Mind in the Middle
Sherry Cervi shares the importance of using balanced body position to achieve success in barrel racing.
Whether you are watching her run in divisional competition, one of the largest rodeo venues in the nation, or whether it’s during one or all 10 rounds of the National Finals Rodeo, one lady distinguishes herself time and again as one of the most balanced overall riders to ever throw a leg over a barrel horse. She is none other than former World Champion, Sherry Cervi. For Cervi, balance comes down to focusing on some important basics and spending quality time in the saddle in order to perfect her game.
“Nothing can cause more trouble or create more bad habits than not having balance while you ride,” says Cervi. “If a rider is unbalanced, cues will be sent to the horse telling him to do things that the rider does not want and may, in fact, be trying to correct.”
Cervi adds that in her experience, most horses are very reactive and generally produce certain movements in direct response to the rider’s methods, right or wrong.
“We need to be able to feel and adjust to a horse’s needs and level of response,” she said. “I start with the basics and work on it constantly.”
Cervi says that one of the most important parts of maintaining your balance while riding is keeping your feet in the correct position.
“I prefer to ride with my stirrups a little on the shorter side, not too short to push me out of the saddle, but definitely short enough that I’m not reaching for them. Staying in the middle of the horse and keeping your seat starts with keeping pressure in your stirrups,” she explained.
She adds that there is a difference between standing in your stirrups and keeping pressure in them. Cervi strives to keep pressure on her feet throughout the entire run. In fact, she feels that using rubber bands would be a “clutch” move, so to speak, for her personally, because throughout the run a rider should keep enough pressure in their stirrups in order not to lose them.
“Whenever I do lose a stirrup, I don’t ride well. In fact, I ride terrible because I am used to keeping that pressure there to keep my balance,” admits Cervi. “It is so easy to get off-balance if you are reaching for your stirrups or if you have lost one. Pressure in your stirrups is one of the most important things you do when you ride.”
Putting your foot all the way in your stirrup to your heel is the position Cervi prefers. This will allow you to have more leverage and use your feet and legs during the run.
“Having just your toe positioned in the stirrup or standing on the ball of your foot makes it harder to keep your stirrup and apply even pressure,” she says. “My goal is to have my feet remain flat through the run, not tilting the toe too far toward the ground and not pushing my heels down – just constant pressure with a flat foot in the stirrup.”
Cervi also explained that a barrel racer can work for hours on balanced riding and keeping pressure in the stirrups, however, if they ride a poorly fitting saddle, all this effort is for naught.
“The position of your stirrups in relation to your body while sitting in the saddle can cause you to be off-balance even if you are doing everything correctly,” she says.
Cervi has devoted much time and effort to insure that any saddle she rides is designed to allow her legs and feet to hang straight down.
“I want a saddle that allows my feet to hang straight down,” she explained, “I also want it to be free moving where if I want to move my feet forward or backward I can, but I do not want the saddle to force my feet in a certain direction. Having your feet too far back will ultimately push your upper body forward and throw you off-balance. When you need to sit down for the turn, it’s nearly impossible when your feet are behind you. Approaching a turn, the rider will be too far forward and when the horse turns, further balance will be lost which causes several undesirable issues for both horse and rider.”
She went on to say that if a rider approaches the turn with their feet incorrectly positioned behind their center of gravity, weight is shift forward and can cause horses any number of problems from dropping their front-end, shouldering the barrel and disengaging the hind quarters. The rider is not able to correctly cue the horse, help the horse on the approach to the turn or get through the turn in a balanced fashion. The subtle adjustments that need to be made throughout a run cannot happen when you are off-balance in any way.
“Coming into a turn with your feet too far in front of you is also a problem,” says Cervi. “The rider will be sitting too far back and can possibly be pulling on the horse more than necessary going into the turn. When the horse turns, generally the rider will be pushed farther back and will not be able to give good signals to the horse since they will be pulling on the reins most of the time. If the horse has more rate, approaching the turn with your feet in front of you will not allow you to drive that horse all the way into the turn and can trigger the horse to start hitting barrels.”
Cervi explained that balancing on the reins is also a sign that the rider’s stirrups are not set correctly in relation to length, and that they are either throwing you too far forward or backward.
“It’s another sign that you are riding off-balance,” she says. “A horse’s reaction to our cues will be much better if they can feel a difference between forward movement and cues. If a rider is constantly pulling or pulling intermittently when just going forward, the horse will not necessarily react to the cue at the barrel.”
Getting the Upper Hand
Equally, if not more important to a rider balancing their feet correctly in the stirrups, is the ability to keep their hands correctly placed. Cervi says that the first item of business with respect to hand position is ensuring that rein length is properly adjusted. Her personal preference is to ride with slightly shorter reins. While she emphasized that rein length is a personal choice, having the reins adjusted too long will eventually cause you to be off-balance and out of time with your horse.
“Since I am a tall person and have longer arms, I ride with my reins shorter than most. A good way to measure is to gently pull straight back on the reins when your horse is standing calm and the reins should not go past the saddle horn,” she explained.
“I strive to keep everything centered around the saddle horn,” she added. “I prefer to have close contact with the horse and never make extreme movements. So even when cueing a horse to turn, my ultimate goal is to have my hands in front of the saddle horn with my elbows close to my body. Riding with your hands too far out in front of you or too far up the horse’s neck will cause your hips to be rocked forward and you will be giving multiple cues to your horse – one to go forward and one to set.”
Through the course of a competitive run a barrel racer must be prepared to make any necessary adjustments, however, Cervi makes every effort to keep her hands placed just in front of the saddle horn in an approximate one foot box.
