Utilizing a set of poles, Dena Kirkpatrick builds softness, footwork and correct body position in her horses while improving rider muscle memory around a turn.

Dena Kirkpatrick builds softness, footwork and correct body position in her horses through a pole exercise.
Created by Dena Kirkpatrick’s sister Teri George, a simple drill using poles in a line reinforces correct footwork and softness in your horse with good rider positioning around a turn. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Repeatedly going around three barrels can get boring for both horse and rider, and it can be easy to fall into bad riding habits that transfer onto your horse. Professional barrel racer and clinician Dena Kirkpatrick spices up her dry work at home with a versatile pole drill developed by her sister, Teri George, to encourage correct riding for the barrel racer and proper footwork and body position in the horse.

“It’s important for barrel horses, because I like a soft horse that’s nicely arced. With this, there’s not a barrel—a pole is smaller, but it’s something to focus on and there’s more of them, so it’s continual. It’s not like doing three barrels and quitting. That helps them mentally,” Kirkpatrick said. “It helps them keep the front end moving, keep that body arced, and if your horse is having issues with side-passing or not giving their nose, you’re going to help them without making them have anxiety about a barrel pattern.”

The Drill

Kirkpatrick says you can use as many poles as you’d like, though for young or green horses she typically sticks to just three. Set them in a line 21 feet apart like a traditional pole bending pattern.

You’ll do this exercise at a walk or sitting trot. Ride to the first pole, circle it twice, change direction between poles, and circle the next pole twice going the opposite direction. Work your way down the line, and then weave back through doing the same thing or head back to the beginning.

Kirkpatrick says this exercise is a great way to get your horse soft and focused before moving on to barrel work or to keep your horse correct on days you don’t work the pattern.

“I get on and walk some figure eights, then go to the pole drill and trot them,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ll do this exercise trotting, just warming them up, because it’s a lot of things horses need to learn how to do. Then I’ll move on to loping around the barrels. I use it as a pre-work.”

Kirkpatrick makes her circles 6 to 8 feet in diameter—not so small that the horse can’t move forward, but not so big that it makes the change of direction difficult.

“You can’t make them too big, or it’s too hard to get back in the poles [for the next one]. It’s a little bigger than you would turn a barrel, but not as big as I do when I’m going out and around my barrels [in slow work],” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t like to cram around them. The whole idea is to keep the horse’s front end up and moving and them driving from behind with good impulsion from your body position.”

Riding Correctly

How you ride your horse through this drill is crucial to getting the most out of it. Kirkpatrick rides in a sitting trot with her weight on her back pockets, using her feet and legs to drive the horse forward and create plenty of forward motion from the horse’s hind end.

“For this exercise, I’m riding the back end the whole time. I’m sitting down, and you want to drive with your feet,” Kirkpatrick said. “When I get to the pole, sit deep, go to one hand and go to the saddle horn just like I would if I was going around a barrel. I use my inside rein mostly, keeping the horse’s body nice and round.”

Dena Kirkpatrick builds softness, footwork and correct body position in her horses through a pole exercise.
Make your circles around the poles about 6 to 8 feet move forward and around freely, but not so big that the next pole. Photo by Ross Hecox.

On an older, more experienced horse, she switches hands between poles just like she would on a barrel pattern, briefly going two-handed to side-pass and change direction. On a young colt or a green horse that needs more help, Kirkpatrick will ride the whole drill two-handed to help the horse stay on track and in the correct position.

“If you’re riding one-handed, you’ll be one-handed [around the pole], circle twice, and then pick up with two hands and then sit down, reach up and slide down the inside rein, round him up, hand on the saddle horn, use your feet, sidepass to the next one. You’re sitting the whole time and using your feet the whole time,” Kirkpatrick said.

One of the most common rider mistakes Kirkpatrick works with at her clinics is riders lacking the core strength to sit square in the middle of their horses without leaning to the inside or getting too forward over the horse’s neck. It’s also common for riders to neck-rein around the barrel instead of using their inside rein to guide the horse’s nose around the turn. “My sister Teri uses it for little kids, because a kid [doesn’t have core strength], so a lot of them when they ride will lean to the inside and neck rein,” Kirkpatrick said.

Dena Kirkpatrick builds softness, footwork and correct body position in her horses through a pole exercise.
Dena Kirkpatrick often uses the pole drill as a warm-up exercise before going to barrel pattern work, because it reinforces every concept of the turn for both horse and rider. Photo by Ross Hecox.

“A lot of adults do this too, and they don’t realize how almost impossible it is for a horse to finish a turn when you’ve got pressure on the outside rein.”

The poles force the rider to be more cognizant of how their body is positioned and how their hands are working. It’s also a repetitive, slow-paced exercise that riders can use to consciously improve their body’s muscle memory around a turn.

“It really helps the rider sit and use your feet, because if you get forward, the horse’s front end is going to get sticky,” Kirkpatrick said. “While you might survive stickiness just going around three barrels, you’re not going to survive sticky [in this drill]. You’re not going to be able to make two circles around that pole, and you’ll feel the horse [scotch]. It really helps you as a rider learn to use your feet and keep fluid, forward motion. The pole is tall, so you’re not going to lean into it.”

Dena Kirkpatrick builds softness, footwork and correct body position in her horses through a pole exercise.
Dena Kirkpatrick likes her barrel horses to be soft in the face in response to her hands and soft through the body and ribcage in response to her feet. Photo by Ross Hecox.

Your Horse’s Position

Your horse needs to be soft and round, but not overly bent to where it loses control of its hip around the circle. Kirkpatrick achieves this first by creating forward motion with her body position, and then shaping her horse’s ribcage around her inside leg and using some inside rein to soften the nose.

She says many issues on the pattern are caused by a horse being taught incorrect footwork around the turn. The pole drill is a low-pressure exercise that will help a horse become more confident by learning to use its body and place its feet correctly.

“The reason horses get stiff or rush the turns is because they’ve been put in a position that is uncomfortable. They know that when they get to that barrel, they’re not going to feel very good about it,” Kirkpatrick said. “Proper foot placement around the barrel is crucial for an efficient turn, which is what this exercise helps, and then a lot of walking and trotting perfect circles around the barrels.”

Dena is using her seat and legs to drive her horse forward into the bridle with plenty of impulsion from the hindquarters, using her inside rein to lightly guide and soften while bending her horse around her inside leg. Photo by Ross Hecox.
On a younger horse, you may need to use two hands to guide the horse correctly through the drill. The goal is to eventually be able to ride your circles one-handed, just as you would turn a barrel. Photo by Ross Hecox.

A perfect circle is equidistant from the edge of the barrel or pole the entire way around. Using poles is another way to work on perfect circles without the repetition or anxiety of a barrel. By setting the horse up for success by using your body properly and putting the horse in the correct position, you’re building a barrel horse that responds correctly and confidently to the rider in a run. This builds muscle memory for horse and rider.

“If you put a horse’s body balanced, weight on his rear end, a free-moving front end, rider sitting down, weight on her rear end, you get a horse that can comfortably make a perfect circle,” Kirkpatrick said. “By perfect circle, I mean the circle is round, not egg-shaped, and the barrel or pole is right in the middle of it. Your circles need to be perfectly round, which is by nature what the horse’s body wants to do. The hard part is helping him enough and staying out of his way at the same time.”

This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue of Barrel Horse News.


Blanche Schaefer is an avid barrel racer and managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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