By Dena Kirkpatrick
Many barrel racers refer to the first barrel as the “money barrel,” because it sets the stage for the entire run. However, I believe the most important part is the entrance. A smooth entrance to the barrel pattern has always been my first priority. Each barrel turn is affected by the previous, but the approach and entrance into the arena affects the first barrel. Even the most solid, seasoned barrel horse needs guidance and direction in order to set them up for a winning run. The plan of entry will be different for every horse, and I suggest you take the time to assess and adapt accordingly for different arenas in order to give yourself and your horse the best possible chance at success.
I prefer my horses to transition smoothly through each of his gaits from a walk to a run as we head down the alley. My goal is to measure the distance I need for my transition, depending upon the particular arena setup. I like to start walking, then trot, and then lope. My goal is to have my horse leveled out and running a few strides before we cross the electric eye. This transition sets them up to be steady, willing and ready to run barrels. I have found that allowing a horse to transition from a walk to a run is a more natural process, not only for their body but also their minds. Once you get to the first barrel, your horse should be physically prepared to turn and should mentally be more receptive to your cues.
This method is especially beneficial for young horses, but I also find it very helpful during the seasoning periods for mature horses or more fractious horses prone to alley issues. Early in a horse’s training, I walk my “S-shape maneuver,” and perfect circles prior to starting my speed transition down the alley. I hone their footwork skills at a walk with these drills. As the horses advance in their training, these simple walking exercises become something I can use to either keep them calm or excite them a bit just before competition, depending upon the needs of the individual horse. Also, these exercises give me cues as to the horse’s current mental state. I keep the routine consistent before each run, prior to both practice and competition. The routine gives my horses a feeling of ease because they know what to expect.
Run the Right Distance
Many barrel racers don’t realize that entrance and approach can have not-so-obvious negative effects on their run, costing precious tenths. The distance from the mouth of the arena to the eye and from the eye to the first barrel are two distances that should always be considered when planning your entrance strategy. As long as a horse has leveled out and reached your desired speed two or three strides before crossing the eye, he should be in good shape to turn the first barrel. Waiting too late to allow your horse to run and level out can be equally detrimental.
It is important to remember that no one has ever received a paycheck for running the fastest from the warm-up pen down the alley. Every horse, no matter how fast or physically fit they are, only has so many seconds they can physically maintain a run at the full capacity of their talent. Just like human athletes or even racing Quarter Horses, each individual has a capacity they can maintain full speed. Some horses can run at full speed much farther than others. Adding three turns into the equation also has a significant effect on how long they can maintain their fastest pace. I have seen many talented horse and rider teams fall short of a big win simply because the horse didn’t have enough gas left running home, yet used up a good 10 strides at speed running from the back of the warm up arena and down the alley before they ever crossed the eye.
The size and shape of the alley is another thing to consider. In general, I like to come down the center of the alley. My advice is to be careful in any case not to hug one side or the other. Many horses, especially greener competitors, have a tendency to feel drawn to the fence like a magnet. This can cause a horse to zigzag, feeling lost as they cross the alley’s threshold and enter the arena, instead of maintaining a smooth straight line all the way to the first barrel. In an extremely wide alley or an arena that just has a wide gate, I will choose to run in a little left of center for a left-handed horse or slightly to the right of center for a right-handed horse. With my particular training method, I like to take a slightly straighter entrance to my pattern, and a wide alley allows me to set my horses up like I do at home. No matter what the setup, often you can find ways to use it to your advantage.
The Mental Aspect
One of the hardest elements to deal with in your entrance and approach is your state of mind. The rider’s mental state could possibly be the most important. So often barrel racers do well in practice but can’t seem to do as well in competition. This can be true for any rider at any level. Horses are extremely sensitive, and they feel our emotions. The anxiety you feel in the minutes prior to competing can have a profound effect on your horse. Some barrel racers are better at controlling their emotions than others. Many of the top riders and trainers have mastered the art of controlling their emotions. Controlling your emotions and treating competition runs the same as practice runs will eventually result in more trips to the pay window. I personally get nervous and always have. Therefore, I have officially given up on my hopes of out-growing my nervousness. Instead of dwelling on it, I try to control my nerves by focusing on what my horse needs from me as the leader. When my horse’s wellbeing and mental state is my focus, I don’t have time to give in to my emotions.
Once you arrive at an arena, go take a look at the set-up. Assess the whole situation and think about how you can best help your horse have a smooth entry and approach, resulting in a smooth fast run. Don’t overlook the alley way as an important component of your overall run. You are your horse’s guide, and he is dependent on you to make intelligent decisions on how to give him the best possible chance at success.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments on this article to [email protected].