By Dena Kirkpatrick

Horses are creatures of habit and they learn from repetition. As such, they can be trained to do something like barrel racing simply by repeating the barrel pattern over and over. The special horses that have a lot of natural athletic ability and extra intelligence can, in fact, become successful barrel horses this way, but many will not.

Training a barrel horse without teaching the fundamentals of horsemanship is like teaching a child to read without phonics. It can be done, but it is probably not best for the horse. A child can learn to sight read, memorizing what words look like, just as a horse can learn how to run a barrel pattern by simple repetition.

I relate my horses to children on a daily basis. They are both fresh-minded and easily taught when provided the right tools with patience and clear direction. Preparing a child’s cognitive reading skills with phonics is much more practical than expecting them to memorize every word in Webster’s Dictionary, just as giving a horse the tools he needs to handle his body is more practical and successful in the long run than hoping he never has any problems in competition. Furthermore, horses that lack some natural ability can still become very successful when their training begins with proper horsemanship.

The essential fundamentals that should be taught to a young horse prepare him for what’s to come by building proper muscles and muscle memory. A good example of this is teaching the perfect circle. By perfect I mean perfectly round with the horse’s nose, front feet, and back feet on the same path. The horse must maintain the same bend around your inside leg as the circumference of the circle.

These perfect circles will force the horse to step his inside hind leg up underneath him while he is moving forward, which will strengthen the muscles in his hindquarters. Strengthening the horse’s hindquarters and effective use of the inside hind leg will give him better balance. Balance and strength will aid in the horse’s ability to handle himself in adverse ground conditions, which will, in turn, help prevent injuries.

To be able to execute the perfect circle, the horse needs a few basic skills. He needs to know how to flex laterally in both directions, give to leg pressure and carry himself with balance. He should also be light in the bridle. Teaching a horse these skills will give him the tools he needs to easily learn the barrel pattern, just as phonics give a child the tools he needs to sound out words.

Another benefit of teaching fundamentals to a young horse is that it helps the rider know when and what the horse is ready for. I’m often asked how one can tell when a horse is ready to advance. My response is that the horse tells me when he is ready and what he is ready for. By working daily on the horse’s skills, footwork and assessing his progress, I am able to feel him mature.

Fundamentally sound horsemanship is designed to help a young horse learn how to handle his body in an efficient manner. It will also help him to better understand the cues and commands he is being given by his rider. Practicing these skills regularly will increase thoroughness and obedience in the horse. As he gets more proficient at doing the tasks I ask of him, I increase the level of difficulty. It is, indeed, a building process.

Michael Jordan once said that kids who want to play basketball should play young and learn late. He was alluding to the pressure that parents and coaches put on young kids in hopes of creating superstar basketball players. He said that basketball should be fun first, and the technical components can come later.

In our business, the athletes are our horses and we are their coaches. I think many of the same rules apply for them. We are all hoping to make superstars out of each young horse we ride, and it is easy to put so much pressure on them that we take the fun out of it. I think that in order for a colt reach his full potential, he must be happy in doing so. That doesn’t mean I will not demand his respect or teach him the proper skills. I will, however, try to keep the learning process rewarding so that the youngster looks forward to his time with me.

Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments to [email protected]

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