do what is asked of him with confidence.

Taking responsibility

I see a lot of people who stop their horse forcefully at the barrels if they’ve been running by them. For starters, the horse is already panicked because it has bad position going in and is set up wrong for the turn, which has caused it to run by in the first place. Also there wasn’t enough preparation for the turn so there’s a combination of too straight and too fast an approach and that’s what causes the problem. Stopping hard seems to create more of a scared, braced up reaction and it does not usually help the horse improve. The biggest thing is that it has got to be the rider’s responsibility for what they’re doing with their hands, feet and seat. Often people are doing things with their hands that inhibit the horse.

Many people still believe that lifting the inside rein and crossing over the mane toward their opposite shoulder is what prepares a horse to turn. All that does is make horses move in with their inside shoulder and dump their weight to the front end. It’s imperative to aim approximately four feet to the right of the barrel, keeping equal pressure on the reins and using your legs to ride the horse’s hind end past the barrel and through the turn. The horse’s hind end has to get at least three feet past a barrel in order for it to have room to complete the turn.

With young or inexperienced riders, I hear many say, “My horse does this or that,” and that’s its always the horse, it’s never the rider taking responsibility. I truly believe that the majority of the common problems seen on the barrels are the result of rider error.

For young riders, patience is difficult to come by and if you’re a parent you can’t let your kids get mad or frustrated and go to jerking on a horse. It’s one thing if an adult who knows what they’re doing corrects a horse, but what happens when kids start jerking and lashing out at the horse is that the mental state of that animal deteriorates. The horse will have little respect for the young rider and its overall mindset will not be good. The chances of correcting a problem that way are slim to none.

One thing about a horse that deteriorates mentally is that this often leads to a bad physical state. It’s just like a person who is under a lot of stress; it begins to affect them physically. When you feel good, you are more productive—horses are the same.

Breaking the cycle

With problems like running by the first, hitting barrels or blowing off the third—that’s another common one—once you’ve learned good body control of yourself and you are not bringing the inside rein up toward your opposite shoulder or throwing the reins away in the turns, then you can slow down and make things correct for the horse with repetition. Fixing bad patterns means doing things correctly to build the good habits and build confidence without asking for their life. That’s got to happen out at a barrel race. Sometimes you have to sacrifice going to the race to win it versus going there with the goal of making a correct, confidence building run. You might win something in the 3- or 4D and need to be content with that if the horse worked smoothly and did not repeat the bad habit under competitive conditions where adrenaline comes into play. Doing it correctly breaks that bad cycle. Nobody wants to hear that because most people want to go to the race to win, but at some point you’ve got to re-evaluate, back up and do what’s necessary because you’ll be ahead of the curve in the long run, even if it means sacrificing some runs for a while to fix the problem.

You don’t want to take a horse to a race knowing you’ve been battling a certain issue and set that horse up for failure. Chances are you knew you weren’t going to win it when you loaded up to go, you were just playing the odds sort of hoping he wouldn’t mess up. You want the horse to learn to be correct, then speed up after it’s really on his mind to hunt those barrels and like it. Get them working correctly and follow that good pattern, gradually adding more speed. Some horses will get better quickly, but for others it might take them six months, you just don’t know.

Some things—major problems like running up the fence or blowing off the third really bad—are harder to fix than others. With blowing off the third you might even still be able to win some money, but once they learn that run out of the turn without clearing their hip that’s a hard thing to fix. You can still win money just maybe not as much or on a consistent basis.

You must remember a few fundamentals like slowing down and helping the horse get prepared to turn. Speeding a horse up on the pattern before it has learned to travel at different speeds with collection makes it to where the horse cannot turn correctly. It takes a lot of time and lots of riding and practicing proper fundamentals to prepare horses for added speed. So many issues develop as a result of the lack of preparation.

Alley Angst

I’m asked a lot about alley issues and I believe that in most cases bad position on the approach to the first builds anxiety in horses. A horse that’s in poor position going to the first that has to really kick its hip out to make the turn will get too tight and get worried. They’ll soon start to manifest their stress in the alley. The bad thing for horses experiencing psychological stress is that it often causes physical stress as well. The prevalence of ulcers has been talked about so much in recent years, with stress as a major cause. It’s hard to get horses over performance anxiety particularly if they begin to feel physical pain associated with it, especially severe ulcer pain.

I’m a big advocate of just getting out riding; going and using the horse. That way you don’t have a fresh horse that you’re tempted to pick at for being a bit full of itself when you first get on it. If you have access to working cows in the pasture or tracking cattle out at the rodeo or whatever, don’t be afraid to give the horse a job that doesn’t involve just tuning it on the barrels constantly. I sure don’t want a horse that’s fresh and full of itself if I’m trying to tackle a serious issue.

I can never overemphasize the importance of making sure there are no issues with a horse’s teeth or lameness at the root of performance problems. I advise getting to your vet regularly to go over any leg issues or any other potential problems that might keep your horse from working. Use a reputable veterinarian who is good with legs and performance related maintenance. You want an equine dentist who can balance the horse’s mouth and give you bit seats. Someone who is not trained or who is inexperienced can sometimes cause unnecessary worry and you don’t want to spend time chasing the wrong problem. That’s just one reason to use an experienced professional with a proven track record.

Focus on fundamentals

A horse without solid fundamentals can’t be expected to hold together at speed on the pattern because they do not know how to use their body parts correctly and speed will scare them.

A horse that has been started by a novice person won’t have all the foundational tools to stay together for the long haul. It won’t have the flexion and body control, the headset, stop, leads and know how to stay framed up; it won’t know about transitioning to accept different bits without fighting or getting scared. The right basics are essential. If your horse has never had the education at the start to back, sidepass, have a good headset, and stay light to your cues, you’ll want to get some professional help with that horse from a reputable trainer to get that horse really well broke before adding any speed. There are some really great trainers out there who teach correctly and discipline a horse properly when needed, and there are numerous resources these days to seek out help.

The take home message in all of this is to take the time and have realistic expectations. Fixing a horse with issues on the barrel pattern is really not about a bit change or doing one drill over and over; very seldom does that approach fix issues.

For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit www.charmaynejames11.com. Charmayne loves to hear your feedback so please feel free to e-mail comments or questions to  [email protected].


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