Hallie Hanssen’s training philosophy relies on teaching barrel horses responsiveness through consistent cues.
Top-ranked futurity trainer Hallie Hanssen often competes and rides her horses in a snaffle bit. For her, problems on the pattern aren’t fixed by increasing the severity of the bit she’s using—they’re remedied by working the horse under the same conditions it’s expected to run in.
“I feel like my whole training program is consistency, so I stay consistent with what I do with them,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen’s Snaffle Savvy
Hanssen prefers how a snaffle feels in her hands versus the feel of a shanked bit. For her, running in a snaffle is a natural progression from riding colts, as is using her body and legs to control the horse.
“My horses are accustomed to being worked in a snaffle, so that’s what I usually run them in. I start them in an O-ring snaffle; it’s what I feel comfortable working them in,” Hanssen said. “When I use a bit with a shank, I feel like there is a delay on the backside of the barrel—my horses aren’t as quick as they are in an O-ring.”
The delay on the backside of the barrel occurs when Hanssen wants to help her horses, which she does by bumping them back to the barrel with her hands.
“Bumping them back to the barrel is when I take my hand toward the barrel as I go around it,” Hanssen said. “In a shanked bit, the bit or the curb will hit them, which causes a delayed reaction to me bumping them when we’re leaving the barrel.”
Hanssen says having the confidence to run her horses in a snaffle bit comes from the work she does at home. Many people don’t prefer to run in an O-ring, because they are afraid of not having enough control of their horse to prepare for the turns or to stop after they have completed their run.
“If a horse will listen to my body then I have the control that I need to run in an O-ring,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen says lack of control becomes apparent when riders drop to one rein to turn the barrels.
“When you drop to one rein or add speed, the horse will tell you if you haven’t done your homework by controlling them with your legs and body,” she said. “When a person needs to use their legs more or they need to train their horse to work off their legs, they’ll try to position the horse with their hands by running their hand up the horse’s neck or pulling the reins across the neck.”
For the most part, Hanssen keeps her hands low and on either side of her horse’s neck. In both training and in competition, she uses two hands between the barrels and drops to one hand about two strides before the barrel.
“When I’m starting 2-year-olds on the pattern, I usually have to two-hand them around the barrel until they figure out where they’re going,” Hanssen said. “Once they’ve done that, then I only use one hand around the barrel. I train them to work one-handed and off leg cues, and I always take them to the exact spot I want them to go when I run them.”
Similarly, Hanssen uses roping reins when training.
“I use the same type of reins I’ll run them in right from the start—it’s about being consistent. Sometimes, if I have a horse I need to do a few other things with, I might use split reins just to do that. For example, if I have a horse I need to work with on crossing over in the front end and I need a bit more rein for that horse, then I’ll switch.”
Always using two hands between the barrels and one hand around the barrel, along with riding in roping reins, benefits Hanssen as much as her horses.
“It’s about having that consistency between training and showing. It’s about me getting muscle memory and the horse getting its muscle memory,” Hanssen said. “So many times you’ll see people do their slow work at home with two hands and even on an older trained horse, when they go to run, it all falls apart because they don’t have that muscle memory. If you can’t work them at home with one hand, how do you expect them to do it at a barrel race?”
Legs and Weight
Hanssen’s ability to use less bit comes from using leg and weight aids to signal the horses she trains.
“When you use an O-ring, you have to use your legs to get the horse to go where you want it to go instead of being able to just position them with a bigger shanked bit,” Hanssen said. “Every time you have to touch your horse’s face, it costs you time. When you touch the horse with your legs, you’re not breaking its momentum—you’re channeling it forward.”
Teaching the horse to become responsive to leg and weight aids starts by gaining control of the horse’s hip away from the pattern. Once Hanssen can move the hips and shoulders laterally, she takes her horses to the pattern, where she teaches them to rate and turn the barrel. Between the barrels, Hanssen keeps her legs straight underneath her and leans forward. When she gets to her rate point, she rolls her hips down.
“I’m not way up over the horse—I just lean forward, and when I get to my rate point, I roll my hips back and have the hunched position,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen prefers to use leg pressure and small kicks rather than kicks that take her legs far away from the horse.