“I believe that this consistency with my hands helps keep a horse collected throughout the run,” she says. “Keeping your movements smooth with the reins allows the horse to listen to the exact cues you give without getting their body out of position. When a rider makes an extreme correction horses react and generally lose their collected balance when doing so.”
When winning or losing comes down to hundredths of a second, every move the horse makes and generally every move the rider makes will count. Cervi says that riders who learn to give their horses the correct cues at the right time with their hands will achieve the competitive runs that are ultimately smoother by allowing the horse to enjoy his job and stop the clock quicker.
She says that one common mistake to guard against is bringing your hand across the plane of the horse’s mane.
“Whenever you approach a barrel with your hand across the horse’s neck, the horse cannot keep his body position correct to turn the barrel. If a horse is dropping his shoulder or engaging too much set before the barrel, I encourage riders to really drive the horse into the barrel while remaining centered. Coming across with the rein does several things to both horse and rider and none of them promote balance,” Cervi explained.
“Horses will tend to start placing their nose to the outside and dropping their shoulder in worse toward the barrel. Riders will have their inside hip and shoulder dropped into the barrel and will generally be rocked too far forward when their hand is across the mane. When the horse turns the barrel, the rider has to overcorrect and get back in the center of the horse, which costs valuable time.”
Throughout the entire run and always while riding Cervi prefers to have a close contact with her saddle. She doesn’t want to have her hips up off the saddle while riding and certainly not while running.
“Staying in the middle of the saddle and close to the horse allows a rider to respond quickly to a horse’s movements and also to give cues in a timely manner,” she stressed.
When sending her horse to the barrels, Cervi tips her pelvis forward and positions her hands slightly forward. She prefers to keep the horse between the reins and ride with two hands all the way into the barrel.
“Not all riders desire to ride with two hands and that is acceptable, but if you are really having trouble keeping yourself balanced or if you have a tendency to get your hands out of position, riding with two hands is a great way to achieve perfect practice and get a better feel,” she said.
As the barrel is approaching Cervi sits down in her saddle by rotating her hips back while maintaining pressure in her stirrups, and then cues the horse with her rein. Dropping the outside rein and taking the horn at the rate point allows Cervi to maintain her balance going into the turn. She prefers to tip the horse’s nose to the inside to prepare them for the turn, but each horse has their own style and some horses may not bend at all.
At about the three-quarter point around the barrel Cervi prepares herself to really push the horse away from the turn. Timing is critical at this point because if the rider leans forward too soon, it will cause the horse to try to leave the barrel too soon and they will pull off in an undesired direction or turn back into the barrel. Pulling yourself forward too late will generally cause you to be ‘behind’ the horse hindering your ability to maintain good forward motion.
Along with this point, Cervi also stresses the importance of the saddle horn in the turn.
“The horn is a tool that needs to be used to your advantage,” she says. “If you get behind your horse, use the horn to pull yourself forward. The opposite is true if you find that you went into a turn leaning forward, push back on the horn to get your body in a better position.”
Asking your horse to give you their peak performance running home needs to be a pleasant experience for both horse and rider. Really gapping your legs and kicking hard can kick the wind out of a horse and they will not want to run so Cervi applies her overall concept of staying close to the horse at this point, too. She really hustles the horse and kicks but not so hard that she is kicking the air out of the horse. Gapping your legs is another way to get off-balance with the horse and if a sudden move is made, your reaction may be slower or extreme and you may not be able to ride the horse through it.
Every horse and every rider are different; each has their own ability and experience level. Cervi does not suggest making big changes; instead, she advises working on simple exercises everyday with the overall goal of improving your skills in mind.
She explained that riding bareback is one thing that can increase your balance and your overall feel of a horse.
“There is not a better way to feel what that horse’s spine and shoulders are doing than by being in direct contact with them. Riding bareback will also help with leg pressure and knowing when and where it should be applied,” she said.
“Concentrating on the placement of your hands and feet will inevitably help keep you balanced,” she summed up. “Being mentally able to think about where your body is and what you are telling your horse to do is a skill that you can and should work on daily.”
Cervi suggests riding as much as possible and riding different horses if you have the ability and access to them. “The more time you can spend in the saddle thinking about body placement and feeling what the horse is doing, the better. If you really want to be good at something, it takes a lot of work and time commitment. Not everyone can ride everyday but the more you take advantage of the time you have, the better rider you will become.”
Consistency is at the forefront of Cervi’s competitive philosophy. Consistent riding leads to confident horses. Horses need to have confidence instilled in them from their rider. “I really try to be consistent for my horses. Horses that get consistent cues learn to have an expectation from their rider and become very confident in what they are doing. When both horse and rider are confident, better results are produced.”
She also believes that it is important to commit to the learning process and constantly try to be a better horseman.
“No matter what level you are or what style of horse you are riding, you can always take something from someone else and apply it to your program. I’ve taken knowledge from many different people and trainers and tried to filter through all of the information and then apply it when it fits into my program.,” she explained.
Not only does she listen to people, Cervi is always learning from her horses.
“Just spending time in the saddle and getting to know your horse will help. Hawk was one horse that taught me to be a more consistent rider. And each horse I’ve had over the years has taught me something that’s applied to help make me a better rider.
“Overall, it is important to think about the horse’s movements and your body position at all times,” she explained. “Watching videos can help you review how you are doing and what you may need to work on. Being a great rider and maintaining balance is something that takes a lot of effort and time in the saddle.