by Bridget Cook
Like all sportsmen, barrel racers love to talk about their performances. They enjoy dissecting each run down to the smallest detail and comparing notes with their friends to evaluate their own go. The most discussed element in these conversations is usually the turn. The size of the pocket and the amount of rate are usually hot turn topics, but it’s not often that you hear discussion about the basic fundamental of turning a tight barrel—using the correct lead.
Teaching the correct lead is one of clinician Chris Cox’s priorities no matter which event he is preparing a horse for. He says the key to understanding leads is to understand the basic gaits of the horse and how those gaits can be used to your advantage.
A correct lead is the precursor to a fast gallop. The canter is characterized as a three-beat gait, meaning that there are three footfalls to each stride, whereas in the gallop, each hoof lands independently of the others.
The horse’s hind end is responsible for powering both the canter and gallop. The back leg that hits the ground before all the other legs in each stride is called the non-leading leg, while the other hind leg is called the leading leg. Horses travel in either the left or right lead. A horse that runs to the right barrel first should be on the right lead for the first barrel and be on the left lead for barrels two and three.
To lope a right-handed circle, the horse’s footfalls will land as follows—left hind, right hind and left front on the ground together, front right, followed by a moment of suspension when all of the horse’s feet are off the ground.
At a gallop to the right, the horse’s outside hind will again be the first hoof to hit the ground, followed by the inside hind, the outside front and the inside front followed by suspension.
“It’s important to understand and be able to feel the difference between your gaits,” Cox says, “and to be a better horseman, you have to be able to feel those feet. You have to know when they’re going up and down. You have to work on feeling their stride when you’re riding. You can’t tell where their feet are by trying to look at them when you’re riding.
“When people look down at a horse’s shoulder to see if they’re on the correct lead, they’re looking in the wrong place. The hind-quarters tell the truth, and the front-end will lie to you, so you have to be able to feel the horse’s hindquarters through your seat.”
Cox recommends that riders first concentrate on learning the feel of the horse’s stride at the walk.
“Put your hand back underneath the saddle to find out where their feet are,” Cox says.
Why pick up a correct lead?
Cox says horses perform better when traveling on the correct lead because they are balanced and are able to shape their body correctly in anticipation of an upcoming maneuver.
“Being on the incorrect lead pulls on different muscles in the horse and gets the horse out of balance with the footfalls,” Cox says. “The horse’s weight distribution should be towards the inside, so that if you’re going to the left, his weight should be on the left. If you are on the incorrect lead, his weight will not be distributed correctly.”
When a horse approaches the barrel on the incorrect lead, the horse will lose power because it won’t be able to adequately get its hind-end up underneath itself.
“The horse’s body will be going in the wrong direction,” Cox says. “Its hindquarters will be thrown away from the barrel, and its shoulders will be going in towards the barrel.”
The run will also be slower because the horse will have to scramble around the barrel to counteract its incorrect weight distribution and the off-center weight of the rider.
Working a horse on the correct lead should feel rhythmical, and it will be easier for the rider to stay centered in the saddle.
“Being on the correct lead is a very natural instinct for a horse,” he says. “When a foal is born, and they get up and canter for the first time, they are on the correct lead. When I get on a colt and lope them for the first time, 99 percent of the time, I’m on the correct lead, and that’s because I have correctly distributed my weight.”
Rider error or imbalance is usually the cause of a horse picking up the incorrect lead or cross firing.
“If you ride correctly, stay centered correctly and stay out of your horse’s way,” he says, “Ninety-eight percent of the time, the horse is going to pick up the correct lead. If you interfere with them, the horse will get the incorrect lead or cross fire from unbalanced or incorrect riding.”
A rider can cause a horse to lose its balance by twisting his or her hips, or by dropping a shoulder. Cox says these rider quirks have a greater effect on unbalancing the horse when you are further off the horse’s back.
“The higher you get up from your horse, the worse it is,” he says, “so the higher your saddle sits up from the horse’s back, or the more you are standing up in the stirrups, the easier it is for you to pull that horse off balance.”
For barrel racing, Cox recommends a saddle that sits close to the horse’s back for a couple of reasons.
“If you have a saddle that sits high off their back or has a really high seat,” he says, “it’s going to be harder for that saddle to stay in contact with the horse’s back, meaning that you’re going to have to do up the girth a lot tighter than normal.
“If you rip a girth up into a horse, you’re not going to make as fast a run because you’re going to take away the expansion of the horse’s ribcage and lungs, so they can’t get air.”
Next time, Chris Cox explains the importance of teaching your horse lead departures and training them to yield to leg pressure.