I never realized until I began teaching clinics how scared some people are of the speed required in barrel racing. In barrel racing, too much speed too soon for a novice rider builds fear and results in bad habits like bracing up and pulling. That person will encounter a lot of hardship down the road running barrels. Horses look for confidence and guidance so the rider needs to ride well enough to communicate that to their horse and support their horse.

Courtesy Charmayne James

Courtesy Charmayne James

It’s a big investment to own a nice horse so I encourage people to spend time learning to ride well for the long-term welfare of their investment, not to mention the enjoyment of running barrels. There are new people coming into the sport of barrel racing all the time, which is wonderful. But here’s the thing; you can’t take a green, inexperienced rider and put them on a high caliber horse running at top speeds and expect them to win until they learn more about the basic feel of a horse.


I tell people that are nervous or that are green riders to pretend like they’re a big old blob of butter. Flow, melt and move with each move the horse makes. People have a tendency to clench and squeeze, which will make a horse run off. A lot of that is caused by nervousness and fear. Never ever squeeze.

One of the number one things a person must know is how to feel and ride in the correct lead. Learn to take that inside rein and use a little outside leg to get a horse to lope off in the correct lead in either direction. Controlling your hands in a way that keeps the horse’s nose shaped slightly in the direction you want the horse to go is an important thing to learn how to do. Looking down the inside of the horse’s neck going to a barrel is one thing I see a lot of. However, with daily time in the saddle and the awareness to constantly look, guide and position the horse, you’ll get over that. But don’t try and do it fast until you’re comfortable.

It’s impossible to just grab the saddle horn and pull the reins toward your hip and expect a correct turn around a barrel. It takes slight adjustments, subtle movements and great timing. Those are things that are developed over long a period of time by riding. For instance, a horse might not be shouldering but that ribcage is coming to the inside and a quick and effective correction for that is a little bump on the inside rein. But it’s just a bump, not a jerk or pulling and holding, which is the absolute worst thing you can do. A series of light little bumps can correct a problem before it turns into something major.

Pulling on the reins and bracing in the saddle cause a chain reaction of bad things to happen. First, the rider loses position and balance, which throws the horse off. The horse is out of position going into the turn. The horse often starts getting by the barrels and the rider in turn braces and pulls harder. Pretty soon getting around the barrels is just a pulling contest. The horse gets frustrated and distracted with the situation. All of that can be prevented by learning good, solid basics before you go too fast. Learn to ride close to your horse, keep your center of gravity in the middle and if you’re new to the sport, start out on a really broke horse. Starting out on a novice horse will only get a novice rider into a lot of bad habits.

As the rider develops a good feel for a horse, he or she won’t be scared or intimidated by the speed it takes to win barrel races. It’s the same thing as when you take a good broke horse with solid fundamentals and start him on the barrels. The broke horse is going to take to the task much easier and quicker. People are like that. Any time you have a chance to ride with a good reiner or cowboy who can teach you basic horsemanship skills like how to sit for a stop, get in a “go” position, feel the horse’s hind end in a turn and position the horse’s body correctly for a turn, I encourage that.

Perfect Circles

People without the experience to guide their horse correctly tend to lope in an oblong circle when asked to lope a perfect, round circle. They feel the horse slicing in a little so they pull up and over the neck toward their opposite shoulder with the inside rein. That only makes things worse. I tell people to learn to bump that inside rein and drive the hind end up underneath the horse. Body control is a huge thing and it’s something a good horseman can help you learn if you don’t understand where to start.

Between maneuvers like loping a perfect circle remember to sit, stop, sit a second longer and then go the other way. Don’t let all your maneuvers run together. Don’t go too fast from one thing to another.

Confidence and Kids

When you get into barrel racing, it’s very important to ride at the speed you’re comfortable with. And for parents and teachers, be understanding when you have a young person or novice rider just trying to get into barrel racing. If their instinct is not to go full blast, don’t force it. They’ll go faster when they’re ready and they’re secure. This is especially true of kids. And with kids, don’t leave them on a horse that is too powerful, intimidates them or arouses their fears.

Remember that little kids are riding in small saddles and some are practically doing the splits in the saddle. The stirrups on those little saddles tend to slip back and kids will get their feet behind them, which creates a little insecurity and lack of balance.

It’s important for kids to have the positive experience of improving their riding and gaining confidence in themselves. That makes them want to stick with the sport, set goals and care for their horses.

Go at Your Own Pace

There’s no rigid timetable for adding speed because every individual advances at his or her own pace. Much of this has to do with a person’s God-given talent level too, because each one of us is blessed with a different level of athleticism. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, but be conscious as you ride to form positive horsemanship habits and don’t overdo the speed.

If a horse can feel a fly on their back, then it’s easy to see that if you as a rider brace, pull and in general overdo it, you will lose responsiveness in that horse. As your riding skills improve your horse will appreciate you more. You’ll have the skills to guide your horse and get the best results from the lightest cues. Some riders have gone fast doing other things, maybe roping or riding on a ranch or in a different event, and the speed of barrel racing may be less intimidating for them. Take things at your own pace but try hard to be a better horseman. A good, broke horse will help any barrel racer learn, especially a novice, but an unbroke horse paired with a novice rider leads to scary situations and bad results. Similarly, just getting on and going at top speed before perfecting your hands, seat, timing and feel doesn’t usually work out.

The Good Habit Checklist

Take time to ride, and when you do, think about the tips below that will help you develop positive habits and responsiveness in your horse.

  • Ride everyday.
  • Learn to sit for stop.
  • Practice sitting harder when you stop.
  • Push down into the center of the saddle to sit balanced in a stop.
  • Stand up in the stirrups because that’s a move you make when you leave the barrel after the turn is completed all the way.
  • Learn to lope perfect, round circles.
  • Practice turning your horse.
  • Use your legs and ride with your legs close to the horse, but not gripping.
  • Practice using pressure with the outside leg slightly when leaving the turns.
  • Use your calf to nudge a horse to take the correct lead.
  • Learn to feel what your feet and legs are doing. Varying degrees of pressure applied with your legs feels much different than forceful kicking.
  • Don’t kick and pull on the reins at the same time.
  • Distribute your weight evenly in the stirrups.
  • Keep the right hand on the right side of the horse’s neck and your left hand on the left side of the horse’s neck.
  • Know your leads.
  • Control your hands – don’t crank on your horse’s head but keep the horse’s head pointed in your line of site by guiding.
  • Know your center of balance and ride with a good seat.
  • Learn to get up and go with your horse.
  • Learn to post at a trot.


For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit www.charmaynejames.com


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