Article and photos by Danika Kent
Newly-crowned 2014 WPRA futurity 1D reserve world champion Molly Otto, Grand Forks, N.D., refers to what she calls “counter arcing figure eights” as her “go-to to fix almost anything.” This drill instills suppleness through a horse’s shoulders and rib cage, builds quick and efficient footwork around the back side of the barrel, and sets a horse up to leave the turn strong.
“I learned about counter arcing when I was in college but I didn’t really understand how to use it to fix things. All I knew was to control their shoulders,” Otto explains. As her own understanding progressed – and her horses improved as a result – Otto adapted this drill, which she has found useful with horses in virtually all stages of training. “Now, I’ve figured out how to use it to tune them up and develop a turn that I like the feel of,” she says.
“You can’t really fix anything if you don’t have control over every part of a horse’s body,” she adds. “If you can get them to counter arc and move off your hands and legs and be soft, and then come in to your hand, you pretty much have control over every part of them. When you have that control, you can get them to turn or do whatever you need them to do to get around the barrel fast and correctly.”
To avoid confusion, Otto makes sure a horse knows how to counter arc before she begins her exercise on the pattern. She vacillates between arcs and counter arcs, exaggerating her cues at first but ultimately honing responsiveness to subtle changes in her hand position and leg cues.
“I will get them to move off my hand, which is the counter arcing,” Otto says, picking up the outside rein and laying it on her horse’s neck to tip its nose to the outside of the circle. She adds pressure from her outside leg to move the mare’s ribs and shoulders, but maintains balance throughout the horse’s body with support from the opposite rein.
“Some horses get really stiff and just want to pivot,” she cautions. “If you can just see the tip of the horse’s nose and get two steps at first, take it and go on, and just ask for a little bit at a time.”
Otto stresses the importance of keeping the horse’s hindquarters engaged and moving.
“I want her back end to stay underneath her and keep moving forward. The goal is not to have her rolling over her haunches; it’s to keep that forward momentum going. I stay sitting forward and will sometimes bump with both legs to keep that forward motion.”
When these movements are applied to the barrel pattern, it’s that forward motion that propels the horse out of the turn – but only if its shoulders and ribs are aligned. For this, Otto depends on her horse’s responsiveness.
“Once she moves off my hand, I bring her back to follow my hand stay soft. This teaches her to follow her nose around the barrel instead of pull on my hand,” Otto demonstrates, keeping her horse’s nose in the same position, but switching her own leg cues to transition from a counter arc to a regular arc in the opposite direction.
“I still ask her to move forward, but now I lay my outside leg on her,” she explains. “When I go to the pattern, when I bring my hand out on the back side, she knows to come in to it and straighten out.”
The difference is in the position of Otto’s hand – in, against the horse’s neck to counter arc, or out, to guide the horse through the turn – and whether the pressure on the horse’s ribs comes from the inside or outside leg. Either way, the horse is waiting on go and ready to tackle this drill on the pattern.
Arcing into the eight
As she crosses the 1-foot point, Otto picks up the outside rein and adds pressure from the outside leg to cue for the counter arc, exaggerating the finish of the turn.
Whether the horse is new to the pattern or needs a refresher, Otto’s counter arcing figure eights reiterate proper foot placement that will get a horse in the correct frame to power out of one turn in position for the next. Otto is particular with her horse’s position as it relates to the barrel.
“I want my horses to take the fewest number of steps around the barrels – 3-2-1 and then go on,” she explains.
The 3-2-1 she’s referring to are points she aims to cross three feet from the barrel as she comes into the turn, two feet from the barrel, behind it, and one foot from the barrel as she completes the turn. This drill focuses on closing that gap through the turn, aiming to have a square shot at the next barrel by the time she reaches the 1-foot point.
To achieve this, Otto picks up the counter arc when she crosses the 1-foot point, over-exaggerating the shift of the shoulders and rib cage that is necessary to finish the turn. As she counter arcs half way around the barrel, the horse’s nose is now tucked to the outside of the turn. When she gets back to the 3-foot point, she turns the counter arc into an arc in the opposite direction, effectively consummating the figure eight. She turns the barrel once more before going on to the next.
“I don’t counter arc all the way around the barrel,” she clarifies. “Once I’ve turned the barrel, I counter arc and over-exaggerate, then come back and turn the barrel again. The point of the half counter arc is to pick up her shoulders and rib cage so she can straighten up and get out of the barrel.”
This drill is beneficial to horses that are stiff and resistant, as well as those who get overly round and drift off of the turn.
“With this horse, it’s a reminder to follow my hand, because sometimes she’ll get a little stiff on me and want to slightly pull off when she’s leaving her barrels,” Otto says. “If a horse stays really round, I use it to teach them to pick up and get out of there.”
Even though Otto keeps this exercise at a walk and trot, with a little practice, all the pieces fall into place for that on-time, full-speed departure in the run.
“This drill keeps them soft through their rib cage and shoulders, but it really makes a horse snappy on the back side of the barrel,” Otto summarizes. “It’s a great tool.”
Meet Molly Otto
Molly Otto resides in Grand Forks, N.D., with her husband, Andy, and two sons, Sterling and Rowdy. She is a full-time barrel horse trainer, having trained such notables as Frosted Cookies, the 2014 WPRA derby world champion and pro rodeo winner, and Eyema Rare Bug, a futurity, derby, college and pro rodeo winner, both owned by Fonda Galbreath. Otto’s most recent superstar is 2014 WPRA reserve world champion mount, pro rodeo money winner and RFD-TV’s The American semifinals qualifier, Carman’s Fantasy. For more information, like Molly Otto Barrel Horses on Facebook.
This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BHN