“With young horses, when you get to really kicking them, I feel it often distracts them. They can get concerned about what you’re doing on their back rather than the fact there’s a barrel in front of them,” Hanssen said. “I like to squeeze them forward with my legs and only kick a little bit, so I use my calf and my heels. I usually use spurs so I don’t have to kick that hard, because there’s some type of contact with my horse.”
Once the horse is trained and has become an automatic horse, hand and leg aids become less significant. However, a rider can negatively alter the horse’s pattern by misuse of their hand cues.
“With consistency, the horse learns to go to the spot it’s supposed to go to, and you can make the horse go exactly where you want it with your weight and your legs,” Hanssen said. “If you get overactive with your hands, which is easy to do when you’re running, you can pull the horse off its spots. In my opinion, if you’re using a shanked bit, you’ll move the horse around a lot more than you will with a snaffle bit.”
Rate is when the horse shortens its stride to slow its forward momentum and transfers its weight to its hind end. Hanssen uses a shift in weight—sitting and rolling her hips—as the cue for her horse to rate. Her goal is for the horse to rate while she is riding one-handed and on a loose rein.
“When I sit down, I want them to come back to me,” Hanssen said. “I do a lot of that off the barrels.”
Away from the barrels and on a loose rein, Hanssen rides the horse forward, then sits and takes hold of the reins until her horse comes to a stop. Gradually, her rein cue is decreased as the horse learns to respond to the shift in weight of her sitting down. As the horse progresses, the stop evolves into a shortening of stride and slowing down rather than stopping.
If a horse is inclined to shift its weight to the front end when rating, Hanssen does a one-rein stop to get the horse’s hip underneath itself and then pushes it forward again. She cues the horse to rate by sitting, but if the horse does not slow down, collect, and transfer its weight to the hind end, she will do another one-rein stop.
“It’s all about getting them back on the hind end and slowing their feet down when I sit,” Hanssen said.
Once the horse can rate to her satisfaction, Hanssen takes the horse to the barrel pattern. At each barrel, she stops the horse and moves its hip toward the barrel and cues for the shoulders to take a step away from the barrel.
“I stop, move the hip over and make them stand. They need to be settled in that stop and not prancing or moving anywhere,” Hanssen said. “I call it ‘craving the rate spot,’ because I want them to be comfortable there and not anticipating their next move. I’ll sit there for as long as I need to achieve that.”
Once the horse is settled in the stop while holding its hips toward the barrel and shoulders away from the barrel, Hanssen cues the horse to move forward around the barrel.
“When I let them go, I make sure their first step toward the barrel is up and away so they don’t drop their shoulder into the barrel,” she said. “That first step needs to be away from the barrel, and I like them to step across with their inside hind and to keep a C-shape in their body, but I don’t want the C-shape to be too dramatic.”
The C-shape is only maintained until the backside of the barrel, where Hanssen asks the horse to square up for its departure from the barrel. Hanssen’s rate and turn exercise lays the foundation for the horse getting its hind end underneath itself when working the barrels at speed.
“It frees their shoulders up. Putting the shoulders away from the barrel helps the inside hind leg reach up and across,” she said. “If you stop them straight at the barrel, then the inside hind leg will just reach forward. Reaching up and across helps the horse move around that circle, and when they get to the backside of the barrel, they are square and pushing off square.”
Read more —> Hallie Hanssen’s Quick Step Drill
Advancing the Rate and Turn
Once the horse has learned to rate down at the barrel, Hanssen allows the horse to turn the barrel without stopping.
“If I can feel them come back to me, then I let them go forward into the turn,” Hanssen said. “At that point, they don’t have to move their hip toward the barrel, it’s just about them shortening that stride and maintaining correct body position.”
How well a horse rates a barrel depends on how well the rider has prepared the horse for the transition.
“If you’re up over the horse and then say, ‘stop,’ they won’t rate well. You have to sit down first and quit riding before you ask them to stop,” Hanssen said. “You can’t be kicking them and telling them to rate at the same time, because that’s confusing. You have to let them know what you want, and if they don’t give it to you, then they get in trouble. For my horses, getting into trouble is having to do a one-rein stop. I give the horse a chance to rate by sitting down, and if they don’t come back, then I do a one-rein stop.”
