By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley Opening and closing your hands on the reins, particularly the pinky and ring finger, is often all it takes to convey the right signal.Opening and closing your hands on the reins, particularly the pinky and ring finger, is often all it takes to convey the right signal.

            A lot of the time you hear comments about particular barrel racers like, “Well, she’s got good hands.” I think it’s important to ask yourself, “What exactly does that mean? How do I get good hands?”

            I’ve talked in the past about learning how to keep the perfect—what I call “magical”—amount of pressure on the reins. What that requires is not holding onto a horse all the time, and not throwing the reins away to the point that the horse has no guidance. If the rider hangs onto a horse too much without providing any release of pressure a horse will actually get higher headed and start to fight the bit and pull. On the other hand, when people don’t want to hold their horse back or be heavy-handed they have a tendency to hardly pick the reins up at all. That’s a problem too because you want to be able to pick up on the reins and keep the horse in your hands so you can guide them around the barrels and help them when they need it.

            Make a little magic

            So, when I talk about that magical amount of pressure on the reins that it takes for a person to have good hands, people often ask me “How do I know what that is and how do I do it?” It takes years of riding. It takes a lot of experience to know you’re using your hands and your body position effectively to guide a horse right where you want to put them. I want to keep my horses in my hands in order to direct them, but I don’t want to hold or pull in the turns because that can create problems in the turns.

Usually movements with your hands should be done within a minimal space, not over-exaggerated or getting in the horse’s way. You want to keep your elbow bent with your wrist in front of the elbow and your hands still and steady. The slightest movements and smallest adjustments are what help horses. It’s the slightest change in pressure; just basically opening and closing your hands on the reins. That’s how responsive I want my horses to be to pressure and release. I see a lot of people with their wrists hanging down and just using their fingers on the reins by kind of flicking their wrists. That isn’t what you want. When your wrists are locked, that actually makes it to where opening and closing your hands applies pressure and offers release, signaling the horse when they need it.

Horses really respond to slight amounts of pressure and release. With good hands you have the ability to apply subtle pressure by opening and closing your hands, making slight adjustments and taking small amounts of slack out of the reins.

Jerking motions with the hands tends to cause a slingshot effect for the horse. When people throw the reins away, in other words have a ton of slack in the reins and take all that slack out in one jerking motion, it’s real abrupt in a horse’s mouth—and very unpleasant. I personally would not be satisfied with saying, “My hands are just bad, I’ll have to work around that.” For me, I would have to say, “My hands have got to be good.” I would do whatever I needed to do to get better.

            When you develop good hands, a lot of different bits will work. Just remember that without good hands there are negative implications for the horse, especially during a fast run. Some horses like certain bits better than others for a variety of different reasons from the stage they are at in their training to the shape of their mouth. In general, bits that don’t pinch and that are well made and adjusted properly will work with good hands. It’s important to be educated about what you put in a horse’s mouth and how it’s designed to work and how it’s meant to be adjusted.

Just do it

I have people who ask me if you have to be athletic to be a barrel racer. My answer is, absolutely! It’s like any good athlete, whether you’re swinging a golf club or shooting baskets, it’s all about perfect timing, when to release, when to make small, subtle adjustments in order to be quicker, stronger and more precise.

Improving in any athletic arena all comes down to practice. You cannot duplicate hours and hours of riding, having the discipline and dedication to learn more, practice harder and get better. I’m not necessarily talking about spending hours and hours running barrels but definitely riding in order to improve your horsemanship and technique. So much about making fast, smooth barrel racing runs comes down to muscle memory, and that takes training and practice. When the time comes to compete you’ve got to let it roll, so the muscle memory needs to be automatic and correct. I’d say that as a competitor I never really felt completely satisfied; there were always areas in which to improve. Be gracious and thankful, particularly when people compliment you on making a nice run, but silently ask yourself what you can do the next time to improve.

Every sport takes a certain conscious way of moving, of developing the right timing, feel and balance. I guarantee that you could take an elite athlete from another sport that hadn’t run barrels and you could put them on a barrel horse and train them because an elite athlete possesses an excellent work ethic. So much discipline is required if you are serious about doing any sport well. It takes working hard at it over time and competing. With discipline and training you eventually get to the point where things become automatic and you think to yourself, “This is not that hard, I can do this.”

For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit www.charmaynejames11.com. Charmayne loves to hear your feedback so please feel free to e-mail comments or questions to [email protected].

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