Veteran barrel horse trainer and super senior rider Marcheta Garrett shows how a simple change in direction can put your horse’s training on the correct path.
Along with the standard barrel and pole patterns, random objects take up space around Marcheta Garrett’s training yard—pylons, a large tractor tire filled with dirt, a railroad tie bridge, ground poles, an L-shaped trail obstacle and general miscellany.
Garrett, who has two National Finals Rodeo qualifying horses on her training resumé, isn’t one to trot and lope a lot of big circles, even with her young horses straight from the colt breaker. Instead, they’re turning random objects, going through the pole pattern—correctly, or turning random poles, maybe trotting back and forth turning the first and second barrels, stepping over ground poles and occasionally jogging after a Schnauzer that decides the damp ground is a good place to lay.
“Got to be careful,” Garrett chuckled. “You don’t want to hurt the dogs.”
Ironically, the only horses that get to lope and trot circles at Garrett’s house are the finished horses needing exercise, but they too are generally trotting patterns, crossing poles and climbing on the tractor tire to stay in shape.
“It’s just stuff,” Garrett said. “I don’t want to be bored. The horses don’t want to be either. It’s not really drilling, because you’re always doing something different. I want my horses happy and listening to me. It doesn’t have to be on a pattern. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s about getting them to literally listen to you. That’s basically all you’re doing.”
Keeping it Simple
When a colt comes home with 30 to 60 days under saddle, Garrett goes straight to the barrel and pole patterns. Granted, Garrett doesn’t do the patterns in the traditional sense at first, because she believes getting a horse broke and patterned can happen at the same time.
The first priority is listening.
“I’m not so worried about how they’re turning,” Garrett said. “I’m more concerned that they’re turning when I ask them.”
Once she has very basic control established, she starts to finesse the turns and handle. For most horses, this is done with the pole pattern. At first, it might be just turning all the poles the same direction, trying to make a perfect circle around each one.
The poles are a good guide, because you’re aiming to make your horse’s path go directly in between the middle of two poles, so you know you’re making good correct circles.
Then, she may change it up by skipping a few before turning one or changing directions every few turns. The key is to keep it varied as you advance to working the actual pole pattern.
“You’re getting them to listen to you, but now you’re also teaching them how,” Garrett said. “You’re also finding out what’s natural for them. I want things to be as natural for them as possible, because they work better. What’s natural for them is due to conformation. Every one of them is a tiny bit different. You don’t want them doing something really wrong like turning their head to the outside or swinging their rear out, but you want to stay in the realm of what’s natural for them because it’s easier.”
In other words, you’re not going to make a horse that’s built to have a stiffer style to turn a barrel like a bendy horse, but you can make both horses do what’s natural for them correctly.
Garrett also employs the basic training technique of wrong should be hard and correct should be easy. For a barrel and pole horse, that means working correctly is easy, but making a mistake begets difficulty. With Garrett, that difficulty is simply the added work of going the opposite direction.
It doesn’t matter if she’s turning a barrel, a pylon, tree stump, or weaving through the poles—if the horse does something incorrectly, she might circle it again once—in the case of a youngster just learning, it’s a second chance to do it correctly—or she’ll immediately make the horse turn the opposite direction, especially if it’s one that has been worked enough to know better.
“If they brace against you at all, it affects everything—their head, their neck, their shoulders, their hips,” Garrett said. “They’ve made a bad decision when they take their nose and shoulder from me. Turn them in the opposite direction and they start listening. Like going to the end pole (the first left turn), if they’re not turning correctly, I’ll turn them to the right and come back and put them in the correct spot.”
Garrett prefers turning the opposite way instead of reverse arcs, or counter arcs, because it keeps forward motion.
“I don’t like to use reverse arcs because that stops the forward motion,” Garrett said. “When they’re leaning on you, they’ve already quit driving with their back foot. A reverse arc just encourages them to stay short with that back foot. I’ve always loved ratey horses and most of mine tend to be that way, so I need to have them moving forward. I just make a little circle the other way, shape them back up, and then continue on. If they’re not listening to me, they have to work. That extra circle or two the other way is work. When they do it right, they get to go on.”
The key is correcting as soon as the horse starts thinking about not responding correctly. Garrett will use her hands to shape the horse with a little reinforcement from her feet. When her foot needs reinforcement, it’s time to go the other way.
“I’ve done this for so long, I can feel it before it starts happening,” Garrett said. “I’ve naturally put my foot in them as soon as I feel them not responding correctly. That’s when I snatch them up and go the other way. It’s difficult, because you don’t just ease them into the opposite direction, you grab them up quick and go the other direction. It’s not an easy, ‘Oh, let’s just turn the other direction.’ It’s not pleasant. It’s a ‘You’re wrong, you’re not listening, do I have your attention, right now,’ kind of turn. Basically, it puts a better handle on them and makes them listen.”
