There are two points on the barrel pattern where you need to be able to lift a horse’s shoulders. The first is in the approach to the barrel, which determines whether or not you’ll have enough room to get through the turn without your horse dropping into the barrel.
You also need to be able to lift the shoulders in the turn. You must be able to keep the horse’s shoulder up and off the barrel as he goes around it. You’re not asking for 10 feet, you’re asking for three to four inches. We don’t give our horses enough credit for their physical ability. If they can make a Lipizzaner stallion jump like a jackrabbit, we can move their shoulders running full speed.
How Broke is Broke?
Lifting the shoulders is actually one of the simplest things you can do with a horse, but because of misinformation, it’s something that very few people know how to do.
For example, most barrel racers sidepass instead of lifting the shoulders. They are moving the shoulders, but they also move – and disengage – the hips. The hip is the driving force, so the key is to move the shoulder without disengaging the hip. Some barrel racers will use a left rein to keep a horse off the first barrel, but the harder you pull to the left, the more the horse runs to the right and you’re back to square one. Those are short-term successful barrel horses.
Long-term horses have to be very broke. I’ve never ridden a horse that’s too broke; it’s impossible to have a horse too broke. The more broke the horse is, the more successful he becomes. With Nancy and I, I’m a trainer and she’s a jockey. She’s responsible for what happens in the arena and I’m responsible for the preparation. I can watch to see where they make mistakes and need correction, but the horses are so well broke she can make adjustments in a run.
When it comes to training barrel horses, I have a cutter’s perspective. They put a lot of stop on a horse and a lot of lift in the shoulders, but the problem with cutting horse training is that they stop and come back with the horse and don’t move forward. Reiners, on the other hand, slide forward through the stop with the horse’s body straight; they do not lift shoulders in the stop and have an extreme break in the poll. The barrel horse is the greatest challenge of the three. We need to rate with the shoulder up, bend in the body and keep forward motion—all at the same time.
Basics of Shoulder Control
There are five components to lifting the shoulders. The combination of these five pieces gives you roundness in a turn without losing the driving force from the hock and the hip.
- Direct rein. This is a direct-rein discipline, and nearly everything you do is off of your inside rein. To go right, you use the right rein, but what does it take to keep a horse from dropping in and hitting the barrel with just a direct rein?
- Bend and flex. A horse must be able to bend and flex in order for you to be able to lift the shoulder. If the horse’s body is straight, you can’t lift the shoulder without disengaging the hindquarters. You have to have an arc in his neck, and this is where we begin. When you sit straight in the saddle, you should be able to see the corner of the eye or tip of the nose in the direction you are circling.
- Nose position. If the nose is tucked like a reining or pleasure horse, you’re not going to be able to lift the shoulder. The horse has to lead through the turn with the nose out and forward, not up or tucked. If you take the nose to the outside, the horse will pin his shoulder on the barrel with obvious negative results.
- Hand position. Many barrel racers have been taught to ride with their hands low, but I believe you need to have your hands up and forward to lift the shoulder. If they come down and back, you’ll disengage the hips or work different body parts (imagine a reiner in a spin or a dressage rider executing a sidepass).
- Leg position. Your leg can’t be too far back or too far forward. If your leg is too far forward you will move the shoulder like a reiner, and if it’s too far back you will disengage the hips of the horse. It must be close to the cinch to soften the ribcage and move the shoulder.
Additionally, shoulder control is developed and maintained with the use of correct tools. You need a bit that maintains flex and bend, but encourages a horse to break at the poll and lift his shoulders at the same time. It’s like building a house; you can’t do it with just a hammer.
To enhance training, we use draw reins with the ring approximately three to four inches from the bottom of the shank of the bit, and they need to be split 18 to 24 inches. This allows freedom of the nose while controlling the poll. We use tie-downs when showing. It is important to adjust them to a length that allows horses to extend their nose without elevating too much. Horses need to have bend and flex prior to the use of a tie-down.
In the process of teaching a horse to lift his shoulders, we do a lot of circles. If I’m circling to the right, the palm of my hand is flat to the ground. Using that direct rein, I’ll bring my horse from a larger circle down into a smaller circle. From there, I’ll change the direction and position of my hand to lift the shoulder up and widen the circle. I’ll raise my arm in a curling motion, curling my hand and forearm inward without crossing the crest of the neck. The more you curl your arm, the more the horse lifts his shoulders. I’ll lift the nose higher, keeping it in my hand, and bump with my inside leg to get that bend in the horse’s body and the lift in the shoulders without losing the drive from the hip.
I only ask for one to two steps at a walk to start with, and pretty soon we can do it at a trot, and before too long we can move 20-30 feet just lifting the shoulder. Eventually I can do this at a lope without the horse changing leads. He’ll maintain a right lead, but he will counter-move to the left.
After you’ve lifted your horse’s shoulders to make a counter circle, you can use your outside rein to tip his nose to the outside, lift the outside shoulder, and press him back inward to that small circle while maintaining the same lead.
All successful barrel runs are done with the components of forward motion, a front end that is elevated and directing the horse, and a hind end that is engaged and driving through the ground. It all begins with proper horsemanship, body control, and a well-broke horse.