By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

A big part of losing position on the barrel approach, and consequently in the turns, often traces back to being in the incorrect lead. If you have a hard time getting your horse to pick up the correct lead, it’s a good indicator that some other things are going on in the run that are problematic.

It’s so important to be able to recognize and pick up the correct lead, because other problems that cost you time in a run develop as a result of being in the wrong lead. For instance, when approaching the second barrel a horse that’s not taking the left lead (in the case of a horse that runs to the right barrel first, and vice versa) hasn’t been taught to keep its hip in on the way to the barrel. If it’s off-leaded it’s kicking the hip out, which dumps the weight of its body onto the front end in the turn. An off-leaded horse is set up for a rougher, slower turn because it has lost power from the hindquarters it needs to drive through the turn with balance.

If you find yourself in the alleyway at the barrel race, or even at home, and your horse is in the habit of picking up the wrong lead when you leave the alley, you’ve got to stop and assess your riding, retrain yourself and teach your horse to pick up its leads easily and automatically.

Chain reaction
The number one reason horses crossfire when running barrels is due to not having adequate room to get the hip to axis point No. 3 (see diagram).

When horses are too tight, there are only three options available to them:
1. Swing the hip out in order to clear the barrel, which makes the horse lose its hind end and crossfire;
2. Run by the barrel going wide on the back side;
3. Come over the top of the barrel when leaving the barrel and knock it down.

None of these options are desirable or help riders make a consistent, confident barrel horse.

A lot of the things I talk about in this column and at my clinics are geared toward helping riders become more aware so they can work their horses in a consistent manner that will carry through to making nice, smooth runs. The odds you’ll be able to make eight good, smooth runs out of 10 are dramatically less without control of the horse’s hindquarters. Leads are critical to having control of the horse’s hindquarters so we all need to be aware of them.

I see a lot of riders bend their horses around a barrel by pulling on the inside rein with little or no collection and hip control involved. Learning to step into the correct lead not only gets your horse balanced from the first stride, but also helps you learn to control the hips of the horse and teach collection. Horses need both for quick, smooth turns.

Ride to guide
I hear a lot of barrel racers talk about giving the horse a “pocket” at the barrel. I understand what they’re saying, but I prefer to think of guiding my horse correctly over each axis point around the barrel rather than aiming at one spot. I have to be able to place the horse’s shoulder, square up my shoulders and ride the horse’s hip over each of the axis points around the turn. If you find yourself going into the barrel with the inside rein coming up over the horse’s mane toward your opposite shoulder and feel as if you’re trying to hold your horse off a barrel all the time, you’ve got to learn to guide over those axis points consistently.

Remember, the horse is being guided by pressure from the bit on the corners of his mouth, so if all the pressure from your hand is leveraged on the inside rein, you’re actually pulling the horse in toward the barrel. Horses will move in and get too close or hit the barrel because that is what you’ve inadvertently told them to do. Plus, when the horse’s nose is bent too much to the inside, there again, they lose power from behind, fall out of the correct lead, and get heavy on the front end.

I see a lot of horses over bent going into the barrels and losing balance in the turns as a result. Even though it’s a different maneuver, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any good reining trainer who spins their horse around with its head pulled to the side. It’s all about balance, because that is what it takes for horses to make the athletic moves we ask for in a run, or in a reining pattern, either one.

Horses use their neck to balance so their head needs to be in line with their hip in order for them to work. They must break at the poll and drive into the bit with collection. This is key in order to begin adding speed.

Consistent training means showing a horse where to go and building their confidence along the way by guiding correctly. It’s very important in the alley to aim the horse’s head and shoulders correctly, because as soon as you bend a horse’s head to the inside, it automatically kicks their hip out of position. That’s why trouble with leads is a good indicator you’ve overused the inside rein. Crossfiring or missing leads altogether is a telltale sign you’ve lost control of the horse’s hip.

I see riders in their slow work who try to hold the horse off the barrels by doing a side-pass move, away from the barrel. Moving out like this builds a habit in the rider of using too much inside rein, and it trains the horse to get heavy on the inside rein. It creates the habit when running of holding a horse off the barrels versus the more consistent method of guiding the horse around the barrels without moving them away from the barrels. The correct way of guiding takes learning to ride with both hands and using your feet as reinforcement to keep the horse’s body in position and in the correct lead.

When a horse lacks the fundamental of knowing its leads, it’s also harder on them physically. When you take a horse’s hip out of position their balance is taken away, which makes it more likely for them to get sore in their hocks, stifles, legs and body. With all of this said, we talk a lot about the importance of taking care of our horses physically. Horses with sores or cuts in their mouths are also going to have a harder time getting their leads, because when a cue from the bridle causes pain in their mouth, it restricts your ability to effectively communicate with them.

A horse that has trouble holding the correct lead going into the turn will have a hard time making a smooth, balanced turn around the barrel. To save the horse from physical soreness, and to save them from becoming worried mentally due to being off balance, it’s important to be aware as a rider of working consistently to catch the correct lead on and off the pattern.

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BHN


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