By Danika Kent
Raised on sprawling acreage outside of Vale, South Dakota, it’s not surprising that National Finals Rodeo qualifier Nikki Steffes would rather ride out on the scenic ranch than in the confines of an arena.
“I don’t like to work a horse on the barrels that much,” Steffes said. “I like to do short bits of training and then ride out in the pasture a lot. I’ll go out and help my dad move pairs or take a colt to a branding, but I don’t spend a lot of time in the arena.”
She’s still got to take care of business, however, so she’s adapted her barrel horse training and conditioning program to suit her preference for the wide-open spaces. Whether she’s training a futurity colt or tuning on a pro rodeo contender, she finds surefire, outside-the-box ways to keep them sharp.
“There are a lot of things you can do away from the barrels that apply to barrel racing, and it makes your horse love it and crave it more than doing the same thing day after day,” Steffes said.
One of her favorite drills is brilliantly simple and applicable to horses in all stages of training. It can be done anywhere, anytime, making it a perfect exercise to practice in and out of the arena.
Define the Difference
This drill focuses on stride extension and collection, which translates to a fast and efficient way to cover ground in a barrel pattern. With the barrels out of the picture, Steffes uses a series of straight lines and circles to build these basics.
“I long trot in a straight line and make sure my horse is really reaching. I work on getting him to really stride out,” Steffes said, encouraging her horse to take advantage of the open acres. “When I feel like he’s fully extended and really long trotting, I gather him up and shorten his stride. I get him to break at the poll, lift his rib cage and shift his weight to his hind end, and then I bring him into a small circle.”
That circle tests a horse’s responsiveness in a simulated barrel turn and is an opportunity to make corrections without the distraction of a 55-gallon drum. Steffes strives for a perfectly round 10-foot circle, but says that diameter is a variable that can be adapted to the specific needs of each horse.
“If I have a horse that wants to come into a turn too soon, I might start off at 10 feet and really use my inside leg in a second circle to make it a little bigger. I want him to stay collected in that same perfect circle, but I need him to be thinking about moving off of my leg. You can also correct a horse that wants to drop into a turn by picking up the shoulder and using your inside leg to pick up the ribcage,” Steffes said. “By the same token, if I have a horse that is fading away from the turn or not staying in four-wheel drive, I will use my outside leg or rein to bring him into the turn. I might go around that circle at 10 feet and then make that horse get in there tighter, maybe at 6 feet, so he’s really thinking about moving his feet quicker in that turn. On a younger colt, like a 3-year-old, I start off with a bigger circle and then gradually make it smaller, just to make it easier.”
Find the Feel
The symmetry of the circle is extremely important to Steffes. She says her goal is to keep the horse right where she wants it, and while one full circle is the minimum, she’ll stay with it long as it takes.
“He needs to be listening to me, so I keep him in the circle until I get that feel I want,” Steffes said. “He might do it all in that first circle or I might stay in that circle three to five times. As soon as I get that feel, I let him out of the circle immediately. His reward is to get out of the turn, extend and go on.”
She also notes this drill can be done at all gaits, but she has found she can make the most of it at a trot, where the difference between extension and collection is most obvious.
“If I’m doing it at a trot, I keep it at a trot,” Steffes said. “I don’t ever go from a lope to a trot; I want to stay in the same gait. It’s not about speed changes; it’s about shortening the stride to stay collected in the turn. That’s really important. To me, part of what makes a great barrel horse is the ability to go full out and then just like that, shorten his stride and be really quick in the turns. This drill really teaches a horse that when I sit, I don’t necessarily want him to stop, but collect for the turn.”
Steffes integrates this exercise into her warm-up routine at jackpots, futurities and rodeos alike, and uses it as an opportunity to work on her own horsemanship.
“This drill allows you to warm a horse up to your hands and your body and it gets them thinking about rating for that turn. It makes me think about sitting up and riding my horse, but sitting down and keeping my hands above the shoulder when it’s time to turn. It’s so simple, but it’s very effective,” Steffes said. “There’s so much you can get accomplished with this drill. My favorite thing about it is I feel that it will really make a great horse, and it’s something you can do every day but it’s not going to sour a horse on the barrels. You need all those tools to have a successful barrel run, and you can work on them away from the barrels to keep your horse fresh.”
Meet Nikki Steffes
South Dakota cowgirl Nikki Steffes put dental school on hold to pursue her barrel racing dreams. The five-time Central Rocky Mountain Region champion barrel racer was twice crowned the All-Around Cowgirl at the College National Finals Rodeo. Her list of major professional wins includes the Pendleton Round-Up and Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. In 2012, she made her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo appearance at the age of 25. Placing in two rounds, she finished fifth in the average and her mount Dash Ta Vanilla was awarded the Scoti Flit Bar Rising Star Award.