Practice makes perfect, but it’s important to practice the correct way if you want to grow your skills and improve your times.
A lot more goes into winning in barrel racing than the actual run around the barrels. Smart riders know that conscientious time spent in the saddle at home is crucial to smoking fast runs in competition. But if you’re unsure exactly what to practice at home to increase your chances of success in competition, Barrel Horse News is here to help. We’ve asked three barrel pros to share some tips for beginners—or even experienced riders looking to improve—on how to practice at home.
Why Practice At Home?
Barrel trainer Kristin Weaver Brown has a background in reined cow horse events, and she’s a big believer in the power of slow work—riding your horse deliberately and consistently at paces slower than a barrel run’s speed.
“You need to have the skills and knowledge of how to ride fast, because this is a speed event, but it’s really important for beginners to understand that horsemanship is key,” Kristin said. “You need to know the fundamentals of how to keep a horse tuned and in the game. A lot of that has to do with slow work.”
Slow work practice can help with relaxation of the horse and mind—Kristin compares it to yoga. Regardless of how finished your horse is, they can benefit from practicing their skills at a slower pace.
If you’re a beginning barrel racer, Kristin strongly advises working with a trainer to learn correct body position.
“The rider needs to learn the difference between a horse turning while leaning on their front end, versus driving forward with correct collection and body position,” Kristin said. “I strongly feel horses don’t necessarily learn bad habits, but if a rider is letting them do things wrong at home, then they’re going to do them when they run. They’re creatures of habit.”
This solid horsemanship knowledge includes knowing your horse’s leads, how to collect your horse, as well as how to ask the horse to be soft in response to your hands.
National Finals Rodeo qualifier Tammy Fischer says when riding at home, you should focus on slow and precise movement with your horse to make sure it’s as correct as possible.
“If you can’t do it slow, you’re never going to be able to do it fast,” Tammy said. “What you do at home needs to be slower and really correct so that you can think about what you’re doing and work on your muscle memory so that you and your horse can get it absolutely perfect.”
She says when you’re moving slow, you can think about what you’re asking of your horse. If you’re going fast, you’re just reacting and working from habit. Your goal is to get to know your horse.
“There is no substitute for time in the saddle, and communication is key,” Tammy said.
Trainer Janna Beam Brown says getting your basics down at home is the most important thing you can do to be ready for a barrel race.
“Make sure you have control of your horse—can you stop them? Can you steer your horse? Can you put your horse where you want it and do the pattern with all the pieces in the correct spots? When you cue your horse, is he listening to you?” Janna said.
Photos left to right: Janna recommends working on your horse’s circles, speed transitions and guiding with a figure-8 drill, switching directions in the center. Photos by Abigail Boatwright
Aim For Consistency
Horses thrive on routine, and for riders to get better, they need consistent practice, says Kristin. She aims for five days a week, making sure the horse gets two days off—not necessarily in a row—as well as time turned out to play.
While the length of your riding session depends on your horse’s specific needs for time in the saddle, Kristin says about half an hour of practice is a good rule of thumb.
“I think a 30-minute workout is good for a horse to enjoy its job, the workout and what it’s learning but not get burned out,” Kristin said. “Some of that could be a longer warm-up or cool-down.”
Janna says consistency is important, but that doesn’t mean working the barrels every time you ride. It could also mean riding in the pasture or simply spending time with your horse.
“That could be grooming them, lungeing them on a lunge line, putting them in the round pen,” Janna said. “Before you get on, think about what you need to work on that day, and work on that thing. If it goes well, be done. Don’t burn your horse out on the pattern.”
What To Work On
What you spend your time on at home depends on several factors, such as the amount of training your horse has, your own level of riding and the level of competition you’re preparing for.
“I do feel like any type of preparation for a race, even if the horse has been there, done that for 15 years, they still need that mental and physical preparation, just like any athlete,” Kristin said. “For a younger horse or a beginner rider, they’re going to do more repetition schoolwork so they don’t miss anything.”
This includes the horse knowing how to stop and move away from leg pressure and how to move into as well as away from hand cues. Kristin works her horses on circles and straight lines. Most of all, she works on giving the horse a release from cues when they respond correctly.
“I think it’s important for these horses to get confidence with their rider, where they know you are their supporter, and they’ll come to you because you’ll give a release of pressure,” Kristin said.
Give your horse structure while practicing, like a teacher in a classroom, Kristin says. Like a teacher directs students to sit in their seats, get their books out and prepare for school, your horse will come to understand your riding routine.
“We practice our footwork, we warm up, we stretch, we do our yoga, and then we’re going to do our schoolwork—learn the pattern,” Kristin said. “And when they’re good, we quit. If we have a problem, that’s OK. We work on it until the horse understands, and we’re patient for that process.”
Janna says working on your speed control, directional control and leads are all key elements to being able to do a competitive pattern.
“Until you can do things correctly at a lope or a three-quarter speed, I don’t think you need to go try to win the barrel race,” Janna said.
Drills & Dry Work
Kristin works her horses through barrels set in a square, set in a row and in a zig-zag pattern.
“I’ll just mix it up for them so it’s different, but they’re always turning as if they would in a cloverleaf pattern,” Kristin said.
Both Janna and Tammy like to work their horses on perfect circles, both with and without a barrel. Tammy is aiming for a circle so round it looks like a track for a hot walker.
“Regardless of size, every circle should be perfect, because you’re communicating to your horse that shape and feel—you’re looking forward and thinking about that next step—that’s where you want their feet to go,” Tammy said. “I don’t want to just sit up there, have him on a loose rein wandering around.”
