By Sherry Cervi with Laura Lambert
Question: I have a 15-year-old mare I have been running barrels and poles on for 10 years. She is very choppy on her barrel entry when she slows down preparing for the turn. It jolts my body, makes me sore and adds a lot of time to our runs. She’s fast enough between barrels, on the way home, in the turns and comes out of the barrel so great that we should be placing in 2D with 1D possibility, but we always fall between the 2D-3D cracks or even in 3D without placing.
How do I improve the choppy barrel entry and make it smoother to decrease our time and eliminate body soreness or injury?
Sherry Cervi: My first suggestion is to make sure everything is in working order, so to speak. Saddle fit is key to keeping a horse feeling her best. If something is pinching your horse, she will ultimately quit working and could become choppy going into the barrel in order to protect herself from the pain.
Bit selection is also important. If your horse is worried or anticipating pain from bit pressure, it is quite possible that her approach to the barrels is being affected.
Next, make sure your horse is in great physical shape and is sound. Just like with equipment errors, soundness issues create pain and will affect performance. I suggest taking your horse to professionals whom you trust, such as your vet, equine chiropractor, equine dentist and farrier, to ensure pain is not the issue.
Assessing the entire situation is also important. Does this horse do this on every run, or only sometimes? This is an essential question because this situation involves a mare. I know from experience that certain mares experience pain in their ovaries when they are in season, which might add to behavioral issues.
After you’ve eliminated your equipment and any potential health problems as a source of discomfort, you can then move into the arena to try to correct the problem through some simple exercises. For example, I recommend doing one barrel drills in both directions to help smooth out the barrel entry. Because your mare is an older, seasoned horse, I don’t think you need to do a lot of slow work with her. She knows the pattern and needs to be corrected at a higher rate of speed.
So start off by just loping around the arena. Pick one barrel to turn, and then approach that barrel just as you would in the run. The key to this exercise is that the rider really drives the horse up into the turn and does not allow the horse to anticipate the turn and “cheat.”
When a horse’s stride is choppy coming into the barrel, she is generally anticipating the turn too much and not letting you drive her up into the pocket. So, as you are loping around the arena, you pick out a barrel and increase your speed to the barrel just as you would be doing in a run. Use your feet to keep the horse moving and to drive her up into the turn without anticipation.
When you first start this exercise, your mare may be unsure or lost about what you are asking of her. Be patient and really push her up there with your body position and feet, and she will figure it out. I can’t stress enough that you cannot let your horse dictate to you when she should start rating. You have to ride the horse to the point at which you want her to start the turn, and using your feet is critical to the success of these exercises.
Now, if you try this exercise and you just can’t get it, then slow down. You need to be able to do this exercise smoothly at all speeds anyway. In fact, for variety and to keep the horse really listening to your cues instead of anticipating the turns, you can change the exercise up with different speeds and different diameter circles around the barrel. Sometimes, I’ll even just turn that barrel once and then continue on loping. Other times, I might turn it two or three times at a pretty rapid pace, teaching my horses to keep their hind ends up underneath them and their inside pivot legs set.
Finally, in the past when I’ve had this type of issue with my horses, I’ve utilized my access to roping events. Why? Because when a horse has to focus on an object, such as the cow or steer, I can apply the same training principals I use when hunting a barrel. I make sure the horse is running free up to the animals and is not being short or anticipating what is going to happen. If the horse is short running to the animal, I’ll use my legs and feet to encourage the horse to be freer, riding all the way to the spot I want them to go before allowing them to rate off.
By encouraging and allowing your horse to use her body correctly, the odds of overall injuries, including body soreness, for both you and your horse will be greatly decreased.
Sherry Cervi is a multi-faceted barrel horse trainer and reigning world champion barrel racer. For more information about her barrel horse program, visit sherrycervi.com.