Ashley Schafer discusses how she teaches a horse to have fluid, forward motion around the barrels in the final installment of her two-part training series.

Fluid, forward motion is the key component of leading futurity trainer Ashley Schafer’s program. To achieve it, Schafer doesn’t just work on her horses, she works on herself and her horsemanship. Her goal is to train horses to be confident in their jobs by rewarding them when they do what she asks of them. In the first part of her two-part training series, Schafer discussed ways in which she softens the horse’s body parts by incorporating certain exercises into her training. In this article, Schafer talks about steps she takes to train herself as a rider to reinforce the training she’s instilled in her horses.

Release & Reward

The horse’s hind end may be its powerhouse, but how the rider uses the hands to control the front end can either prevent or allow the horse to move forward.

To maintain fluid, forward motion around the barrel, Schafer makes sure cues with her hands are released according to how well the horse complies. The release is how Schafer communicates to the horse that it has done what she has asked.

“Feel with your hands and knowing when to release are both important,” Schafer said. “If you touch the bridle reins, know what you’re asking for and as soon as you get it, release—you have to give back to the horse. If you want to, you can take it right back and ask again after you’ve released, but you have to release or the horse won’t know that it’s done the right thing.”

The release can be exaggerated by moving your hands forward, or it can be as subtle as relaxing your fingers on the reins.

“If I’m asking a horse to break at the poll, as soon as I feel it, I’ll release my pinkie and ring finger enough so that I’m no longer applying pressure on the horse,” Schafer said. “When I give them that little bit back, they understand that they’ll stop getting pulled on because they broke at the poll.”

When Schafer first starts working with a young horse, she will ask it to break at the poll slightly during dry work. As the horse becomes more trained, she asks it to break at the poll for a longer period of time.

“I don’t ride them that way all the time, but I want them to know that when I ask for it, I expect it,” Schafer said.

Having a barrel horse flexed at the poll all the time can cause problems on the pattern, as the horse may become confused about whether it is being asked to rate or to flex its poll. This can be avoided by the rider knowing what they are asking for and why.

“There’s a fine line with asking the horse to break at the poll,” Schafer said. “When I pull on the reins, I don’t want my horse to bury its head to its chest and just keep going, because that doesn’t work in barrel racing, but a lot of what your horse does when you’re pulling on the reins has to do with your body position.”

When asking the horse to break at the poll and continue to move forward, Schafer applies pressure to the reins with both hands and squeezes her calves together, which causes the horse to lift its ribcage up and round up through its back.

“Doing that causes them to break at the poll because it gets them in that real collected position,” Schafer said.

To stop or rate, Schafer takes hold of the reins, tilts her pelvis back, sits deeper in the saddle and takes leg pressure off the horse.

“Whether I’m asking them to break at the poll or to rate down, my hands are doing the same thing but my body is different,” Schafer said. “When I ask them to break at the poll, I’m sitting up and squeezing, but when I’m asking them to rate, I melt down into the saddle and release my legs.”

Before applying rein or leg pressure, know in your own mind what it is that you are asking for and how you want the horse to respond.

“I have to know what I’m asking for so I can release when I get [that response]. If I don’t know what I am asking for, then I won’t be able to release,” Schafer said. “If I put a leg on my horse, there needs to be a reason I did it and I need to get what I was looking for and then release. It’s the same thing with the bridle reins, whether it be rate, breaking at the poll, turning around or whatever, I need to know what I am asking for so when I get the correct response, I can release.”

Schafer typically works and runs her horses in light bits. To her, the type of bridle is not as important as the release.

Top row: Schafer’s horse maintains forward motion around the barrel because its shoulder is clear of the barrel and its hindquarters are engaged. Once Schafer is at her spot and is ready for the horse to set its hind leg and bring its front end across, she moves her body weight to her outside hip pocket. Bottom row: Schafer pushes her weight to her outside hip pocket, which allows her inside leg to come off her horse slightly and her outside leg to encourage her through the turn. The quick move on the backside of the barrel allows Schafer’s horse to square up and leave the turn.

“The release allows me to use less bit, because my horses are soft,” Schafer said. “They’re soft because I never just pull to pull—I pull with a purpose and then I release. They figure out that the quicker they respond to me, the quicker I release. Doing that makes a horse be soft and responsive and not need a lot of bit. I should, however, be able to ride my horses in pretty much any bit because I’m only ever going to hold them until I get a response.”

Natural Rate

Due to her focus on asking the horse to reach forward and drive through its turns, Schafer prefers to train horses that have natural rate.

“I can make a ratey horse pretty free, but I can’t make a free horse super ratey,” Schafer said. “You can put rate in a horse to an extent, but at the end of the day when it comes to running fast, every horse will revert back to what comes easiest to them.”

A ratey horse will naturally slow down or stop when the rider relaxes in the saddle.

“When I get on a horse, I want to feel that natural rate because I don’t want to pull on them all the time to get them to stop,” Schafer said.

On the Pattern

Fast runs are the result of smooth, forward motion, both around the barrels and between them. When Schafer makes a turn, she asks her horse to drive forward with its hind end and to reach and pull with its front end.

“I want them rounded up through the ribcage so they’re not strung out, and I want the hind leg up under them and their front leg reaching forward instead of their knees coming up,” Schafer said.

Going into the turn, Schafer sits square in the saddle with even pressure in both stirrups. This enables her to use more inside leg pressure when required, if for example, the horse drops in to turn the barrel too soon.

“I don’t ever want the horse to drop into the turn until the shoulder has cleared the barrel,” Schafer said. “My spot where I start the turn is approximately four feet off the barrel and just past it — that’s where I want them to get their front feet to before they start the turn.”