While the primary cue for rate is to sit, roll your hips forward and sink your weight into your seat and stirrups, it must be practiced while riding with one hand. This should be done both on and off the barrels so the horse learns to rate in response to the rider’s shift in weight and not to the outside rein being dropped.
“With most people, when they drop to one hand, they struggle and that’s an indicator they’re only riding with their hands and not enough with their legs,” Hanssen said. “If the horse starts their turn when you drop your outside rein, that tells me that you’re not using your legs and weight enough.”
In keeping with her theory of training horses the way she runs them, Hanssen prefers to train her horses on three barrels rather than doing drills.
“I want them to know this is what we do. I might do things off the barrels that help me with the barrels, but I don’t regularly set up one barrel and only work it,” Hanssen said. “I like them to know the pattern and go to the same spots, just as I do when I’m running.”
To build consistency in the horse, Hanssen applies the same cues and expects the same results.
“Being consistent makes it easy for the horse to understand what you want,” Hanssen said. “The easier you make it for the horse, the more they like their job.”
While Hanssen enjoys learning from as many people as she can, she doesn’t make drastic changes to her program.
“I see people who will do something one way and then go to a clinic and change everything,” Hanssen said. “Then they’ll go to another clinic and start doing only what that person did. When you’re training a horse, changing your program like that is confusing to them. When you add confusion to the barrel pattern, you create problems—your horse will be inconsistent, because he’ll always be wondering what you expect of him. For example, he’ll wonder, do you want me to go wide or stay small today?”
Hanssen applies the same rule to herself and her riding.
“If I’m consistent with my body and my hands, it improves my muscle memory and gives my horses more confidence,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen trains all of her horses to work the same tracks between and around the barrels, an approach she believes builds consistency and allows her to minimize strides throughout the pattern. It also teaches her horses to push off when leaving the barrel. Running in the same tracks does not mean every horse will look identical.
“They can run in the same track but have a different body position,” Hanssen said. “I’ve run horses that don’t want to be round, and they’re not going to be fast if I try to make them round. They will have a stiffer style, but if you go with their natural style and keep them in those tracks, they’ll still be fast.”
Ideally, the horse will break in the ribcage and reach up and across with their inside hind leg when making a turn. A stiff horse will not have as much bend in its ribcage and nose coming into and around the turn.
“Stiff horses have more of a rollback style—they get there and plant their hip and come back across,” Hanssen said.
At a race, being consistent between training and running gives the horse confidence to perform its best. Because of this, Hanssen doesn’t exhibition a horse until it’s ready to at least cruise through the barrel pattern.
“I won’t take them to a barrel race and just trot around the barrels to see the sights,” Hanssen said. “I want them to know we are going there for a purpose, and that purpose is to run barrels. I feel that helps them know what their job is when we get there.”
Hanssen warms up for exhibitions the same way she warms her horses up before making a run.
“I’ll trot a bit, lope circles and make sure they’re soft,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen usually incorporates rollbacks into her warm-up.
“I like to feel that sweeping motion in the rollback—where the front leg is reaching across,” Hanssen said. “When a horse comes around the barrel, that’s the move they need to make. I want them to really push out of that rollback like they would when they leave the barrel.”
Doing rollbacks gets the horse moving and ready to go. Hanssen likes a horse to be ready for action, but she takes a lighter approach to those that are easily excited or inclined to be nervous.
Hanssen never buys more than three exhibitions per horse. The first exhibition is for trotting through the pattern. The second exhibition is for cruising through. The third exhibition is used to either settle the horse or correct mistakes. If the horse’s second exhibition is perfect, the third exhibition will not be used at all.
The speed of a cruise-through depends on where the horse is in its training. In June to July of its 3-year-old year, cruising is half-speed to three-quarter speed. Hanssen’s protocol for exhibitioning changes slightly while the colt develops. In the weeks leading up to November 15 of its 3-year-old year, the horse will do one trot exhibition followed by an exhibition at full speed.
The 3-year-olds that will run in the slot race at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championships in November will run at full speed straight out of the warm-up pen. Hanssen will exhibition them if required earlier in the day.
