By Bo Hill with Breanne Hill
Question: My mare is leaping out of the second and third barrels. She’s not sore and can smoke her first barrel. She’s still clocking in the 2D, but could be so much faster if she was snappier in her left-hand turns. Are there any reasons why she could be having trouble with these turns, and are there any exercises I can do to help her improve?
—Megan Gardner, of Waterloo, Iowa
If your horse is stepping out of a turn, and you have ruled out soreness, a few different issues could be contributing to your problem. Usually, a horse that steps out of a turn is simply starting to run before the turn is complete (anticipating), or she is cutting off the pocket going into the turn (not getting enough room to be where she needs to be).
Does either of these scenarios describe what your mare is doing? If so, the next question becomes, who is causing the problem, you or her? It is possible that she is anticipating running and not giving herself enough room going into the turn. A lot of this depends on her background. But you could also inadvertently be causing her to leap out of the turns by cuing her to cut the pocket short or—and this is a very common mistake—taking her too straight into the barrel.
Of course, stepping out of a turn is also common among horses that are bracing against their riders’ hands and getting stiff in the bridle. You will generally have a problem anytime a horse is not staying soft and not staying behind the bit, basically fighting the bridle and not picking up on cues.
This is a great example of how a horse’s training foundation can affect its competitive career. Ideally, a horse is broke to be soft in the bridle, and any stiffness problems are headed off before they are started. I can tell you that, as a trainer, you can usually feel this stiffness coming on and can stop it before it gets out of hand. You start to notice your horse not being soft when you are just loping circles and warming up. A good rule of thumb is, if a horse is not soft when you are just riding, chances are, she is not going to be soft on the pattern.
Fighting the bridle or leaping out of turns might be something that your mare has just always be allowed to do from the beginning of her training. If this isn’t the case, the chances are greater that it is a problem you are enforcing by the way you’re riding. The good news is, if you’re doing it or if it’s something she’s recently picked up, the problem will probably be easier to fix.
My point in talking about identifying the source of your mare’s problem is to stress the importance of repetition and habit. Horses learn and develop habits by repetition, so they will generally keep doing what they have been taught or allowed to do in the past unless you change their habits at home.
Which brings us to an important corrective exercise you can try when practicing.
First of all, if I get a horse that is stepping off a turn, I don’t try to fix the problem on the pattern. In my opinion, that causes a horse to dread the barrel. Instead, I first try to get that horse to follow my hand by simply loping circles.
Start by loping a large circle and then keep making that circle smaller and smaller. When you’ve got about a barrel-sized circle, start making the circle larger, and gradually work your way back out into the bigger-sized circle that you started with.
I do all of these circles at a lope, and, if possible, I ride one handed. It is acceptable if at first it takes two hands on the reins to bring your horse into the smaller circle and keep her moving forward, but you want to eventually work your way to riding one handed and using your inside rein only because that is how you want to turn the barrels—with one hand and pressure on the inside rein.
After you have full control of your mare in all sizes of circles—and by full control I mean her hip is up underneath her and her shoulder is not dropped to the inside of the circles—then you can go back to the barrel pattern.
Approach the barrel the same way you taught your horse to lope in the controlled small circles. Make sure your giving her plenty of room in the pocket and not pointing her too straight going into the turn.
You also want to keep her from anticipating by sometimes circling the barrel several times. Do not let her break out of the turn before you, as the rider, ask her to go straight again.
I think you’ll find that once you have control of your mare’s face, shoulders and hips, you can correct her back habits. You’ll have her finishing her turns before heading to the next barrel or running for home.