Fine-tune your horse’s rate with this drill from trainer Josianne St-Cyr.

Some horses don’t natu­rally want to rate, and others need help with rat­ing. For a horse that runs harder and needs to come back to themselves, this is a good whole-arena rate drill. It will help you not have to pull so much when you’re running, because they listen to your body cues.

This exercise emphasizes the horse listening and paying attention, being ready to back off and stay soft. I like to work my 3-year-olds who understand the pattern and finished horses on this drill. Really, you can do it on a horse of any age, as long as you are reasonable with the balance between speed and the level of knowledge they have.

Fine-tune your horse with this whole-arena rate drill from trainer Josianne St-Cyr to get them to listen to your body more.
Working on the long sides and corners of your arena will help your horse rate and shape up for turns in response to your cues. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

When you first start doing this drill, it’s probably not going to be very good-the horse will more than likely try to get away from the “borders” of your hands and legs. But once they figure out what you want and they’re willing, it really helps the horse go up to the hole at the barrel and stay straight, without floating, leaning or dumping on the front end. They’ll run in, get in position gathered up and ready to go, and when I open my hand to turn, they’re in the right position and they’re on their hind end.

Fine-tune your horse with this whole-arena rate drill from trainer Josianne St-Cyr to get them to listen to your body more.
Use equipment that works for your horse, but Josianne St-Cyr prefers a Kerry Kelley Hemi ported bit for leverage and getting attention without being too much. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Preparing for the Drill

Your equipment depends on the horse. I want a bridle that they’ll respect but isn’t too much bridle. The goal isn’t a schooling session with this drill, it’s more of a request to pay attention to me. I personally like the Kerry Kelley Hemi ported bit or something that will have some leverage. I don’t need them to be bendy and round in this exercise-I want them to stay up and underneath themselves.

I do this drill probably once a week on the horses that I show, usually around two days before or the day before I go run. On 3-year-olds who haven’t competed yet, I’ll do it every couple of weeks, and I don’t let them do it fast or use the whole arena.

Before starting the drill, I make sure my horse is warmed up just a little.

The Exercise

I will send my horse around the perimeter of the arena at a trot or lope, and when I get to the long side of the arena, I’ll pick up the pace as if we were leaving a barrel. When I’m ready to ask them to rate going into the corner as if it was a barrel, I’ll start ahead of the corner to give them time to figure out what they’re doing. Probably about 50 feet from the corner, I’ll sit down on my butt and pull straight back on the reins to ask them to stay soft and gather up. I am letting them roll but wanting the horse to stay in a straight line. I want them to slow their legs before they turn. I don’t want them to stop hard.

The horse is naturally going to want to turn the corner like a barrel. Some will anticipate and push on your hands; they may resist turning correctly.

Remember to sit, keep your hands steady and pull both reins, not back and forth. You are looking for them to get soft in their face and slow down. If they do well, you won’t need to squeeze them. But if the horse wants to get away from your hands or go somewhere with their body, you’ll squeeze with both your legs to keep them between your legs and hands.

Once they slow down and stay soft in the face when you ask for the turn, break down to a slower gait around the turn. That could be a slower lope or a trot.

Move through the corner, down the short side of the arena and the next corner, and then on the other long side of the arena, ask them to go faster again, and repeat the rate and turn.

Fine-tune your horse with this whole-arena rate drill from trainer Josianne St-Cyr to get them to listen to your body more.
Send your horse down the long side of your arena and pick up the pace as if you’re leaving a barrel.
About 50 feet from the corner, ask your horse to rate by sitting down on your butt, pulling straight back on both reins to ask it to stay soft and gather up.
Once your horse has slowed down and is staying soft in the face, break down to a slower gait around the turn—could be a slower lope or a trot.
Fine-tune your horse with this whole-arena rate drill from trainer Josianne St-Cyr to get them to listen to your body more.
Move through the corner, down the short side of the arena and the next corner, and then pick up the pace on the long side of the pen and repeat the exercise.

When the horse understands the cues, I’ll ask them go on a little faster. I’ll go from a lope to a trot, and then I’ll move up to three-quarter speed to a slower lope. Eventually they’ll go even faster, and slow to a lope.

I want the horse to, when they feel me touching their face, know that means come back, reel in, gather up, stay soft in the face. Don’t push on my hands. Don’t lean on me.

It’s very important to sit in the middle of the saddle and on your butt. For this exercise, you can’t be leaning forward and pulling and expect your horse to understand what you’re asking.

I’m not looking for the horse to turn the corner fast. You want the speed to happen before the turn—after gathering up, you can release your hands to make a correct turn and be comfortable.


I go around the whole arena, particularly the long sides of arena and let them stretch out in whatever speed is appropriate for how far along they are in their training. If they’re 3-year-olds, I don’t let them go as fast as I might for a finished horse, but I let them get a little out of their comfort zone, just a little out of control, and then roll them back into my hands before we turn the corner. This helps remind them of the rate while I keep them moving forward.

I won’t do this drill more than four or five times in one session. If they’re really good, I may do it two times each direction, but usually I do it about four times. You want to give them time to breathe in between. They can get worked up, but for a horse that’s competing, that’s typical.

Troubleshooting

I don’t do this on the pattern very much, but when I do, I do the same movements in my saddle, and with my hands, to rate my horse when we get to the barrels. I don’t start this drill on the barrels, because horses tend to get going, their adrenaline picks up, and their legs go everywhere when you pull on them. Even if it’s an experienced horse this can happen, because they get excited. Then they’ll either crossfire or lean on you to beat you to the turn. I don’t want that happening on the pattern. I want them sharp for the pattern and prepared for what I’m asking them, not caught off guard.

Sometimes horses will get excited and switch leads on the backside of the turn, or they’ll lean into your hands or float away. But with sitting down on your butt, pulling your reins straight back with both hands, holding the same pressure with both hands, and your legs holding them together, that will help the horse see what you want.

If your horse is struggling to understand what you’re asking, as you’re cueing to gather up, keep your legs squeezing steady to keep the horse moving forward and put pressure on both reins equally. The horse may bend around, but eventually they will get the hang of it.

If you have a horse that tends to get fried if you go fast, this might not be a good drill for them. But for my horses I’ve started from the beginning, they’re used to it. They’ve learned to work through situations and not get upset.


This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue of Barrel Horse News.