It doesn’t matter where in the turn they’ve stepped or moved out—anytime they’ve gotten off the correct “bunny trail,” Garrett will turn a circle the opposite direction.
“It could be coming into a turn or on the backside,” Garrett explained. “When I make the opposite circle, I’m putting the focus back on me and I can shape them back correctly. You want to make that opposite circle in such a way that you come right back into your correct tracks.”
The same theory applies to within the weave of the pole pattern. Sometimes she’ll use an opposite circle and sometimes she’ll require the horse to start the turn over completely, going back to the previous pole and reattempting the weave.
“On the really young ones that are still working on their listening skills and just starting out on the pattern, I’ll actually turn them the direction they’re leaning right away—even if it’s right on top of a pole—and trot back to the previous pole, turn it and start the weave over,” Garrett said, referencing Figure 1. “Sometimes, I end up making several figure eights through the pole pattern, but by the time I’m finished, they are thinking leaning is a bad idea because every time they did it, they had to do something extra.”
Something to watch for is the difference between a horse telling you, “I don’t understand or I don’t know, and I don’t want to.” The earlier in the training stages a horse is, the more likely they are to get a do over, like when they weave too close in the poles, they have to go back and try it again. For more advanced colts and finished horses that need a tune, the correction is instant—turn a circle the opposite way, get back in position and keep going.
It all boils down to when the horse is doing the right thing, going the direction you want, turning correctly, you’re not really doing much with your hands, feet or seat. When they do something wrong, you’re a little quicker with your hands, stronger at their sides with your feet and more adamant with your body language.
“You want them to feel when you’re thinking about doing something, because your body changes when you think about things,” Garrett said. “Basically, what you’re trying to do is get them listening to you, not just with your hands to their mouth, but with everything.”
Keep Them Happy
Since Garrett says she’s “piddling” all the time, her horses don’t stress too much about actual pattern work or runs because they’ve done a little of it all. It’s not going from loping perfect circles to challenging patterns all at once—piddling with patterns and occasional randomness keeps them listening and it keeps them happy.
“Once they start to advance, if they do it right or make an improvement, you quit,” Garrett said. “You want to keep horses happy. Go ride in the pasture or just talk and walk with friends anything that doesn’t stress them out.” In addition to her many obstacles, Garrett also likes to take horses to the woods. Trail riding with a purpose can both decompress and teach a horse at the same time.
“The trick is keeping happy,” Garrett said. “I could take a horse through the pattern here and it would work mediocre. I’d go to the woods and piddle around, turn trees, step over logs, ride through the creek, play chase through the woods with someone else, then I could come back and they’d work a pattern like you’d never believe. They were happy, relaxed and listening.”
Sometimes, Garrett might spend an hour trotting through the patterns and taking her horses through and around her obstacles, which is essentially bringing the woods to her yard.
“If they’re having a mediocre day, I’ll take a little break, back them through the L, side-pass the ground poles, make them walk across the bridge or crawl on the tire,” Garrett said. “It’s mostly about listening to me, but it’s also about trust with the tire and the bridge. When they crawl on the tire or cross that bridge, they’re focused on me and they trust me.”
Meet The Expert
Marcheta Garrett of Hempstead, Texas, grew up in the burgeoning horse industry in the central valley of California. She competed in college for Fresno State University, finishing third at the College National Finals rodeo in 1965 and second in 1966. She was also crowned Miss College Rodeo.
After marrying and moving to Texas, Garrett purchased the 1973 Rocket Wrangler son Iron Bird at the Houston Livestock Show Horse Sale. She won three races on the track with Iron Bird before taking him to the arena. He was the 1977 American Quarter Horse Association reserve World Champion Junior Barrel Horse and finished third in the Junior Pole Bending. He went on to sire many top barrel horses and an AQHA/Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Calf Horse of the Year.
Garrett turned to training full time as a single mother with two children to raise. Some of the top horses to come through her program include Fun Jet, who went to the National Finals Rodeo with Denise Adams, Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi’s rookie champion and first NFR qualifier Lances Ugly Boy, and top futurity horse Ms Hostess Jet. She also trained countless talented youth rodeo horses, including National High School Finals rodeo qualifiers. Although mostly retired from training horses for the public—she’ll take about one a year to start on the pattern—Garrett is still actively competing on horses she’s raised by her Dash For Perks stallion Captain Perk. At age 72, she’s still taking home 1D checks in the barrels and poles
This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.