Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Teach your horse to maintain a frame without relying on your hands with this exercise from Danyelle Campbell.

On a barrel run, I want to guide my horse through the turn with my body. I don’t want to have to pull. I don’t want to make the horse turn. I want my horses to learn to be soft and correct with me just barely guiding their nose around. This exercise is how I accomplish it.

Using an O-ring snaffle and split reins helps Danyelle Campbell set her hands and work on maintaining her horse's frame.
Campbell prefers an O-ring snaffle and split reins for this exercise. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

One of the most basic things you can teach a horse—and shockingly one that many horses don’t know how to do—is getting the horse to lift its shoulder, break at the ribs and track forward in a circle. When the horse flattens out and drifts in or out from the barrel, some riders tend to correct the horse by picking up with their hand. Every time you move your hand to guide your horse on the barrel pattern, you are changing the movement of your horse. It costs time—a tick here, a tick there. That’s why I want my horse to learn how to move its body without me moving my hand all over the place.

I want to talk about the importance of your hand placement and using your body and legs to guide your horse forward in a circle, without relying on your hand so much. This will help teach your horse to maintain a frame throughout the circle, and ultimately, on the pattern.

Every Day, Every Time

This exercise is something I do with all of my colts and horses straight off the track. I even do it warming up rodeo horses. It is part of my warmup routine, to walk and trot circles. This carries into everything I do throughout the training process. I usually use split reins and an O-ring snaffle for this exercise, and I set my hands at the length the reins need to be where the horse can be comfortable without you moving your hand.

Maintain your horse's frame by starting with forward motion in this drill.
While doing this drill, you’ll drive your horse forward and guide it using your legs rather than your hands. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Build a Frame

Before I ever show my horses a barrel, I teach them to move on a circle this way. When horses come to me from the colt breaker, it’s the first thing I teach them. Horses off the track learn this during my first ride on them. I want them to learn to develop a proper frame and how to maintain that frame. As the rider, I don’t move my hand while I’m guiding them. People don’t believe me, but I promise you, my inside hand is rock steady.

You want the horse’s shoulders to come up when the horse turns a barrel. You want the weight off its inside front leg. You don’t ever want to throw a horse’s shoulders to the outside of the circle. You want the horse to break in the front part of its ribcage, the shoulders come up while also moving forward.

Even though I want my horse’s body shaped like the letter “C” in this circle, I always want the outside front leg coming around and crossing over, and I want all four feet moving at the same pace.

You don’t want the horse to take short steps in front or swing its hip, or the opposite.

Once your horse has mastered the exercise at a walk ask them to maintain their frame at a trot.
Once your horse can walk the circle properly, Campbell recommends stepping up into a trot for the same maneuver. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Hand Position is Key

I am a “pull back toward your hips” sort of barrel racer. When I’m teaching this move in clinics, I tell riders to put your inside rein-hand above your hip, and put your thumb in the top of your pants so you can’t move it.

You’re teaching your horse what to do when they feel your hand move to that position. When you start to do this on a green horse, it doesn’t know how, and it’s going to fade into a turn and float out of the turn. When that happens as a rider, you instinctively want to pick up your hand and cross it over the horse’s neck to move the horse back out if it drops in. Or you want to use your outside rein and pull your hand out if it starts to drift the shoulders out.

Your hand is moving all over the place, and I really don’t believe the exercise works unless your hand does not move. I like horses to be patient through their turns to clock fast. I like a fast turn, but the horse needs to understand the order in which it has to do things. That requires patience in the horse.

Walking these circles for me really only works if my hand doesn’t move from the placement I want. If I lift my hand higher, or closer to the neck, or toward my belly button, rather than locked in at my hip, that will automatically push the horse’s shoulders out in the circle.

Step by Step

Don’t mistake this move for a spin. You’re going to put your horse on an 8-10 foot circle at a walk. Make sure your reins are the right length. This depends on your horse. You want its nose coming around and feet to follow, so your reins need to be short enough that it can’t straighten its body out in the circle, but not so short that the horse is overbent, throwing its shoulders to the outside. Reins that are too short also mean you’ll never get slack in the rein, which is the reward, when your horse gets soft.

Set your inside rein hand on your hip, drive your horse forward with your feet throughout the circle, and use your legs to guide the horse without moving your hand. Picture your horse on a circular train track. You don’t want the horse to float in or out. You just want a perfect circle.

Make sure to look toward where you want the horse to go. Don’t look down or to the inside. One of the most important things here is to make sure your hand is in the right spot, and keep it there. Trust the process. It may take your horse a week to figure out how to walk a circle the correct way.

I don’t believe this is an exercise where you reward with a release for just a few correct steps. Your horse might need to do 10 circles in a row to get it right. I am all about reward with a release, but the horse gets its release because I don’t move my hand. When its body truly softens in that circle, there is slack in the reins, and the horse is maintaining perfect form on its own, that’s what I want.

I don’t rush this exercise. It’s not a speed event at this point. I’m not pulling the horse around or making the horse hurry. I want it reaching with its legs, but I want the horse to really focus on where its feet are going. I want it taking long steps, but not frantic or rushed ones. A relaxed body is a soft body, and that’s how I want my horse on this exercise.

You don’t want the horse to be lazy here, just relaxed and fluid with its legs moving freely.

Once the horse gets good at walking, then you’ll trot the circle doing the same thing. I don’t do it as much at the lope, because while the small circle at a walk and trot encourages the horse to reach in its stride, loping a small circle actually shortens the stride. Horses are more likely to brace their body and do other things wrong at the lope. I mainly keep it to the walk and the trot.

Maintain your horse's frame on the barrel pattern next.
After her horses have a good understanding of holding a frame on a circle, Campbell will introduce the same drill on the barrel pattern. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

On the Barrels

When my horses understand what to do with their body in a turn and how to listen to my hands, and I can control them without moving my hands all over the place, then I will incorporate this to the actual barrel pattern. Now they understand what to do with their body, their front end, how to listen to me and how to be soft in a turn.

I then do the exact same exercise on the barrel pattern. Circling each barrel until my horses are in the proper frame, then moving on to the next. I do this throughout their career. I warm up my rodeo horses doing this, and it’s a good relaxer because it’s boring for them. They’re walking and trotting circles. If you have a hot horse and go to an event and you’re warming up and your horse is nervous, start walking these circles. It makes horses want to chill out because you’re doing something they understand.

Danyelle Campbell shows incorrect hand positioning.
Campbell demonstrates incorrect hand position. Train yourself not to use your hands to alter your horse’s body position. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, this exercise does not work if your hand is not in the right position and if it does not stay in that position. You have to train yourself not to alter your hands to fix your horse’s body. That’s why it’s so important for you to work on this exercise away from the barrel at first. If you put a barrel in the middle of this circle and try to teach this circle to the horse there, when the horse drops in, you’re going to do what it takes to get your horse away from the barrel, and that usually means move your hand.

To do this move takes discipline for the rider. It’s very hard for riders to keep their hand still on the side of their hip. You may think you are, but I am telling you—fix your hand on the top of your pants and do not move it for this exercise. You will be amazed at the difference.

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.