When you practice and warm up, have a purpose to your direction and feel where you’re guiding your horse. When you work on the barrels for circling, picture it like a protractor around the barrel. Tammy does two perfect circles around each barrel and doesn’t cut off the backside.
“I always think one perfect circle could be an accident, but if you do two, then you know you and your horse are in tune and everybody is together,” Tammy said. “I go from loping my big circle and warming up, to 8-foot circles around the barrels, to shrinking it down even more around the barrel.”
You want your horse to frame up and stand up as you go around the barrel in response to your cues, but you shouldn’t have to muscle your horse around, says Tammy.
“You’re not carrying your horse around the barrel, you’re just helping them, guid- ing them a little,” Tammy said. “You have to set up that perfect track for them to follow, and then you just guide them in the right direction.”
Running a Fast Pattern Backwards
While these trainers avoid excessive full-speed runs at home, if you or your horse need practice on the pattern, Tammy recommends adding speed in reverse.
“I’ll do the whole pattern, then I’ll turn the third barrel and urge them to the gate so they really start learning how to run home from the third barrel,” Tammy said. “If they start doing that really well, then I’ll turn the first and then the second at a lope, and then run hard from the second to the third, and really send them out the gate. The last place I’ll ever go fast to is the first barrel. You have to give them guidance and ground rules by going slower and building on it.”
Some days, Tammy will just exercise her horses—long trotting a couple miles or up and down a hill if they’re in shape— working on fitness and endurance.
“Be sure your horse is in shape enough to make that barrel run,” Tammy said. “Don’t just do the barrels. Don’t just walk. Don’t just trot. Don’t just lope. You have to do it all. They’re athletes—treat them that way.”
Janna encourages working on your horse’s brakes and getting comfortable in the saddle when your horse stops so you don’t get thrown forward is helpful. Make sure you can stop, back up and turn. It’s also important to work on your horse’s transitions between gaits.
“Lope some circles, and when you get to the center of the pen, break to a trot, then lope the opposite direction. Finish your circle and break to a trot and cut back the other way,” Janna said. “Many beginners are on finished horses who know the barrel pattern like the back of their hand, and you’ll burn your horse out doing it too much. To learn how to have control and steer your horse, this drill will help with directional and speed control.”
Things To Avoid
Doing Too Many Runs at Home
All three trainers stress this point. Kristin says a little pattern practice at home is OK, but if your horse is green, it’s not the time to add speed.
“Hopefully as a beginner, you’re on more of a seasoned horse—you don’t want a green horse and a green rider,” Kristin said. “On an experienced horse, running it on the pattern every day at home is going to create problems. The horse isn’t going to want to do slow work because they’re expecting ‘go, go, go.’”
Your horse’s temperament determines how much speed work they can handle. A run now and then is fine, but Kristin says don’t try to be perfect and fast at home before you go anywhere.
Tammy recommends loping your horse through the barrel pattern at home, but be cautious of too many runs at competition speed.
“I think of barrel horses like a pack of cigarettes—they come with so many runs in them, and every time you run that horse, you’re throwing a cigarette away,” Tammy said. “Running at home is not real. You’re not nervous. There’s no pressure. There’s absolutely nothing to win at home. I don’t even run in exhibitions. If anything, I do the reverse fast pattern.”
Janna advises doing the pattern at home, but not at top speed over and over.
“Always keep in mind your horse—don’t run their legs off,” Janna said. “For someone to get better timing and your seat in the saddle, your hands, all the little details, I do think practicing the pattern is a must. But don’t run it every time. You’ll do more damage going fast and never working slow than you would vice versa.”
You don’t have to go fast every time you run the barrels. But pay attention to fellow competitors at a race—you can take pointers from watching good runs or good riders in exhibitions.
“I wish more people had someone to coach them, but you can learn a lot by watching other people when they exhibition or work their horses at a barrel race,” Janna said.
Running in the Alley
Janna says too many beginners run in and out of the arena. Rather, walking in and out, focusing on keeping your horse quiet, is important.
“It’s a huge deal for people who are just starting to have a horse that is good in the alley when you go to a competition, because that sets up everything else,” Janna said.
Not Asking for Help
If you feel something is wrong with your riding or your horse’s performance, ask for assistance, says Kristin.
“Don’t keep trying to figure it out by yourself—it’s good to ask for help, because you might be able to stop the problem you’re creating if you work with someone,” Kristin said.
Janna says help from an expert can give you direction on how to make the most of your practice time—even if that means videotaping yourself with your phone to see how you look or send to someone for their opinion.
“A lot of times when I work colts it doesn’t look as bad as it feels, so it helps to have another set of eyes,” Janna said.
Each horse is an individual and will have different strengths. Kristin suggests working with your horse’s particular way of moving rather than forcing them to fit the style you prefer.
“I might have a horse with a really bendy style or a stiff style,” Kristin said. “But however that horse is built and designed, mentally and physically, go with what they’re telling you. Don’t be closed-minded—they will create their own style, and you work with that.”
At the end of the day, your goal for practice is to get familiar with what makes your horse tick, says Kristin.
“Horses are like playing an instrument—you’ve got to learn how to read rhythms and beats, timing and balance. You want to be one with that horse,” Kristin said.
If you’re having trouble, don’t be afraid to ask a trainer or experienced rider to help, Tammy says.
“We’re almost all willing to help, and many of us give private lessons at home,” Tammy said. “Go ride with two or three different barrel racers, take their tips and put it together into something that will be helpful to you.”
Janna says investing in a horsemanship clinic can improve your barrel racing.
“Horsemanship is overlooked—for someone wanting to start running barrels, go to a horsemanship clinic and get all the help you can, because it makes a huge difference and will give you an idea of what to work on back home,” Janna said.
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue of Barrel Horse News.