Learn how seemingly small details make a big difference when correcting issues on the pattern.

In my experience there’s rarely quick, one-and-done fixes like switching bits or stopping your horse a lot at the barrel when it comes to issues like running by the first. When I’d see people do these things with their barrel horses and try it for myself, it usually took more than that for me. That’s why I try to teach a bit outside the box. I try to think about things from the horse’s perspective and get in the mind of the horse a bit.

Training a solid barrel horse through correct repetition takes years to accomplish, so keep that in mind as you work on issues. I don’t like to turn to excuses, but you have to know your horse and know when soreness is part of the problem. If a horse that was working solid starts getting by barrels out of the blue, anything from hock soreness, foot soreness, dental or chiropractic issues can be to blame. If something’s not right, it pays to check it out. No one should know your horse better than you do.

Here we’ll tackle a couple of issues that commonly crop up on the pattern and look at potential solutions.

Fixing First

Sometimes first barrel problems are caused when the horse starts crowding in toward the barrel then going by because he’s out of position. Some horses don’t rate down enough to turn. Adding speed can be another problem area, especially if a horse gets in the habit of running by.

It pays to ask yourself specific questions about potential causes. Is your horse naturally a free-runner? He might not need much urging for speed. Is the horse nervous, amped up or anxious? You might have to come up with ways to help him stay calm. Is the horse going by out of habit because it’s happened a time or two and become an every-run occurrence? Was the horse pushed too fast, too soon or got by the first barrel in a big arena and now looks for chances?

Learn to gauge your speed because it will help a lot of horses, especially at the first barrel. Some horses will do this on their own for you, which makes things easy, but in most cases you’ve got to know how fast to approach the first barrel.

Keep in mind if you’ve been holding your horse off the barrels, that makes them come in more. Crowding the approach gets you out of position from the start. Always consider where you’re looking, sitting and your job as the rider. If a horse is moving out away from the barrel and turning wide, that horse might need to be ridden with two hands and need to feel pressure on both sides of his mouth to square him up.

If you’re adding speed on a greener type of horse, you’ve got to know what the horse can handle. Consider the ground and arena size, too. Generally speaking, horses rate more in deep ground than they do in harder ground. Weigh these factors and when you decide to go a little faster, keep in mind you might need to sit deeper, but at the same time see what you’ve got when you give the horse more responsibility to run in there and turn. The last thing you want is to repeat running by, so if the horse isn’t rating with added speed, go back and reinforce rate and position. Horses have a tendency to follow the run before, so getting by a little bit can become worse the next run, which you want to avoid. That’s why little things when you’re riding around or riding out are so important. Make sure you’re cuing your horse to stop and that he reads your body language.

Stepping Off

A lot of the same principles with the first barrel apply to other issues, such as hanging up on the backside of a turn. If you crowd a turn, most horses will have to step off. When I see horses step off and go wide it’s often due to losing position because they come into the turn too tight. Slow down and square the horse up going into the turn. Use two hands and hold them to that spot three to four feet to the side of the barrel.

A lot of novice riders will start running before they’ve completed the turn. That develops a habit in that horse of pulling out of turns. It gets ingrained in the horse and can take time to fix. With that said, you also have to ask yourself if you’re winning is it OK to let it go a little? I’ve seen horses that keep good momentum even if they pull out of a turn slightly.

When you’re going down the road and rodeo is how you make your living, there’s not a lot of time to fix things. You’ve got to know what you can live with. You have to ask yourself some hard questions, do a gut check. Does the horse clock if he steps off a little, or is it costing you money? Sometimes that’s the case, not always. You’ve got to have a horse that’s fast enough to get away with a few mistakes because, for whatever reason, you’re not going to make flawless runs every time.


If you know you need to work on fixing a little detail in a run, visualize the steps so your mental practice can take over in a run.

If you learn to adjust your riding and are intentional about it, horses feel that. If you’re afraid of a problem in a run, such as your horse running by, it seems like the more you worry about it, the more likely it is to happen. Sometimes you have to back off and go through your riding checklist. Are you sitting? Is your timing right? Are you nervous? It always helps to analyze your riding. That’s why I also say to anybody sitting on the sidelines that wants to judge or criticize—don’t do it, because it’s never as simple as it looks.

What you think and what you project is one of the most important things. When I think back to when I was riding Scamper and hauling with my mom, there was never a thought of “You can’t do this,” there was never any doubt. It was expected that we could win and pay our way. It was attainable and that is everything, because I knew without a doubt my horse and I were capable. That’s why I like to help people think outside the box because they learn and gain tools, mentally and physically.

Timing and rhythm are hard things to teach, but I know with those great runs, you have to have some snap to your riding. You’ve got to have great timing and confidence. Timing is going to be different from one rider to the next and one horse to the next, so never underestimate the importance of really knowing your horse.

This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.

Authors and

Email comments or questions to [email protected]

1 Comment

  1. Patton Elizabeth Reply

    My daughter has two barrell horses. One was doing very well for about 2years now he will not go in the alleyway. No matter what we try. The other will head to the fence after he rounds the first barrell. Please help we have tried everything we know to do and everything everyone has suggested!

Write A Comment