This spot enables the horse to maintain its forward motion around the barrel, because its shoulder is clear of the barrel and its hindquarters can remain engaged. If the horse starts the turn too soon, the
hindquarters disengage.

Once Schafer is at her spot and ready for the horse to set its hind leg and bring its front end across, she moves her body weight to her outside hip pocket.

“I tend to sit slightly to the outside, because I’m always training my horses to move away from pressure—I open the door on the inside and close the door on the outside,” Schafer said. “I push my weight to my outside hip pocket, which allows my inside leg to come off of them slightly and my outside leg to push into them, which gives them nowhere to go but to bring their shoulder around the barrel.”

A sharp move on the backside finishes the turn and squares the horse up to leave its turn.

Whenever she is working the pattern, Schafer rides a straight line between her exit point from one barrel and entry point to the next barrel. She says it is important to maintain a straight line in both slow and fast work.

Taking Responsibility

Controlling where the horse places its feet and how it positions its body for the turn is easier in slow work than it is when making a competitive run. To help her horses become confident that they are positioning themselves correctly once they are competition ready, Schafer asks them to start taking responsibility early in their training.

“I will lope through the pattern onehanded and let them work their turns
without me placing every foot,” Schafer said. “I can’t keep contact and control every move when they go fast, so I want them to start assuming some of that responsibility pretty early on and at a slower speed.”

Assuming responsibility for themselves helps Schafer’s horses gain confidence in doing their jobs, rather than the rider trying to do it for them.

“It helps them become confident in their footwork and it helps me feel their
style,” Schafer said. “I go back and forth between asking them to do it my way and letting them assume responsibility for themselves.”

Learning to Feel

Schafer grew up riding horses in Iowa going to playdays and trail riding. While her mom, Kathy Leonard-Johnson, trained a lot of barrel horses, she was never given horses to run. By high school, Schafer and her sister, Jennifer, did have a great horse. His name was Leo and he was Jennifer’s rope horse. Even though Leonard-Johnson didn’t start Leo on barrels until he was 12, Schafer still won on him at the amateur rodeo level.

“We spent hours and hours on horses, bareback and with saddles, doing anything,” Schafer said. “From the time I can remember, that’s what we did for fun. I didn’t even learn how to ride a bike until I was in high school; I just rode horses. I tell people that so much of learning to train is ‘butt in the saddle’ time. You’ve got to spend lots of time on a horse, because so much of it is about feel— it’s feeling the horse through the saddle. Until you’ve spent a lot of time on a horse—and riding multiple horses helps—you can’t feel what is happening.”

While Schafer didn’t have formal lessons, she did get to learn what felt good and what didn’t.

“I roped, and I think that helped with my barrel racing because you get a feel of what a horse is like when its hind end is up underneath itself when it stops,” Schafer said.

When Schafer went to work at the Jud Little Ranch under trainer Jolene Montgomery, she got to ride her first big-time barrel horse and felt what a super fast run was like.

“I got the opportunity to run JL Dash Ta Heaven (Dash Ta Fame x Dynas Plain Special x Special Feelins). He was already trained and was phenomenal. Jolene ran him his futurity year and his first derby year,” Schafer said. “We broke the arena record at the Better Barrel Races World Finals with a 14.881. That was my first really big accomplishment.”

After that, Schafer ran Freckles Ta Fame (Dash Ta Fame x Frenchmans Freckles x Frenchmans Guy), owned by Spitz Quarter Horses. “Can Man” now runs at the professional rodeos with Shali Lord and recently competed at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo with Brittany Pozzi-Tonozzi.

Schafer’s best year to date of futurity wins came in 2015 when KR Last Fling (A Streak Of Fling x Sancee Bug x Shawnee Bug), pictured in this article, won $77,000 by April of her futurity year and Vanilas Sudden Fame (Dash Ta Fame x SX Frenchmans Vanila x Frenchmans Guy) won $86,000 during that same period.

“I was pregnant that year with my son Payson, so they didn’t get run for five months. KR Last Fling ended up winning $103,000 her futurity year including the Diamonds and Dirt Futurity, the Sand Cup, Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Futurity and ran the fastest time of the WPRA World Finals, was reserve at the JB Quarter Horses Futurity, won the Hawkeye Futurity, the Barrel Racing Incentive Fund average, and won multiple rounds at multiple futurities and RFD-TV’s The American qualifier at the Ardmore Futurity. She is still the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” Schafer said. “Vanilas Sudden Fame won over $100,000 that year. She was second at Diamonds & Dirt and second in the slot race, won some rounds and placed in multiple averages.”

In 2016, Schafer ran Famed French Kiss, a full sister to Freckles Ta Fame, to earnings of $70,000. She also ran Freckles Ta Fame in the Elite Rodeo Association circuit, where she placed first or second at six of the eight rodeos she took him to.

While Schafer loved the ERA rodeos, she’s passionate about young horses.

“The thing I love the most about training futurity horses is the challenge. It’s bringing a new one along, figuring out what it needs and figuring out how to reach its full potential,” Schafer said.

“Once they’re good and solid rodeo horses, they’re really fun to get on and it’s fun to win, but I like the young horses.”

Schafer is dedicated to improving herself as a horsewoman and tries to spend time riding with other respected trainers like Jolene Montgomery and Joy Wargo. Recently, she enjoyed the opportunity to meet and talk with National Reined Cow Horse Association and National Reining Horse Association champion trainer Todd Bergen as well.

“I encourage everyone to learn as much as they can about training and horsemanship and to try and improve your horse’s foundation training every year,” Schafer said. “You can win on a fast horse that has no foundation for a while, but if you don’t have the foundation to go back and fix them, after a couple years they’ll be done. They’ll be blown up or doing things you can’t fix, because there’s no foundation.”

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BHN.


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