Square up your horse with this effective exercise from Shelley Holman.

By Shelley Holman, with Abigail Boatwright

My friend and mentor Sue Smith showed me this drill earlier this spring, and as I’ve implemented it into my training program, it has helped my horses make a correct and balanced barrel turn. This drill is quite simple, but it really encourages the horse to square its shoulders up, stay light on its front feet and in your hands, and track correctly from behind. If the horse is out of balance, they’ll be inclined to change leads or pull on you as they counter-arc through the center barrel and approach the end barrels. It is a drill I do with both my finished horses and my colts.

Preparing for the Drill

This is a great exercise to do at home. I have a big outdoor arena set up with the barrel pattern, and I keep this pattern set up in the indoor arena. I do this drill once a week with my 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds that I’m getting ready for futurities. My finished horses, I’ll usually do it a day or two before I go to a show. They don’t need to do it as much. When you do this drill on a horse three days in a row, they’ll get pretty balanced.

Set up three barrels in a row. When starting with a young horse, I will set the barrels farther apart to make it easy for them, and as they figure it out, I will move the barrels closer together. I start by setting the barrels about 35 feet apart for a younger horse to 25 feet for the older trained horses. As you move the barrels closer together, horses have to be a little quicker with their feet, as everything happens a bit quicker. I will start this drill at a trot when I’m first introducing it just to show them what I want, then will move up to a lope.

Make a two-point turn around your end barrel. Here, Holman is turning at the second point.

You can do the exercise in the equipment in which you normally train.

If I’m working on this exercise with a colt and they’re struggling, if I can get him to hold that lead three times through, then I’ll quit them for the day. Some horses I’ll need to work on it for 10 minutes to get them to figure out what I want. But they’ll get it quicker than you think. Some pick it up easy, others struggle and it will take a little longer to learn.

Hold your horse to that same curve, counter-arcing around the middle barrel

Step by Step

I train my horses to do a round turn, but in this drill, I pick two points in the turn—point one in your approach where the hip is past the barrel, and point two on the back side where the hip is far enough past the barrel that the horse can leave the turn straight. I start at an end barrel by squaring up the horse’s shoulders and having their hip pushed to the inside. Picking up the lead from a standstill, I ride to point one, then a straighter line across to point two, keeping the nose tipped a bit to the inside, then as I exit the barrel I use my inside rein and my outside foot to push my horse out of the turn, keeping the shoulders square and the horse’s hind end up under it.

Next, I will counter arc through the middle barrel on the same lead. Then I will approach the end barrel on the same lead, always making the same direction turn on both end barrels.

Continue to hold the same curve, and do a two-point turn around the other end barrel. You’ll repeat the exercise both directions.

The horse may want to anticipate the center barrel, and change leads at first. If they change leads, break down to a trot or stop them if they are pulling on you or dropping their front end and pick the correct lead back up. This exercise teaches them to wait on you. Once they figure out you want them to counter arc around the middle barrel they will hold the correct lead and go through the middle smoother with their shoulder square. To keep your horse on the counter-arc correct lead, focus on driving the hindquarters up under them with your feet, softening the horse’s poll with your hands and keeping the shoulders square. When they are collected in the counter arc, they approach the barrel collected with the hind end up under them. After going through the exercise on the same lead a few times, stop your horse, change directions and pick up the other lead.

I think collection, control of the ribcage and keeping the hind engaged are the three most important things in preparing a horse to make a balanced barrel turn. This drill will help acquire this.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BHN.


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