There are many things that can make or break a run, but if one thing is for sure, it’s that you can’t win a race without speed. Add three barrels and that speed becomes much more dynamic than on its flat track counterpart.

“One thing that I like to train on my barrel horses is forward motion,” says Tami Semas – and if her recent successes at the Diamonds and Dirt Futurity and RFD-TV’s The American Rodeo are any indication, she’s got it right. But speed alone is not enough, she says; control is the second half of that equation.

“A horse needs to be able to lengthen his stride and then come back to me quickly. I want to shorten that stride before the barrel, not in the turn. When I’m able to shorten the stride before the turn, that’s what helps me to have quick feet in the turn and then leave the barrel hard. If I have control going into the turn, I am able to ride my horse through the turn and leave the barrel quickly.”

With three turns happening within 17 seconds or less, you’ve got plenty of room for costly error. Fortunately, Semas’ dry work drill provides ample opportunity to channel that speed.

“I’ll use half of the arena to make a big square. In each corner of that square, I’ll make a smaller circle. When I come out of that, I will build up a little bit of speed, and then sit and make another small circle,” says Semas of her method of extending a horse’s stride in the straightaways and gathering him up for the turns.

Tami Semas riding horse along fence
Photo by Randy McClellan

The key to the drill is helping a horse learn to adjust his stride without giving him more than he can handle. For example, on a green horse, Semas might use the entire arena and do a larger version of the small circles in the corners.

“I want to keep things easy for the horse so that he understands what he’s doing and he likes it,” she says. “Keep it at the level the horse is at. I teach a horse how to handle circles as soon as he is broke, but I don’t ask him for more than he can give me at his stage of training. The smaller you make the circles, the harder it is on them until they’re conditioned to be able to balance in that circle.”

At first, Semas suggests long trotting in the straightaways and bringing the horse to a collected trot in the smaller circles. “You’re teaching them to reach out and then sit and collect themselves. Once they’re doing that pretty easy, then you go ahead and lope. Your circles may start out a little bit bigger until they learn how to hold their hind end and drive in that circle.

“I’m not going to expect as much from a 2-year-old as I would from a 3,” she says. “As they get more progressed through their training, that’s when you dial into your smaller circles. When I get on the 3s, I’m going to get them dialed in for my barrel work.”

In addition to teaching a horse to adjust his stride, this drill also helps him develop muscle memory and master the body position required in a turn.

“I really like to have a nice shape in that circle and teach the horse to carry that without me doing it for him. When he feels me put weight in my feet and sit down, I want him to shorten his stride and come back to me. I want him to learn to follow my hand in a circle. When I sit and bring my hand toward the middle of the circle, that means to come into the circle. If I push my hand up closer to the head and neck, that means move ahead. I want my horse to feel me and learn what I’m saying, so I may stay in a circle until I get the response I’m looking for before I let him out to the next one.”

Ultimately, Semas wants her horse to wrap a barrel in four-wheel drive, and as he progresses on this drill, she can use the same cues to replicate that turn. 

“I’m looking for my horse to stay between my feet and my hands without leaning on me anywhere. I don’t have a horse over-bent and I don’t hold his nose. I just get a little bit of nose and eye and I’ll drive with an outside foot to keep him from stepping out. I have really learned to use an outside rein and foot to block a horse from getting too bendy in the circle. That also keeps him from dropping his shoulder and his hip.”

She keeps the circles symmetrical all the way through, until it’s time to teach a horse how to leave a barrel strong. At that point, she will straighten him up and drive ahead. Sometimes, however, Semas uses the exercise for the opposite effect.

“I can use it to teach a horse how to accelerate and speed up, but I can also use it to keep one relaxed. For example, the futurity colt I’m running now understands how to run hard and come back to me. If I do this drill with him at all, I might lope bigger circles to relax him and remind him to stay in position and waiting on me. With my 3-year-olds, I may use it to teach them how to accelerate and shorten.”

She adds that if a horse needs extra room to stretch out, she will go back to using the whole length of the arena. If it’s a quicker reaction time she’s after, she uses a smaller box.

“It gets my horses waiting on me and it emulates how I want them to feel in the pattern while working away from the pattern. If I get into a jam somewhere on the pattern, I can go to my dry work and fix it.” 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BHN


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