Article and Photos by Danika Kent

“Horses, being creatures of habit, are going to learn every repetitive thing you do with them, be it right or wrong.”

If the first six months of training have gone according to plan, all the right moves have become habitual for a 2-year-old under Ryan Lovendahl’s tutelage. The Busby Quarter Horses lead barrel horse trainer, who fundamentally believes in allowing each horse to progress at its own pace, has been building a rock-solid foundation in each aspiring prospect. As the horse nears its 3-year-old year, after months and miles under sweaty saddle pads in the round pen and the pasture, the time has come to progress from dry work to drill work.

“When all the maneuvers he will need to do the drills can be performed in dry work—dry work meaning no barrels—if he can do everything you ask, whenever and wherever, there is no reason for him to do any different just because you’ve put a barrel in his way,” Lovendahl said.

The first set of barrels the colt sees is not your conventional cloverleaf pattern, however. Neither are the second or third, in fact, because before a young horse can make a pass through the pattern that pays, it must learn when and where to apply its new skill set.

Building Skills with Drills

Lovendahl has a series of go-to drills in his repertoire, each providing a focused opportunity to practice familiar dry work maneuvers around the barrels in practical ways.

Lovendahl uses The Big Three (Diagram 1) and The Small Three (Diagram 2) to introduce barrel work to a young horse.

He starts with an in-line exercise he calls “The Big Three” (see January 2014 Drill of the Month and Diagram 1), which provides the horse the opportunity to get comfortable covering ground between barrels and focus on his approach.

“The three barrels in a straight line teaches a horse to really free up and get up into their turns in a more comfortable and balanced way,” Lovendahl said. “I think that’s one of the most important things in a barrel horse; as long as your hand’s up, he keeps moving forward. As soon as it comes back toward your hip, he starts dropping down into the correct position to make the turn. This drill makes a horse follow through and keeps him thinking and listening to your hands and where you want to go.”

Once a horse's slow work is correct on a pattern, Lovendahl allows him to cruise through, and then follows it up with slow work for good measure.
A tighter pattern keeps both the horse’s mind and the rider’s hands engaged.

Once the horse has become comfortable transitioning from barrel to barrel, Lovendahl will tighten the pattern down into “The Small Three,” with the same arrangement of barrels set approximately 20 feet apart. Closing the distance between barrels adds a little more turn to the horse, he explains. It will also bring extra intensity to the routine by speeding up the horse’s thought process and the rider’s hands.

“If they start getting a little too ‘turny,’ I go back to The Big Three and get them going up into the barrels and relaxing,” Lovendahl said. “I go back and forth to keep that balance.”

As a precursor to the typical cloverleaf, Lovendahl sets up a condensed pattern that tests the pair’s skills and keeps the colt’s attention. 

“When I go to the pattern for the first time, I know I’m just going to be walking and trotting, so I’ll set up a little, tiny pattern,” Lovendahl said. “In using a lot less energy, I can get through about 10 small patterns in the time it would take to go through a huge pattern. Also, I think horses are like kids in that they get bored really fast if you’re doing the same thing over and over. Bringing those barrels in tighter keeps their brain engaged.”

Lovendahl continues his slow work at home and away to keep a colt comfortable and correct.
As long as Lovendahl’s hand is up, his horse continues to move on a straight, forward path off of pressure from the inside rein.

In this pattern, the distance between each barrel is approximately 40 feet. This distance is enough to challenge the rider to step up their game, as well.

“It’s a good little tool to throw in there for the rider, too, especially an amateur or greener rider, as it really makes them engage their hands,” said Lovendahl, who is also a seasoned clinician. “On a bigger pattern, you’ll see a lot of riders turn the first barrel and as they’re going 90 or 100 feet across to the second barrel, they turn loose of the horse’s mouth and let him get really strung out. Then, when they get to the second barrel, the horse has lost all collection and dumps onto its front end and gets frustrated when the rider grabs his face. But with this tiny pattern, the rider has to get set up for the second barrel as soon as they leave the first. As green as they might be, they instantly start using their hands and putting that horse right back into position.”

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