By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley
Recently, we received some great questions from Barrel Horse News readers via the BHN Facebook page. After reviewing all the questions submitted, we thought answering Trinity Zollinger’s question on drills would be a great place to start since spilled into a few other areas like how to ride a horse that gets short and even how to condition your barrel horse.
Trinity’s question: “What are some drills you can do around the barrels without actually doing the pattern? Or, when you do start to step up the speed from walk/trot to a slow lope, when can you tell it’s time? This I ask because I’m riding a 3-year-old.”
Thanks for the great question Trinity! The thing about learning different drills is not only will a break in repetition of the barrel pattern help your horse, but working on these drills will help you develop more awareness of where to look, what your feet and hands are doing, and how to sit and soften your body, relax and go with your horse.
I can think of two great drills that I’ve had a lot of success with. For the first drill, set three barrels in a row down the edge of the arena, leaving enough space off the fences to trot and lope circles of varying sizes (see diagram). The space between barrels needs to be enough that you can lope around each barrel comfortably. You can begin by first warming up and then ease into the drill, trotting along the edge of the arena and then circling one barrel to the next at a relaxed gait. You can do this drill at a lope, loping along the edge of the arena and then circling all the barrels, one by one, then stopping reversing and loping or trotting the other direction. You work all the barrels in one direction several times before reversing to turn all the barrels the other direction. The other drill I like is working all lefts or all rights on the barrel pattern, so the concept is very similar with each.
When doing these drills, keep equal distance all the way around each barrel. I teach people to focus on four points around each barrel that will keep their horses from getting too far ahead or cutting in or out of the turn. One way to do that so you don’t lean in or cut off any of the points around the turn is to visualize and aim for each point. Learn to apply equal pressure on the reins. You can’t do slow work with one hand on the reins and all the pressure on the inside rein because this gets a horse out of balance. I tell people learning to lope these perfect, collected circles around a barrel to pretend there’s an arrow coming out of your horse’s chest, one coming out of his forehead and one coming out of your forehead and aim all those arrows to each point, one after the next, keeping your horse collected and relaxed.
The age question
Trinity is riding a young horse, which brings up the point of how broke your horse has to be to learn the drills. Working a 3-year-old reiner that knows how to lope small circles and softens at the poll is going to be a lot different than riding one that’s never been taught to lope, or even trot, small circles. You might start the drill on a really broke horse by loping circles 5′ away from each barrel, while a green horse would need more like 8′ off each barrel. It really depends less on the age of the horse and more upon how broke that horse is to determine what you can ask of him because the whole point is not to create anxiety.
What are you doing?
So, with either drill be very aware of what your body is doing. Are you looking down at the barrels? Are you crossing one hand over to the opposite side of the horse’s neck causing him to dump his shoulder toward the barrel? Slow work gives you the perfect opportunity to train yourself as an athlete and fine-tune your riding. You must be able to precisely aim the horse on that road you’re taking around each barrel and that will take work on the part of both horse and rider.
At this point we can talk about another question posed by Heather Dawson via the Facebook page that also pertains to what we’re talking about in properly executing these drills. Heather asked how to ride horses that get “short” and techniques to help ride horses that just want to work, or turn, a little too soon. For a horse that’s not very free, these drills provide an opportunity to really watch what you’re doing with your hands and retrain yourself and the horse. Analyze your riding to make certain you aren’t crossing your inside hand over the horse’s neck because this makes a horse move in. Keep two hands on the reins when schooling and train yourself to ride that horse up into the bridle to get to the next point in the turn with collection in the horse’s body. Learn to feel where the horse’s hind end is, too, because too much inside rein makes the hip track too much to the inside – right?? Or is it outside?. The objective of these drills is to teach the horse and rider to stay balanced.
We aren’t riding reiners and our horses have to reach to run, but a good point of reference for how soft a horse should be at the poll is if you can drive them into the bit with your legs, their head should be pointed straight and slightly down toward the ground—not on the ground. When you’ve got that at a jog or trot, then work on it at a lope and get to the point where the horse feels secure. Gradually tighten those circles down. People ask me if this takes two days or six months, but it really just depends on the horse. You need a happy medium of not slow working these drills to where it bores the horse and not adding too much speed at the wrong time to where it scares them. Read that horse and know when he’s solid and secure enough for more of a challenge in his training. Your body language is crucial through all of these stages since horses take their cues from reading your body and they need you to be a good leader.
Trinity asked how and when to speed things up. It really depends on the horse. Progression to faster speeds with a horse that’s green to the barrels or green to loping small, collected circles might start at a trot, and once the horse can consistently and confidently make that circle on his own with good collection, ask for a little more. Once the horse is real comfortable, his nose is dropped, he’s doing that 4-5′ circle without being nervous, you can ask for a little speed going to a barrel. You have to have the horse soft and responsive enough to your body language to sit and ask with your hands for him to collect and shorten his stride, say about 20′ out from the barrel. You want to teach the horse to shorten his stride not dump into a turn and this requires collection through his entire body. If you teach softness, collection and position, you won’t have to hold a horse off the barrels. If a horse gets really short or starts diving in at the barrels, it doesn’t understand collection. You get collection by applying equal pressure with two hands on the reins and driving them with your calves and feet into the bridle and releasing them when they soften. With no release they won’t learn to soften to the bridle. Horses that lose collection lose all the power from the hindquarters and start dumping on their frontend, which is vicious cycle. Teach horses collection from the beginning when they’re young and don’t forget to reinforce it in your older, seasoned horses either.
Another thing to remember to Heather’s point about a horse getting short is that I do know a horse that’s sore will often quit running. Whether it’s hocks, feet, teeth or something else, soreness discourages run. Horses all tolerate pain differently, too. Some want to run away from it and run off, while others stall out and don’t want to run at all. Get your horse’s teeth checked every six months by a qualified equine dentist to be certain their mouth is in good shape. Randy Riedinger is who I use and he has great contacts across the country that knows how to get a horse’s mouth done properly.
Find purpose in your riding
Barring any soundness issues, the main point of working on drills and not constantly doing the pattern is that it will help you develop skill as a rider. Use the drills to improve your body language—practice being soft through your body, sitting and rolling your pelvis under and stay relaxed through your shoulders. All of this allows you to move with that horse. Train yourself to have balanced, soft hands and bend your elbows keeping them not too low and not too high, waist high is about right. When your shoulders get stiff and your body and legs tighten on a horse, it’s easy to get them to run off or for you to lose your balance in a run. Working on all these little things helps eliminate a lot of problems and potential anxiety in both horse and rider. If you’re anxious or nervous about it, they will read that so you have to have skill and confidence in your riding and these drills will help you develop that.