Incorporate this drill into your practice sessions to free up your horse’s shoulders around the barrel.

By Colleen Stoner with Abigail Boatwright

If you have a horse that is fundamentally correct but is super ratey—shutting down and turning too soon—this exercise is an excellent remedy. You may think your horse is dropping its shoulder around the barrel, but in reality, it’s just turning too soon. This drill frees up the pocket coming into each barrel.

I’ve got one horse I’ve been running all year. He’s really seasoned with great muscle memory, but he’s starting to shut down and turn too soon. I’m trying to re-teach him to run freely coming into the pocket before he makes his move to turn the barrel.

This exercise will help prevent dragging down barrels coming into the turn. If you’re struggling with a horse with a lot of rate and find yourself over-compensating by holding it off the barrel, you’re inevitably costing time in your run. This drill works on timing, feel and freeing up the pocket. It also helps the horse work on listening to your hands and not taking matters into its own control once it gets close to the barrel. Essentially, if I approach a barrel and my hands never tell the horse to turn, it should run straight to the wall. This exercise helps you get your timing right and loosen up the horse’s shoulders.

Colleen Stoner prefers a dog-bone junior shank Perfect Bit for this drill.
Colleen outfits her horses in split reins and a smooth-mouth dog-bone junior shank Perfect Bit for this drill.

The drill is not designed to fix dropping shoulders. Rather, it is to free up a horse that is shutting down and turning too soon.

I do this drill once my horse is nice and warmed up. In a given session, I’ll probably spend about 10 to 15 minutes on this drill, depending on how the horse is receiving it. If it’s frustrated or really getting upset, I’ll stop as soon as I get a positive response. If the horse is easing through the drill or doesn’t start to shut down until a little more speed is increased, then I’ll ask for a little more speed, just enough to show me where the problem is so we can work on the issue. If the horse seems like it’s understanding and receiving things, I’ll quit after about 10 minutes or once I really feel like I have an understanding between me and my horse.

This drill can be done slow and long, or quick and efficiently. It will all depend on how each horse learns and at what speed the issues start showing up.

Getting Started

When I ride, I use split reins or any long reins where I can get a wide handset to get better contact with my horse’s mouth and to give it room to work without worrying about short reins constricting any movement or giving false signals. My equipment of choice for this drill are split reins and a smooth-mouth dog-bone junior shank Perfect Bit.

You can do this exercise around the cloverleaf pattern. That’s where I work on it, because that’s where my issue occurs. My horse will do slow work perfectly, but when he really gets running, that’s when he starts turning too soon. So I work on this drill on the pattern. You could use a single barrel for this exercise, but in some instances it’s more beneficial to do it on the entire pattern.

Visualize freeing your horse up three strides right before you turn. The horse is anticipating the turn, but this drill encourages it to listen to your hands and drive in there through your hands.

Counter-arc in a small circle in order to free up the horse's shoulders.
Keeping the horse in the same shape with your reins, counter-arc into a small circle the opposite direction away from the barrel.
Colleen Stoner demonstrates the proper position around the barrel once you have the shoulders free.
Once you’ve counter-arced all the way around a small circle, return to the pocket around the barrel and go straight through to the backside of the barrel and then complete the turn.
Add speed once your horse has mastered the drill.
After your horse masters this drill at a slower pace, increase your speed.

First, before actually asking for the pattern at three-quarter speed, I will do the drill at a walk. Approach the first barrel—let’s say it’s a left-hand turn—and five or six strides out, use your inside leg, your left leg, to ask the horse to pick up its ribcage. Keeping the horse in the same shape with your reins, counter-arc into a small circle the opposite direction—to the right—moving its shoulders around to the right to free them up. You’ll cue with your reins by opening up your outside—right—rein to give your horse a space to move into and placing your inside—left—rein against your horse’s neck, keeping shape in your horse’s neck. As you move through the counter-arc circle, continue to keep the horse’s neck shaped left and body moving laterally with the left leg. Once I’ve come back around to the barrel, I’ll complete the left-hand turn around the barrel.

Be disciplined to counter arc at the exact spot you feel your horse start to drop and turn. That will vary on each horse, so you need to know your horse’s habits well. After completing the turn, move on to the second barrel, mentally preparing your approach to counter-arc away from the point where your horse starts to drop and turn, using the opposite side of your aids you used at the first barrel. Use the inside leg to pick the horse up, ask it to hold that shape and counter arc into a wider circle, then go back to the pocket around the barrel and go all the way to the backside of the barrel before straightening.

Stoner shows the proper hand placement for performing a counter arc to free up the shoulders.
Don’t cross the plane of your horse’s neck with your rein when asking for a counter-arc. Give space with your rein on the side where you’re asking your horse to move and hold the correct shape with your other rein.

You are asking the horse to leg yield forward and over as it moves away from the barrel. In my ideal slow-working pattern, I will exaggerate each pocket and leg yield into the pocket, making sure I have control and all moving body parts feel free. If my horse isn’t freely leg yielding into the pocket of the barrel, I know when I increase speed he isn’t going to freely move into the pocket before turning, and that will result in cutting off the pocket, knocking the barrel. That gives me an indication to start doing this drill.

Once your horse does this drill well at the walk, move into the trot. If it’s good at the trot, move up to the lope. Once it’s smooth at the lope, try going a bit faster. But start slow and feel it out. It’ll depend on your horse’s level of training how quickly you up your speed.


If you find yourself really holding your horse off of the barrel, be sure to correct by pressing with your inside foot and inside rein against your horse’s neck to counter-arc away from the barrel, then reset and approach the barrel again.

If my horse gets overwhelmed with any aspect, I will go slower and see how my horse responds at a slower speed. If he’s having issues with the counter arc, take him away from the pattern to work on that and then bring him back once he’s understanding the counter arc better, and try again.

This is a very simple, yet useful drill. It is meant to be kept very simple for you and your horse. This drill will sharpen your feel for when your horse starts to drop into his turn and your horse will sharpen himself to listening to your hands and legs.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.