Perfect your horse’s turns with this drill from trainer Danyelle Campbell.

To prevent my horse from anticipating turns, I will use a square exercise, in which I’m guiding them around the barrels in a series of 90-degree turns, rather than round circles. I’ve seen lots of people put too much pressure on the turn—trying to finish it too soon. My slow work looks like I’m putting an extra step in my turn, but when it comes down to making a run, that step isn’t there, and it’ll help you make a clean run by taking the anticipation out of your horse throughout the turn. The square turn will help to keep the shoulder up and legs driving forward. I do this exercise with all my horses as part of my training program.

You can do this drill to prevent your horse from anticipating turns during the barrel pattern.
This exercise can be done at the walk, trot and lope around the barrel pattern. Head into the barrel turn, and start with a 90-degree turn when your horse’s hip is lined up with the barrel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Getting Started

I generally outfit my horse in a square mouthpiece O-ring snaffle or a rope draw bit. I try to stick to something pretty light, because I don’t want anything with a lot of leverage or shank because I don’t want any brace in their body. I think a horse can tend to lock their jaw or brace up a bit when you’ve got a curb strap. I want them moving through the exercise flat, so I don’t want anything in their mouth they can brace against.

I do not use martingales for this exercise—German or running. Occasionally I will use draw reins, hooked high at the level of the breastcollar, but no martingales. They tend to make the horse break straight down and you don’t get the freedom in the shoulders that I look for.

I do this exercise while I’m working the barrel pattern at home. I’ll usually trot it every day as part of working my horses. I will lope the exercise as needed. Not every single day, but it does help a lot. I find the trotting teaches them to reach with all four legs. While loping, this drill keeps their inside hind leg driving through the turn.

Perfect your horse's turns with this drill.
Your second 90-degree turn should happen when your horse’s hip again lines up with the barrel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Step by Step

Starting at a walk, guide your horse toward the first barrel and into a small circle around it. During this drill, I like to stay six to eight feet from the barrel until I hit my last point, at which time I finish the turn tightly. It’s important to maintain equal distance around the entire turn in order to hold the horse’s proper frame. You hold your horse’s frame with your legs, not your hands, and focus on hitting four turning points around the barrel with your horse’s front feet.

It’s important to look at the ground in front of where you want your horse’s feet to land. Your body language and hands will follow your eyes, and your horse will follow your body language. This will keep your horse moving forward and keep both of you from focusing too much on the turn. Work on consistent body position.

Focus on not letting your horse’s ribs and shoulders float out. You want to lay out an imaginary square as you’re riding. When the horse’s hip gets to the barrel as you’re approaching it, then you’re going to turn 90 degrees. When the hip gets to the barrel again, turn another 90 degrees. When the hip gets up to the barrel again, turn 90 degrees and you’ll be ready to drive out into a larger square. Make sure you’re really driving your horse to turn sharp turns, moving that front end around.

You want this first square to be a “perfect” turn, with your horse’s feet hitting exactly where you want them to go on a barrel run. I stay probably four to six feet away from the barrel going into it, but finish the turn tight.

After guiding though a small square, push your horse into a large circle around the barrel. Then draw back down to another small one—a “perfect” turn around the barrels, before pointing your horse toward the next barrel.

Repeat at a trot, and eventually at the lope. As you’re doing this, your horse needs to step up and all the way through the turn.

Horses learn through repetition, so don’t over-exaggerate any more than you have to. Turn the way the horse is supposed to turn the barrel. You want that to be the first and last thing on their mind when they approach and when they leave the barrel—that this is where their feet and body need to be.

Campbell makes a third turn in this drill that helps horses make cleaner turns.
A third turn should happen when your horse’s hip lines up with the barrel again. Leave the turn tight and straight to set up your second larger square. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.
Make cleaner runs when your horse doesn't anticipate the turns.
Leave the turn tight and straight to set up your second larger square. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.
This drill helps prevent your horse from anticipating turns.
Finish your first square with another turn, this time a bit farther out from the barrel for a larger square. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Perfect your Technique

Remember to ask your horse to break in its stride as you’re approaching the barrel when you’re traveling at any speed faster than a walk. This is from a trot to a walk—it’s a moment of collecting them a bit, slowing down slightly. That way they know that no matter what, they’ve got to get on their hindquarters.

In everything I do, I want my horse’s front end up. I never want them to put weight on their shoulders. So it’s very important for me to not let them freewheel their feet around the barrel, just letting them turn wherever, even at a trot. Generally, the first thing the horse is going to do if you don’t break their stride and collect them a little first, is they’ll dump everything and put all their weight on the front inside foot. For me, I can’t ride that way. I like that front leg picked up. So while breaking the stride before the first point, I will squeeze a bit with my inside leg to get a nice arc in their body and break at the rib cage. Depending on your horse, you may need to keep using your inside leg throughout the square to keep your horse’s front end up and moving.

Keep your eyes focused on the path to keep your horse from anticipating turns.
Keep your eyes focused on the path you want your horse to travel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.
Danyelle Campbell demonstrating the drill at a lope.
You can do this exercise at a lope as well. Just make sure to use your legs to keep your horse from ducking in. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

If your horse cuts in, use your eyes and legs much more than your hands to correct it and keep it on track. Your legs are what make your hands work—press with your inside leg to break the rib cage loose, rather than using your reins to move it.

Make sure to look at the ground in front of you to lay out an imaginary square. Look where you want to go— just like you’re riding a bike or driving a car. Your hands and body follow where your eyes are looking.

Don’t overdo it with this exercise. Go through it maybe three times, and if your horse seems to have it down, move on to something else. Just make sure your horse is correct, that you’re hitting all the points and your horse is not getting off track.

To watch this drill visit “Horse Body Positioning” on

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.