Bring your horse’s hip into position around the barrel with this slow-and-steady drill from Nicole Laurence.
By Nicole Laurence, with Abigail Boatwright
One of the most common issues I see in the finished barrel horses I work with is a tendency to swing their hip out around the barrel. These horses drop their shoulder in at the barrel when their hip is out of alignment with the rest of the body. This can lead to slicing or hitting barrels, taking more steps than needed at barrels and even falls during the turn. The drill I’m going to introduce addresses this issue. You’ll learn how to put the horse’s hip in the right place, and your horse will drive with the front end as the hind end holds the horse upright and pushes it around.
Why It’s Helpful
Often, riders teach the horse the barrel pattern and think their work is done—you can just run barrels from that point onward. Then, when something happens, the go-to for fixing the problem is grabbing a new bit or contraption. But for me, I slow things down and go back to the basics, placing my horse’s feet exactly on the path I want them to run, but at a slower speed.
This exercise also helps the rider learn the correct time to cue with their hands. Some riders will cue the horse too early, lifting their hand five strides before the barrel when really, you need to cue one stride before. Putting the horse’s hip in with this drill helps you keep your hands in the right place until it’s time to actually turn the barrel.
When To Do It
I do this drill almost every single day. I may warm my horse up outside in a large round pen or in the pasture to prepare its mind and exercise it, but then I put the horse on the pattern with this slow and methodical drill.
You can do this drill with the equipment you ride in on a daily basis, but I typically use an O-ring snaffle and draw reins because it feels good in my hands. If the horse is having a hard time—not wanting to stand up and put its hips underneath itself, I will use a shanked bit—usually a Petska or something similar. I don’t use it harshly in any way, but it helps keep my cues consistent so I can ask for the movement softly, with repetition.
When you do this drill every day, consistently, your horse will learn exactly where to go. It will know where to put its feet, and it’s not panicking or hesitating about anything. The drill helps develop confidence in the horse through repetition.
I’ll approach the barrel at one speed, and I always go one gear lower around the barrel. So if I lope to the barrel, I’ll trot around it. If I’m trotting to the barrel, I’ll walk around it. I don’t ever lope around the barrel for this drill. Place your horse on the path you’d like it to run at top speed. Keep this path throughout the maneuver.
- Start like you’re doing a normal barrel pattern, at a slower speed. Collect your horse with your hands and your legs, and make sure the horse is soft in its face.
- Loping to the first barrel, melt into a stop when your leg gets even with the barrel. Do this by keeping contact with the horse’s mouth, lightly increase mouth pressure and melt your hips down into the saddle.
- Using your outside leg and calf, keeping the horse’s nose tipped just to the inside or straight with your hands, and pushing your hips in the direction of the barrel, push the horse’s hip in alignment with the horse’s body curve around the barrel.
- Stand in place for a few seconds—just long enough for an intake of breath, to allow the horse to calm down if it’s panicky. This helps it relax and know that the barrel is a safe place.
- Ask the horse to trot around the barrel twice, keeping the hip in, shaping the body from nose to tail around the barrel as if you were turning it at speed.
- After you’ve left the barrel, ask for a lope to approach the next barrel. Always keep light contact with the horse’s mouth.
Once I’ve done this pattern at a lope twice, I will trot-to-walk the drill twice. I finish by walking the drill several times until the horse is relaxed. It may sound boring, but doing the exercise this way really helps your horse know the exact steps you want it to take.
If your horse isn’t keyed up while you’re working, then you only need to walk the pattern two or three times. If it’s full of energy, you may need to trot the pattern five or six times, then walk it until you feel like it’s relaxed and putting it’s feet in the right place. After completing this drill, you can move on to the next thing. It just depends on how your horse is doing that day.
If you ever doubt you’re doing the right thing with your horse or this drill isn’t working, take a deep breath and slow the pace down. It’s best for the horse to slow down and go back to the basics of what you’re asking it to do. Put the feet in the right place. Relax. Be confident. Keep it fluid and consistent, and if something’s not working, slow down and start over.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BHN.