Hanssen stresses taking proper care of her mounts to keep them happy and relaxed. On occasion after an exhibition run, Hanssen will walk the horse back up the alley and un-cinch the saddle to help the horse cool down. A strict rule Hanssen adheres to is that protective boots are taken off immediately after the exhibitions and after a competitive run. For the Hanssens, leaving boots on is a personal pet peeve.
“You need to make the horse comfortable,” said Lee Hanssen, Hallie’s husband, who is responsible for the cool-down process. “The boots need to come off and sand needs to get brushed or washed off. No one likes to stand around in sweaty socks with sand stuffed down them, and horses don’t either. As well as being uncomfortable, the sand rubs their legs.”
About the Horses
Hanssen usually gets colts late in their 2-year-old year if they are going to run at the BFA World Championship Juvenile as a 3-year-old. Most of the colts will be started before arriving at her barn.
Each horse is expected to know how to:
- Break at the poll or withers, depending on its style
- Move off the rider’s legs
- Lope nice circles
- Back up
This foundation training makes it easier for Hanssen to teach the horse how to set its body up for the turn.
“I don’t traditionally like to ride behind a reining trainer, because often they get their horses too behind the bit for my program,” Hanssen said. “Once a horse has learned to get behind the bit, it’s hard to get them out of the habit, because they will get behind the bit but keep moving their feet.”
Getting behind the bit—putting the nose behind the vertical—creates problems when asking for rate at the barrel.
“When you ask them to rate and come back to you, they just tuck their head in and keep moving their feet at the same speed,” Hanssen said. “For my style of barrel racing, that doesn’t work very well. If I pick up on their mouth, I want them to slow down.”
While Hanssen does want the horse to break at the poll or the withers if it is a naturally high-headed horse and to be soft in the mouth, she doesn’t want the horse to carry its head in a dressage or reining frame all the time.
“I don’t hold them there all the time— I want them to move out on a loose rein and when I sit, they come back to me and get on their hind end and slow their feet down,” Hanssen said. “Horses can’t go the same speed around the barrel they do going to it, so they have to slow their feet down to a point.”
After 60 days on the pattern, the horse is sent home. It returns to Hanssen in April of its 3-year-old year with the intent of hauling and doing exhibitions throughout the summer. While the goal of Hanssen’s program is to have fast futurity horses, she won’t quit on a horse that is slow to mature.
“I won’t send a horse home just because it isn’t winning at the futurities if I feel that it has potential,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen selects her slot-race horses based on the horse’s maturity.
“It may not be my fastest horse, because it needs to be a very consistent horse that can go and do its job without looking around the arena,” Hanssen said.
Hanssen believes that by centering her training program on consistency and clear, deliberate cues, she is building horses prepared to handle the pressure of futurity slot races and continue into careers in barrel racing and rodeo.
About Hallie Hanssen
Hallie Melvin Hanssen was born with fast horses in her blood. Her grandparents, the late Warren and Donna Melvin, raised Quarter Horses and ran racehorses on their ranch in South Dakota. Her dad, Monte Melvin, trained racehorses and was also a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Badlands Circuit All Around Champion. Her mother, Teresa Melvin, holds Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Circuit titles for both the Great Lakes and the Badlands.
“My parents helped me do what I wanted to do,” said Hallie, who earned her associate’s degree in computer science. “It was never about having to win. They pushed me because they knew my dream was to be the best that I can be.”
Hallie met her husband, Lee Hanssen, at a futurity. They have been married since 2013 and together run Melvin Ranch, where they stand French Streakin Jess (A Streak Of Fling x PC Frenchmans Flirt x Frenchmans Guy) and the late The Kandyman (Tres Seis x Famous Silk Panties x Dash Ta Fame).
Hallie has Equi-Stat earnings in excess of $1 million and is a BFA World Champion in the Derby (French Streaktovegas in 2012) and Juvenile (Jesswatchmestreak in 2019), won the inaugural Women’s Rodeo World Championship barrel racing, and has won multiple pro rodeos, futurities and derbies, and Open 1D titles.
To learn more, visit Lee and Hallie Hanssen’s website.