Tighten up your horse’s loose strides with this drill from Janet Staton.
When I’ve got a horse that tends to get uncollected and what I call “noodle-y” around the barrels this is the exercise I go to. It teaches the horse to get on its hind end, encouraging it to push off with its rear and keep its collection. For horses whose legs can get out from under them when the footing isn’t ideal, it will help teach them how to handle the ground better.
Why It’s Important
I think it’s really important for barrel horses, especially if they are going to go on to be rodeo horses, to learn how to handle all types of ground. If they don’t keep their legs underneath them and use their rears around the barrel, it’s going to be more difficult for them to work well on different ground conditions.
I do this exercise using the equipment with which I regularly ride my horse, nothing special. I usually prefer working on a full barrel pattern, but it can be done with just one barrel. However, I think a lot of horses can lope a pretty circle with one barrel, but when you add speed and a pattern, that’s when they lose their collection. I do this exercise at the trot, on the pattern.
Make sure your horse is responsive and has a good headset on it, because you’ll be asking it to stop and pick its ribs up. You’ll need to have done that homework to do this drill successfully. You also want to make sure the horse is respectful of the bit and can move its front end around while the hind end stays still.
When To Do It
I don’t do this exercise with all my horses, because some horses don’t need to be stopped around the barrels. But for horses that need to learn how to collect themselves and stay collected around the
barrels, this is really good. When I feel a horse scrambling around the barrel, or I see a leg that’s not underneath the horse like it should be, that’s when I do this drill.
If a horse wants to leave the barrel a little early and doesn’t want to stay in the turn, this is also a good drill. I use it to keep them driving with their back end and avoid coming out of the turns too soon.
I do this exercise about once a week, and I’ll usually tune a horse with it right before I’m going to run in my warm-up, especially if I am somewhere with the barrels set up.
Do this exercise at the trot. You will be making a four-point square around the barrel. Start by trotting to the first barrel, on the path you would run the pattern. When you get about three feet away from the barrel, stop your horse, making sure it stays in alignment—its head and rear end need to stay straight. Don’t tip the nose to the inside with this drill, keep everything straight. I do this with horses that don’t normally have a lot of natural rate, and this helps them find that point.
After stopping, I will let the horse sit for a minute, then I’ll ask it to trot out of that past the barrel. When my leg gets even with the barrel, keeping the horse straight with my hands and legs, I will ask it to stop again. Using outside leg and hand pressure, I will ask the horse to make a counter-arc, with its hind end in one position while moving the front end over.
Once it’s moved over and is on the backside of the barrel, I will ask it to stop again to make the horse collect itself. I’ll ask it to turn with the same counter-arc again and finish the turn with a final stop when it’s almost past the barrel. We’ll then head to the next barrel at a trot, or if you just have one barrel set up, then I’d go pick up a lope and ride a few circles before coming back and doing the drill again.
I only do this exercise a couple times, and then I’ll move on to something else. It’s not something to keep drilling in their brain. I just want them to be aware that they need to keep their body collected.
If your horse is not used to stopping at the barrel, it could make them a little anxious. That’s another reason to take it slow, let the horse relax and don’t get in a hurry. Don’t rush things.
You don’t want the horse hesitating at the barrels. We always want forward motion. That’s why I don’t do this with all of my horses, only the ones that have had a problem. You just want to remind them to keep their legs underneath them.
This article “Square Stopping” was originally published in the August 2019 issue of BHN.