Horse trainer Fred Hunter answers your reader-submitted questions in this newly added column. Send your questions to [email protected] cowboypublishing.com for the chance to have your question answered by Fred.
Question: What are your suggestions for helping a front-endy horse that needs help going into the first barrel and getting on its hind end, instead of diving and shouldering into the turn?
Answer: Well, it’s not a simple fix. A shoulder lift is what it amounts to, because a horse by nature is going to do what’s called a pasture turn. Like any horse in the pasture, they drop their shoulder to turn, they never get on their hocks, they don’t lift their shoulders, they don’t bend, they don’t arc and instead just do a pasture turn. So, it’s a natural way for the horse to do it. You can’t lift a horse’s shoulder without him bending. He has to bend first.
Typically horses that do this going into a barrel, if you can’t get their nose, you can’t bend them and you can’t lift their shoulder. The nose will actually point the opposite direction a lot of the time and the shoulder will lean even harder into the barrel at that point.
To break a horse back down, you have to get him a little softer in the bridle. You have to get him bent better and get him where he will bend loping circles or with speed. At that point, then you work on elevating the shoulder. It goes back to the shoulder lift I talked about in the last column— that’s an example of what you would do to correct that horse. You have to get the shoulders up, you have to keep the shoulders up and the more you try to hold a horse or the stronger you try to get with that horse in the mouth or the bridle, if he’s not bending, the more difficult it becomes and the more he’s going to lean on you. There’s no possible way to out-pull a horse. If he wants to move to that barrel—even if he is broke really well and keeps his shoulder up—the moment he wants to move to that barrel, it gets to be an issue.
One way I try to help compensate for the horse diving into the first barrel is by not letting it hook to that barrel too quick. If you’re coming down the alley and pointing to the first barrel and going in a straight line to the barrel, he’s going to lean very hard to it. The best way to approach the barrel is with a hook, like a fish hook. If it’s a right- hand turn, you’re going to stay to the right side of the third barrel and go in a straight line toward the third barrel on the right side of it. As you approach the first barrel, then you let the horse drift into it and at that point it gives you an arc or a bend on the horse. Even though you don’t have his shoulder up, he will still have bend.
If any horse hooks to the barrel too quick, he’s going to lean on it or lean to it. You have to let a green horse see the first barrel so they can go find it, but the more mature they get in the process, the more you want to try to hide the first barrel from them. If it’s a seasoned horse or a campaigning horse, instead of going up the left side of the alley so he sees the barrel too quick, you try to stay to the right side of the alley so he doesn’t see the barrel too quick. You can set him up 20 or 30 feet farther out than you could if you were on the left side of the alley, and that creates a straight line. Then you get the hook back into the barrel, and that can help.
Just stay coming up the arena on a little straighter line so the horse doesn’t get to the barrel or go to the barrel too quickly. Of course, the farther up the arena the barrel is, the more difficult it becomes and the more you have to hide the horse from the barrel the whole time. If it’s a blind alley and you can’t see the first barrel, you don’t want to
go on the right side of the alley because that horse will never find the first barrel. You have to start on the left side so the horse can eventually see the barrel. How much you hide your horse from the first barrel in your approach is dictated by the distance from the alley to the first barrel.
Question: In the practice pen at home, if the horse does start to cheat or dive into the barrel, how do you handle it?
Answer: If you can work your right rein and your right leg and keep the horse’s shoulder up going forward, that’s what it’s going to take. You have to bump the horse away from the barrel with your barrel-side leg and use that leg to help keep forward motion, keep a straighter line and keep him off the barrel with your barrel-side leg and your barrel-side hand. Your hand has to stay up to keep this happening. If your hand drops down, the horse is going to go right to the barrel because he’s going to go where your hand is going, which is down toward the barrel. The direction of your hand dictates the direction of the horse. If your hand is up and forward, you’re going up and forward with that horse so he’s going to stay in a straighter line because of your hand position and the ability to put a leg on the horse. Using leg pressure on a barrel horse is similar to a cutting horse— cutters say to put a cow-side leg on your horse. In barrel racing, it’s barrel-side.
Meet the Expert
Fred Hunter, husband to late National Finals Rodeo qualifier Nancy Hunter, has dedicated his life to developing elite equine athletes, from cutting horses to barrel horses. The Utah resident worked alongside Nancy for many years during her professional rodeo career to create champions such as the great Flit N Fizz, among many others.