By Mary Burger with Kailey Sullins

Starting a horse on the barrel pattern depends on what age of horse and what type of foundation training they have had. For instance, if I have futurity prospect I’ll want that horse to be started well by the age of 2 so that I can begin introducing the barrel pattern at that point.

I don’t expect my 2-year-olds to do too much at that point, however there are a few things they need to being responding to. They need to be moving their feet forward fluently and they must be responsive to my legs and move away from leg and rein pressure.

They must know how to stop and back up with a low headset, I like them to pick up their leads each direction and I’ll even counter arc some before I ever go to the barrel pattern. They have to know the basics first and have a solid foundation on them. After that, I’ve found the pattern training comes a lot easier to those horses.

When I ride a 2-year-old that has already had 30 days of moving forward and picking up its leads, stepping off of the inside rein, counter arcing and knowing how to stop and back up then I’ll ride in my barrel pattern. I begin at a walk, then trot and finally canter. I work for a 2-year-old to be automatic in the basics before starting them on the pattern, however I don’t over-pressure one. Sometimes you have to back off and begin again with the young colts. I look for those basics to just fall into place when it comes to a barrel because of the hands on contact. They will understand better where they are suppose to be and what their job is going to be by where I position them and how I handle them.

Mary Burger taking colt through pole pattern
Burger uses the pole pattern to reinforce leads as well as familiarize the horse with her hand positions and how she wants her horse to respond to those cues.

Slow and Steady
When I introduce a 2-year-old to the barrel pattern it’s a slow and steady progression. I don’t push them into it all at once. If I come from the round pen with a colt and I’m comfortable with how they are riding my next step is to get them off of the rails. I’ll go into the arena with the pattern set up and I’ll periodically pick a barrel out while I’m trotting around the arena. I’ll trot around one barrel and then move on. So in a sense I’m sort of getting them use to it right there. Then, I’ll pick out a barrel and maybe counter arc and go the other way and pick out a right hand turn and trot that direction next. So, I sort of initiate a little bit of the barrel pattern without them even knowing what they are doing.

Usually I’ll break into a lope and lope big circles. I’ll lope until they
get comfortable and quiet. Then I’ll start wheeling down the big circle to a smaller circle while keeping their nose tipped to the inside and their shoulder up when I come into a small circle. I’ll take the inside rein and give it a little tug to tell them to come to me. I try to do everything in a balanced situation, meaning I work with the left as much as I work a horse to the right.

These circles will also help to teach a young horse how to naturally catch its leads by bringing them down into smaller circles it teaches them how to handle their legs and feet. Utilizing the pole pattern is also a great way to help teach your horse proper leads as well as your hand positions you would use during a barrel run. I use my hands the same way in the pole pattern that I would during a barrel run as I set up my horse for the next pole. These things all lend a hand in preparing a young horse for the barrel pattern. becoming familiar with these exercises and fundamentals before introducing the pattern will make the transition seamless, because the colt already knows what you are trying to ask.

Once they are comfortable doing these exercises around the arena then I will start “patterning” the colt, meaning I’ll start introducing him to the pattern from start to finish, all three barrels. This is also a slow process that I am careful not to over do or rush.


Kailey Sullins is editor of Barrel Horse News, and an avid barrel racer and breakaway roper. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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