Communicate clearly with your barrel horse by using correct leg cues.
Leg cues have a major impact when it comes to barrel racing. I tell people all the time when I’m teaching my clinics that your left hand is 25 percent, your right hand is 25 percent and the rest of it is your legs. How you use your legs affects everything, from sitting for the turns to getting around each axis point, so using your legs properly when riding and is vital.
Two of the biggest mistakes I see riders make are: No. 1, side passing away from the barrel; and No. 2, riders who sit too much on their butts and gap their legs open too much to kick.
Avoid Side Passing
A lot of people believe that if a horse gets too close to the barrel, they should kick with their inside leg to move it off the barrel. This creates a side-pass motion away from the barrels, but it’s not a natural movement for a horse to run straight then side pass away to avoid hitting a barrel. What riders should strive for is forward motion with collection through the turn. Attempting to move the horse away from the barrel with your leg takes away forward momentum. My advice is don’t rely on your inside leg to move your horse away from the barrels.
Riders need to learn when going at a slower pace to pick their spot far enough to the right and past the barrel, because timing that turn and the distance they need to be away from the barrel is critical. When you get to the barrel and you’re too tight, it’s too late. All you have left is to pull the horse off and use your inside leg to move the horse away, which does not always work. If your first thought is to pick up the inside rein and hold the horse off, this will sometimes help at that moment but only makes the problem worse in the long run. You’ve got to learn to guide with two hands and kick with your feet. Your hands shouldn’t really move a lot, and you sure don’t want your inside hand crossing over the horse’s neck toward your opposite shoulder. Strive toward aiming for the correct position and kicking without holding the horse off or out.
If you’re so tight in the turn that you’re trying to push your horse off with your leg, then the root cause is incorrect position of where you’re aiming the horse in the first place. That is the issue that should be addressed. Some horses, if you use just inside leg, will kick the hip out and drop their weight onto the front end. You don’t want a horse’s weight heavily loaded on the front end in a turn. Some will do okay with more inside leg, but to me, it’s more about using both legs. A lot of riders I’ve watched who hold the inside rein and use a lot of inside leg hit a lot of barrels.
Not getting into the habit of kicking horses to hold them off is one thing that helped me to not hit a lot of barrels over the years, because I learned good position from an early age. Riding for that perfect road around the barrels is what you want. When you leave a barrel, you should have equal pressure on the reins and be aiming four feet to the side of the barrel you’re approaching. I’ve had the best luck by aiming the horse correctly for the approach to the barrel and keeping my legs moving, not gapped open kicking, but squeezing to urge the horse’s forward motion.
If your horse is hot, aggressive and not rating, you may not be bending your legs and taking your weight out of your stirrups. The horse may lose its position going into the barrels, because it’s going too fast with little or no position and collection, so that must be corrected. Use subtle leg pressure rather than aggressive kicking to drive a horse with your feet into the correct position.
Even though their styles were very different, both Scamper and Cruiser needed me to ride a lot with my legs. With Scamper being a ratey type of horse, I always used my legs to drive him into the bridle, urging him to stay sharp and collected. With Cruiser, even though he was hotter and a free runner, I just had to take some weight out of my stirrups and sit more on him.
Don’t underestimate the importance of how using your legs also helps your timing and balance to sit for the turns. If you put a lot of pressure in your stirrups to the point you’re pushing on your stirrups—standing up like a jockey— that’s a ‘go’ cue for horses. You need to learn to take your weight out of the stirrups around the turn and sit without bouncing. If you need more run, learn to get off your butt and hustle, that means stand up with your legs in the stirrups. To me, that is a leg cue. When kicking, you still need to be going with your horse in a smooth, fluid motion.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.