When it comes to training futurity colts, Hallie Melvin Hanssen is all about instilling self-sufficiency in her horses. When the money is down, she can trust that her horses know how to handle themselves both mentally and physically.

“I do a lot of exercises off the barrels to teach my horses how to do things I need them to do on the barrels,” Hanssen said. “I want my horses to be able to do most everything on the pattern themselves; I’m just there to help them.”

Hallie Hanssen demonstrating the quick step drill
Teaching a horse to cross over in slow work off of the pattern improves his agility around a barrel. Photo by Danika Kent.

Best Foot Forward

Early in the training process, Hanssen uses forward motion and precise body language to teach a young horse how to cross one foot in front of the other. When the horse has progressed to work on the barrel pattern, she can depend on it to know when, where, and how to apply the most efficient footwork.

“It’s very basic, but you would be surprised how many horses don’t know how to cross over on the front end,” Hanssen said. “If they can’t do that, they can’t reach, and that’s a very important motion.”

This exercise fits into Hanssen’s training protocol as a simple solution for a variety of problems encountered with more experienced horses as well. It is good practice to sharpen up horses that drift in their ribcage or to temper horses that are aggressive in the turn. She has also used it as reverse psychology for those horses that lose focus on a turn.

“I want my horses to crave the turn, so when I get one that wants to look to the outside when I take him around a barrel I just say, ‘Okay, you want to go this way? We’ll turn this way,'” Hanssen said. “It makes them lock on to the barrel much better. If they have to work over there, then they think, ‘No, I want to be here where I don’t have to work quite as much.’”

In teaching a horse where to place its feet, Hanssen does all she can to help it find the path of least resistance. She starts by using forward motion to her advantage.

“It’s really hard for a horse that doesn’t know how to do this to do it from a stand still. The easiest way to teach a horse how to make that quick step is to walk in a circle and start bringing him to the inside, asking for just one little step,” Hanssen said.

Guiding with her inside hand and applying pressure with her outside foot, she asks her horse to arc its body as it would approaching a barrel.

“I want enough arc in his neck that I can see his eye. Some horses will really come in with their face and nose, but I don’t necessarily need all of that,” Hanssen said. “I just want him to follow a little basic pressure. It’s all about following my hand, listening to my foot and making that move. All I need is one step to start. All I ever really want is that one step. I don’t want him to stay in it; it’s not about planting his hind leg and spinning around it. One step with forward motion is all you need.”

When you apply this exercise to the barrel pattern, however, it becomes a 360-degree maneuver.

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Hanssen cues her horse to step across on the back side of the first barrel, setting him up for a quick departure to the second. Photo by Danika Kent.

“Most of the time, I practice it on the backside of the barrel for quickness,” Hanssen said. “That’s the spot where he needs to listen to my hands, come back around, push off and leave.

A Helping Hand

Hanssen is very cognizant of how she uses her hands to keep a horse limber and lithe in his fore limbs.

“In order for that move to work, I have to bring my hand back toward my hip, tap him with my outside foot, and let him go as soon as I feel him cross over in the front. I’m not going to lift up across his neck, because that allows his nose to come but his shoulders and neck lock up, and he’s very limited to what he can do,” Hanssen said.

She often relies on a Loomis gag bit as a softening tool.

“I’ll run certain horses in it occasionally, but you get a lot of [loose] rein back so I don’t do it often,” Hanssen said. “I tune a lot of horses in it and then run them in a snaffle or something else. A snaffle isn’t going to work for everybody, but for my hands it works pretty well.”

While she acknowledges that two hands on the reins are better than one when it comes to starting colts, Hanssen transitions to riding with one hand at the earliest opportunity to establish a consistent feel that is familiar when she takes a horse to the barrel pattern. From start to finish, Hanssen’s program revolves around consistency, repetition and simplicity.


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