By Danyelle Campbell with Laura Lambert
Pulling the reins toward my hip [when turning] is my style of riding. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but it’s what works for me and my horses. First, it’s important to know that I like my horses to bend in the ribcage throughout their turn. When a horse is soft through their midsection, it’s virtually impossible for them to drop their shoulders.
Many barrel racers “lift” the inside rein to “lift” the shoulders and don’t realize that in doing so, they are usually creating a brace behind the shoulders and through the ribs that will likely cause problems later in the turn (like the inability to finish the barrel quickly and efficiently).
By “pulling towards your hip” while using inside leg pressure and teaching your horse to follow that lead, you will have full body control—from the nose to the shoulders, ribs and hind quarters. I want my horse’s inside hind leg driving up underneath him, his nose tipped in and his ribs out, thus making a shape like the letter “C” with his body. When I sit down in my seat and pull toward my hip, guiding my horse’s nose around, I will also use a little inside leg pressure to loosen up the ribcage and allow my horse to make a C. I teach my horses to follow my hand through the turn while driving forward with all four feet.
A great way to test this out for yourself is to ride your horse, preferably in split reins (or at least in reins long enough to allow you to sit in your saddle seat and bring your horse’s nose around towards your hip), and practice trotting some circles (about 12-15 feet in diameter)—without a barrel involved.
First, trot around lifting up on the rein. Pay very close attention to how your horse is moving his feet. How soft and relaxed does your horse feel throughout his body? Is he supple? Are all four feet moving the same speed or do you feel he is taking choppy steps with his front feet and not reaching? (NOTE: it is very important for your horse to reach with his front end throughout your turn.)
Now, while still trotting the circles, sit in your seat and bring your inside hand back towards your hip. Many people have to actually place their thumb in the top of their pants to force themselves to leave their hand there. Use your legs to control the size of the circle. Do not move your hand. If your horse tries to turn sharply and stop moving through the turn, you have no bend in the ribs. Keep practicing this because it’s much harder than it sounds.
Within minutes, in fact usually instantly, you will notice your horse get softer and more comfortable with your hand position. His head will lower. You won’t feel any brace throughout the body. His front end will be reaching forward and around in the direction you are guiding. His hind end will be driving underneath him in the same manner that you would desire him to while working the pattern. This is a very comfortable position for your hors,e and he will relate to it.
You want your horse to be this relaxed in all of his turns at any speed. Once you master this, incorporate it into the pattern, trot the same circles around the barrels and teach your horse to move this way through the turn.
I believe in soft, low hands and keeping it simple for my horse. Therefore, I don’t use multiple hand positions through the turn. I teach my horses to counter arc with my hand low, not lifting and I do not believe in crossing my right hand over to the left side of the horses neck and vice versa because this creates a brace through the body.
Remember, if you have rib control and bend, your horse cannot drop his shoulder. If you continuously ‘”lift” your horse without getting him supple in the ribs, you will only give him something to lean and brace against, which in turn causes the inside shoulder to drop. Also, your inside rein and your inside leg are two great tools, so use them together in unison.