Article and photographs by Julie Mankin
Troy Crumrine wants it collected. Lindsay Sears wants it straight, and Leslie Willis wants it spacey.
We’re talking about how you approach the first barrel, and it can make or break much of the rest of your run. Here are the perspectives on getting off to a great start from a handful of today’s top riders and trainers:
“A lot of your angle going to first depends on whatever the show permits you to work with,” said Barrel Futurities of America world champion Troy Crumrine, who’s earned roughly $2.5 million running barrels. “I’ve seen some crazy setups going to first. I like a little room to first.
“I don’t like to run straighter because first is the easiest barrel to miss. I like to have my horse not so far out where it’s costing me time, but far enough to where if he drops in, I have time to correct him.
“A horse with a really good first barrel—you can ask that horse for his life all the way up into it as hard as he can run. You can guide that horse up in a little more, and your timing doesn’t have to be so critical. If you get a bad first, nine times out of 10, you’re set up for a bad run all the way around.
“Most futurities have good access to first, other than sometimes it’s a little bit blind when you come through the gate. If it’s a shorter score line, you’ve got to be careful on that a little bit. But at futurities, if we miss first, it’s pretty much on us because we can pick and choose our approach.
“I personally like more room, and I like to have the nose tipped a little bit, to where I’ve kind of got a little bit of line, but I’m not really holding it-just kind of steadying it. I want a horse waiting on me to turn it loose, like, ‘When do you want me to come around?’
“And I’ve got that nose. If you have the nose tipped, you’ve got control over the shoulders a little bit, too. If a horse goes to dropping too quick, you can pick one back up, which is one nice thing about having a little room. Control of the nose can keep one from dropping his shoulder.
“A lot of your approach has to do with the horse. Some horses, if you give more room to first, will tend to get strung out and not really get their butt underneath them. If I find that’s happening, I might take a horse a little straighter to try to keep his butt more controlled.
“With my horses, though, I don’t have much trouble with that because I try to keep them collected at all times. That’s the biggest thing. If you don’t approach with collection, you have no turn.”
Dena Kirkpatrick and Lindsay Sears
“Heading straighter into the first barrel not only helps Martha keep her inside hind leg under her, but since I don’t like to go fast to the first barrel, it’s a good way for me to keep her speed under control,” says Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champion Lindsay Sears.
“It is a shorter distance, but it’s a 360-degree turn, which a lot of horses can’t do at a high rate of speed,” she says. “Dena trains them a little straighter to first than most trainers, and Martha’s more comfortable doing it like that. I think it stands her up a little more.
“And it depends on the ground how straight I go,” Sears says. “If it’s loose and deep, I try to give myself a little more room. It took me going on full two years to figure these things out. And Martha’s a freak of nature because she can make that 360-degree turn at high speed.
“People think you’re creating a lot harder turn, and it might actually take more time,” she says. “In fact, a Tanner Time on how long it takes me to get around the first barrel as opposed to someone who starts from the center would probably be slower, but I think it keeps Martha standing up better. The good thing is she allows me to lift her ribcage and shoulder. A lot of horses don’t allow you to pick their shoulder up with that inside rein at a run-they’ll drop and hit that barrel into next week.”
Part of the reason Dena Kirkpatrick trains with a straighter approach, ironically, has to do with the way it can help a horse finish the tum. Martha’s trainer works her horses under the theory that if they approach the turn with their inside hind leg up underneath them, they’ll naturally be able to reach and leave a barrel. And when training, she never sets a horse until her leg is just past the barrel.
“If you ‘set’ a horse further back from the barrel, he’ll tend to drop his shoulder more,” Kirkpatrick says. “A horse naturally wants to go at a barrel. I want mine to go at that barrel from the side, instead of before he even gets to the turn.”
Kirkpatrick got a great nugget of advice from the late, great trainer Celie Ray, who told her never to let a horse start the turn too early, and the same goes for you on the approach. Keep your body centered, because leaning forward or into the turn can cause your horse to drop his front end and consequently lose his rear, hurting your first barrel and, ultimately, your whole run.
“Instead of heading toward first, I go to a point about five feet away from the first barrel,” says BFA world champion Leslie Willis. “So much about first depends on how the alley’s set up and how the pattern’s set up that there’s no set way to approach.
“I like to have one’s nose tipped a little toward the first barrel, but that depends on the horse, as well. We do ride several, and some don’t want you to do that. On those, you leave them alone until the last second and then help.
“I also don’t let a horse cut me off. I take a fairly big pocket, and I ask for a horse to keep moving around the barrel-not to turn it real tight and slice and dice it. When I’m starting a horse, I lope a nice round circle around first.
“What’s most important to me is how I leave first. I want that horse’s body and head straight, or even, and his nose tipped back to the left. I feel like a lot of people turn first and get halfway across the pen before they straighten their horse or move over for second. Too many people focus on how to approach the first barrel and don’t focus on how they leave it.”
“I’ve heard people comment to me, personally, that I go at first too straight,” says National Finals Rodeo average champion Jill Moody. “And that I keep too much bend in my horses-that they’d run faster with a straighter body.”
“I go at first straighter, and I keep the nose in my hand and tipped to the right because I feel like if a horse is true to form and is going to follow its nose like it should, that’s the easier way to turn. I like to ride with contact because I rode English for so long. I don’t like three miles of rein and pitch their head to them. I feel like I can help them better my way.
“I don’t get along with horses that won’t let me handle them like that. I use short reins and only move my rein hand an inch, if that. I make little moves and try to stay out of the way because I feel the less you move around on a horse, the better. Some horses are funny about their face and won’t let you keep that contact all the time.
“The way I run at the first barrel straighter and keeping that nose, my horses almost look like they’re getting by the barrel on the backside. Maybe they are, but they come back hard.
“I go straighter at first and provide the space on the backside so they can come back straight. It all depends on the horse being athletic enough to do that, though. If they aren’t, they can’t. I run some horses that it flat doesn’t work.
“Since I almost feel like it’s a racecar making a turn-you just step to the outside, and they swap ends and go (if they can do it)—I give more room toward the fence side than on the approach.
This article was originally published in the July 2009 issue of BHN. E-mail comments ont his article to [email protected].