By Martha Josey and Ashley Schenck
Not everyone has an arena at home to practice in. When I started barrel racing, I took one rusty barrel into my grandmother’s hay meadow and became a barrel racer. Of course, as time went on, I made a better place to practice. However, in the beginning, I had to learn outside the arena. There are many drills you can do with one barrel to start a horse or even work a seasoned horse—work on softness and flexion, practice your approach to a barrel, free up the shoulders around the barrel. There are ways to train at home without an arena. Use your surroundings to your advantage—go around trees. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way to get there.
So, how do we practice with just one barrel?
Many great barrel racers have trained their horses only using one barrel. At my clinics, I stress the importance of walking perfect circles. If we can not walk our horses in a perfect circle, how can we expect to run one? I always start my horses without a barrel. I teach them to travel in perfect circles, moving off inside rein and inside leg pressure. Once they have learned this at a walk, trot, and lope, then I add a barrel to our training. The one-barrel drill is a great drill for horses of all experience levels. It creates good habits in young horses that are just learning and is a good way to go back to the basics on your older, more seasoned horse.
You will start this drill at a walk and a trot. The object of the drill is to teach your horse to move off your legs. Start with big circles and gradually move to smaller circles. The goal is to make a true round circle, whether big or small, using the barrel as the center point. By doing this, you teach your horse to move off your leg pressure and to move off an inside rein. This requires your horse to have the appropriate body arc as he travels the circle.
Once you have mastered this drill at a walk and a trot, begin loping a nice big circle around the barrel, slowly corkscrewing down until you make the turn as if you’re turning a barrel. You will then begin to slowly move back out toward a bigger circle again. Here, you should be looking for nice, smooth transitions from large to small circles and small circles back to large circles. When using your legs to guide your horse, keep the perfect distance between you and the barrel the entire way around the circle. You will find yourself hitting fewer barrels in the future.
Using your legs will help you avoid pulling your horse’s shoulder into a barrel. Riders often feel their horse getting too close to the barrel and will try to pull the horse’s head away from the barrel to avoid hitting it. This actually moves a horse’s shoulder into the barrel, often times causing them to hit it. If a rider simply uses more inside leg, the horse will know to give more room, especially a horse familiar with this drill.
The one-barrel drill helps your horse round out the turns while keeping forward motion, making for faster times. Make sure the bit you’re using is helping your horse—a three-piece mouthpiece adds more bend and is ideal for a stiffer horse, while a mullen mouthpiece helps a light or bendy horse to stay square.
When I would go to the National Finals Rodeo, my goal was to always make 10 runs without hitting a barrel. This drill is great for getting your horse ready for a big event or an important finals.