Cueing for the turn—start the drill by walking your horse forward and picking up your right rein so you can see your horse’s nostril on that side, while holding your left rein steady.

Encourage softness and collection with colt starter Rhett Baker.

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By Rhett Baker with Abigail Boatwright. Photos by Abigail Boatwright

Rhett Baker headshot sitting on a horse
Trainer Rhett Baker

Teaching your horse to accept your leg and rein cues is a crucial part of breaking any horse to ride—barrel racers included. That’s why I introduce this drill to horses I am training within their first two or three rides. I call this drill my “reset” button. I do it in every stage of training, all the time. It’s a great exercise to bring an old horse back from time off slowly and get them soft. I’ve used this drill with horses of every discipline. It’s applicable and very useful for performance horses to work on softness and collection.

How This Move is Helpful

This drill teaches your horse to understand what you’re asking for when you put your legs on it and apply your reins. It teaches collection at an introductory level—the walk. You’ll be able to move up to doing this at the trot and faster gaits. These skills will help your barrel horse not drop its shoulder or pop out of leads. They’ll be able to take the feel of your hands and the drive of your legs and not lose momentum as they go forward and around the barrel.

The Set Up

The equipment you use on your horse for this exercise depends on its age and experience. I teach it early in breaking a horse while using a loping hackamore. A lot of the time I use a snaffle bit and split reins with a loose chin strap. I’ve done this on a finished horse in a full bridle, using an outside rein rather than a direct rein.

Whatever stage you’re at, whatever equipment you’re using, that’s the equipment you should use for this drill.

Rhett Baker turning a horse around in a circle
Next, drive with both legs and ask your horse to step around the circle without drifting to the outside or dropping to the inside.

I would definitely do this move at the first of a ride a few times before moving on to other exercises. This can be a drill, a warmup and a cooling out. The form and collection and softness are what I’m looking for. Once the horse does that, I’ll release and then ask it to go the other way.

The Drill

For this drill you will be walking a circle with collection. It hinges on the idea of walking forward and around that circle without fading out or cutting in to the circle. Keep the horse’s back pretty straight, but also work on getting some arc in the turn where you can just step your horse forward and around off the inside hock and the inside hind leg, rather than losing forward impulsion and leaking out of the circle, or cutting into the circle, all the while trying to keep some softness in the face and through the body. You teach the horse to let you put your legs on it, and it’ll pick up and collect.

Once your horse can maintain this circle while driving its legs forward and around while softening in the face, you can ask it to walk or trot off in a straight line, then ask for the circle the other direction. 

To do that, you’ll start out on a circle at a walk—let’s say you’re going to the right. I have my right rein a little shorter to where I can see a bit of nose, and my outside rein will just have a little bit of pressure to keep the horse from leaking to the outside. I mainly want to cue for the turn with my inside rein, especially on a colt.

I’m going to drive with both legs and ask it to step around with its right front leg as it’s turning and drive with its left hind. I want it to walk forward without drifting into my left leg out of the circle or into my right leg cutting into the circle. I just want to push the horse forward and around in the circle.

I keep my hands pretty still. If the horse gets heavy, I’ll put my feet on it to ask for softness. I don’t want to pull harder. Just set my hands and use my feet to get the horse moving around.

I’ll keep going around the circle a couple times, and once I feel the horse get soft to my hands and legs, I will let it trot out of the circle and trot on for a bit, then ask it to bend the other way and do a few circles the opposite direction.

Your goal with a finished horse is if you were to walk in a straight line, to be able to reach down and pick up your inside rein and pull it to your hip, you want your horse to immediately soften, give with its chin and step forward and around a tight turn, staying in a frame, without dropping its shoulder or drifting outward.

Rhett Baker turning a horse around a bucket
Working on this drill around a bucket, barrel or cone can help you make sure the circle is round and evenly spaced.

Troubleshooting

Remember to keep your hands still and use your legs to encourage softness and collection while doing this drill.

Be patient with your horse on this maneuver. Don’t worry if it doesn’t go perfectly right away.

You can do this without any markers, but if you need a visual to know if you’re making a round circle, you can set out a cone or bucket on the ground. You can also do this drill around a barrel, and you can fine-tune your horse if it drops its shoulder or fades out of the turn.

This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Barrel Horse NewsSubscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Find more training resources and videos at www.TrainingBarrelHorses.com.

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