How well acquainted are you with good riding fundamentals?

Fundamental riding skills are sometimes taken for granted, so I thought a checklist of what I consider to be several important good riding basics would be simple and easy to read. These points are important to novice riders, or even experienced riders in need of a refresher. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, having good horsemanship is important in barrel racing.

Riding Fundamentals No. 1 – Hands

The No. 1 most important thing for me is, whether approaching the barrels or riding a straight line out in the pasture, that you’re aware of keeping your right hand on the right side of the horse’s neck and your left hand on the left side. You have to know this and do it in order to keep the horse’s head and nose squared up with its body. When going fast approaching a barrel if riders don’t have this basic skill and they get too close to a barrel, they tend to lift up only on the inside rein. This brings the horse in toward the barrel harder. Other riders pull only with the outside rein trying to pull the horse away from the barrel, which holds the horse’s head and nose outside their frame. Either way the horse is off balance.

A lot of riders tend to think the only way to cure anticipation is to hold a horse off with the inside rein. What you want to do instead is keep your hands a bit lower and wider, applying pressure on both sides of the horse’s mouth with both reins while driving with your feet. Walk, then trot, then lope, making sure to keep equal distance around the barrel. You want your entry point about 3 to 4 feet to the side of the barrel. At the area past the barrel, or what I call axis point 3, you should also be 3 to 4 feet away from the barrel. For horses or riders that anticipate the turn, make sure your hands are keeping your horse framed up and aimed correctly, not side passing to try and get into position for the turn. Side passing and using only the inside rein and inside leg just cues horses to turn early. Guide the horse ahead and around the barrel. It’s really that simple. When you work on this going at slower speeds you create good habits that will help keep things smooth when you go fast.

No. 2 – Look

A good rider is able to look out ahead of the horse and use their hands to precisely aim the horse’s head so the horse can take the correct road around the barrel. When a rider’s eyes are locked onto the barrel, it puts their depth perception 3 to 4 feet short of where the horse’s body needs to be in the turn. That’s where anticipation in the horse comes from because it cuts off the area around the turn where the horse’s body needs to go.

There’s a lot of talk about having a pocket for the turn, and yes, you have to have that, but you also have to have room on the backside of the barrel to get the horse’s hip past. It really freaks horses out to get too tight in the turns. They hate it so much that when habitually taken too tight into the barrels some horses will start to dread it to the point of developing ulcers, gate issues and other bad habits. You have to be able to see and ride that perfect road around each barrel. Training for that perfect circle, keeping equal distance of 3 to 4 feet all the way around is so important.

For parents trying to help their youth rider, you can help them visually by using something like flour to make a 3 to 4 foot circle around the barrel and then have them ride around it staying outside of the track during slow work. Another thing you can do during slow work is keep two hands on your reins and break the turn into quarters. That helps a lot of people learn to keep equal distance through the turns while looking at the track they need to take around the barrel.

No. 3 – Leads

Most people are much better about knowing their leads now than when I started teaching. Knowing which lead your horse is in allows you to prepare for a smooth turn. You can also feel whether the horse is moving to the outside or actually cross firing. When a horse cross fires it’s more likely you’ll miss axis point No. 2 because the horse doesn’t have its hip underneath itself for the turn. Cross firing and turning too close are both things that can cause a horse to elevate its head leaving the turn. When the head is up, the back hollows out and the horse looses the power from its hindquarters that it needs in order to make a smooth, fast turn.

No. 4 – Time

What’s really important when making changes in an effort to break bad habits is to keep in mind that there’s a certain amount of time needed for the horse and rider to adjust. Work on better basics with a mindset of being patient. Don’t get frustrated. When something goes wrong in a run, a lot of people come out of the arena mad and blaming their horse. We have all done it. A lot of times it’s because you didn’t know a better way, but I encourage you to take some personal responsibility to improve your horsemanship and have some empathy for your horse in the process.

Sometimes you’ve got to slow down a level and put things back together. Taking time to build the proper foundation is always worth the effort because it’s hard to go back and retrain a horse when speed and adrenaline are already involved. I’ve seen some horses do really well as futurity horses but then end up having a few holes and people would go back and try and add a better foundation, which is great, but some of those horses didn’t clock as well after for whatever reason. That’s another example of why it’s so important to instill the best basics from the start.

We’ve covered just a few important riding fundamentals. You can never learn it all because developing better horsemanship is an endless pursuit, but I can assure you that these few tips will make a difference for you when you learn to put them into practice.

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of BHN.