While it’s typically three that we turn, a fourth barrel is never further than the corner of Tasha Welsh’s practice pen. When an open horse gets a little on the muscle or a greener horse needs help holding its leads, she rolls it to the center of the pattern to set up one of many in her arsenal of exercises. According to Welsh, the cloverleaf configuration with a fourth barrel in the middle can be beneficial to virtually any pattern-related problem, but the common ground shared by all variations is that it keeps your counterpart waiting on you rather than calling the shots or fumbling through the footwork.
“I don’t think I do it the same way on any horse I get on,” Welsh said. “It’s always based on what problems a particular horse has.”
Read on for not one but two ways to run through this month’s drill.
From a trainer’s perspective, Welsh says one of the most difficult fundamentals to solidify in a horse’s training is catching and keeping the correct lead. In its simplest form, her drill is particularly useful to a green horse learning how to do just that and simultaneously use its body in a turn.
Starting at the third—and at the trot, if necessary—Welsh guides her horse in a soft, supple circle around the barrel. From there, she goes to the middle barrel, and then back out to the perimeter, moving clockwise around the pattern for right-handed turns and counter-clockwise for left-handed turns (see Diagram 1).
At any speed, with six turns in one rotation through the drill, the repetition teaches a colt how to frame up for a turn. At the lope, it allows the horse to get in a groove long enough to learn its rights from its lefts. Welsh picks a speed that, while challenging, is comfortable enough for the horse to maintain a steady, even tempo and build muscle memory for correct leads and turns in one direction at a time.
Welsh says the drill also allows for targeting new issues that arise as a horse progresses in its training.
“It keeps a horse calm and collected, so it’s great for horses that want to rush the back side of a turn or aren’t keeping their lead,” Welsh said. “It helps them finish and stay in the turn, instead of anticipating and leaving for the next barrel too soon.”
For stronger, open horses, Welsh changes up the drill, adding some throttle control and taking away some of the repetitiveness and predictability of a typical barrel pattern. This time, she’ll take a horse around the perimeter barrels in succession at a relaxed, even pace, and every so often mix in a high-speed turn at the middle barrel (see Diagram 2).
“The speed increase and decrease is great to reinforce speed transitions, to teach them how to run out of one turn and collect for another,” Welsh said. “It’s also good for open horses that want to get hot, because it makes them soften and respect you. You can go in there and ask for speed and then you can slow them back down and say, ‘Hey, come back to me. Be soft. Be supple. It’s not that big of a deal.’”
After turning the middle barrel at speed—which Welsh notes won’t be a complete barrel turn—she goes back to the barrel she left from and completes the rotation of the three outer barrels. Once the horse relaxes again, she switches directions or sends it to the center again, this time leaving from a different barrel on the perimeter. She will take on the middle barrel only when a horse relaxes, be it once every time around or once every five times through.
“With Hammer, the more I did it, the more excited he got, so there were a couple times I would have to circle an outside barrel twice to get him soft and not pulling on me, and then I let him tell me when he was ready to go in and go fast,” Welsh said. “It’s all about feel. When they’re keeping even momentum with their body and not hesitating or anticipating anywhere, that’s when you want to go fast to that middle barrel.”
She adds that errors will be made, and she allows them to happen as they may.
“I like to let them make the mistake and then correct them for it,” Tasha said. “I don’t want to babysit them through it, because when I’m running through at a fast speed, I’m not strong enough to hold a horse off a barrel. He has to learn how to do it correctly himself.”
Welsh’s drill has the versatility to address a number of problems encountered with a variety of horses in all stages of training.
“You can use it how you need it,” Welsh said. “If you have a horse that wants to go by a barrel, you can stop them at the barrel and then go on, or move the barrels closer together so they have to keep it on their mind. It’s great with ratey horses, because you can work huge circles around the outside and then blast them in there and let them really get in, and then come back and make them go wide again. If you have a lazy horse, you can set the barrels further apart so they have a longer run to the middle barrel. Or, if you have one getting nervous, you can lope them around as many times as you want.”
Meet Tasha Welsh
Growing up in a horseless household in Gillette, Wyoming, Tasha Welsh exchanged stall-cleaning duties for lessons to ride and show reined cow horses. Some of her greatest personal accomplishments date back to her earliest days of barrel racing, when she applied her knowledge to tune and win on problematic horses, to winning a round of the Fizz Bomb Futurity at age 17 by three tenths, and on to making the short go at a number of prestigious professional rodeos. She currently resides in Granbury, Texas, where she trains barrel horses full time with a philosophy anchored in feel and addressing each horse’s individual needs. For more information, add Tasha Welsh as a friend on Facebook.