Part Two of effectively communicating with your barrel horse using clear leg cues.

Effective leg cues can make all the difference. How you use your legs affects everything, from sitting for the turns to riding your horse over each axis point, so using your legs correctly when you’re riding is vital.

Last month, I talked about one of the two biggest mistakes I see riders make, the first of which is creating a side-pass habit away from the barrel. The second biggest problem I notice is riders who sit too much on their butts and “gap open” with their legs more than they need to when they kick. We’ll talk about that one in greater detail here.

Different Styles of Kicking

Every horse is different with respect to how much you have to hustle. Some need you to stay a little more forward, some need you to stand up in your stirrups and some do not. There are different styles of kicking. Correct position will help you avoid having to gap your legs away from your horse’s sides to drive and kick a horse by the barrels to keep from hitting barrels.

When a rider has to hustle a horse, they should have weight in their stirrups, leaning forward a bit and kicking. You don’t want to kick too much and have your legs straight out, which is pounding your weight onto the horse’s back and causing tension when the horse is moving forward. You have to hustle smoothly to be in rhythm with your horse.

You need to make sure you’re guiding with both hands and pointing the horse’s head far enough to the side of the barrel in your approach without pulling too much either way. Entry point is critical—you enter the barrel three to four feet to the right or left, depending on the barrel—and go three to four feet past it and keep that perfect road around it. Ride with both legs and both feet for the road around the barrels and sit once you’re in the turn. Once you’re sitting for the turn, you have to keep your feet moving. Some horses will also need a little inside rein or a little outside rein—especially with a horse you’re still training—to help it through the turns.

If you’ve got the type of horse that doesn’t rate much, you need to learn to take the weight out of your stirrups and sit deep. Really concentrate on bending your leg at the knee to sit more. Most horses pick up on it when riders stand a little in their stirrups to hustle and then sit down to collect, rate and turn. Even once your horse recognizes these cues, you always have to keep your feet moving a bit. Sometimes a little leg pressure keeps a horse from fading out of the turn leaving a barrel. Solid, finished horses don’t generally take as much signaling from the rider, but you really have to know your horse and what degree of leg pressure works. When buying a new horse, it’s very important to watch the previous rider and ask the rider what kind of leg cues they’re giving the horse and when.

Have a Plan

Riders who don’t drive their horses over each axis point often develop all sorts of bad habits in their horses, like stiffening the horse’s ribcage and dumping its weight to the front end when the hip goes out. When a horse does slice the barrel, it has nothing to do with going faster. If your horse is slicing the barrels, then kicking harder with your legs gapping away from the horse’s sides and going faster will not fix it. The horse’s body must be in the correct position.

I often see people with no set plan for their approach to the first barrel. It’s so important for barrel racers to learn how to use their legs and feet to drive their horse with collection over each of the points through the turn. I tell people to create a visual by imagining a line running straight through their horse from head to tail. That line should be aimed at each axis point. If the hip is out, the horse’s head comes in and the line—the horse—is out of position and not framed up.

Like other cues in barrel racing, leg cues are better in moderation. You’ve got to pay attention not to overdo it so you don’t kick the horse’s hip out too much. If you find that you’re going around the barrels and the horse is kicking its hip out, you might need to use a little outside leg pressure to hold the hip in, or you might need to analyze if you’re getting too close to the barrels on your approach to where the horse has no option but to shift its hip out. It’s like pulling a trailer around a corner—going around the barrel, you need to have enough room. You can ride forward, but you can’t create the room by holding the horse off at the same time. When kicking, you still need to be going with your horse in a smooth, fluid motion.

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