Like children need to learn phonics in order to sound out words, barrel horses need the basics in order to more easily learn the barrel pattern.
Training a barrel horse without teaching the fundamentals of horsemanship is like teaching a child to read without phonics. It can be done, but is it the best way? A child can learn to sight-read, memorizing what words look like, just as a horse can learn by simple repetition how to run a barrel pattern.
I relate my horses to children on a daily basis. They are both fresh-minded and easily taught with patience and clear direction, given the right tools. Preparing a child’s cognitive reading skills with phonics is much more practical than expecting him or her to memorize every word in the Webster’s Dictionary—just as giving a horse the tools he needs to handle his body is more practical and successful in the long term than just hoping he never has any problems in competition.
One example that comes to mind is when a horse starts dropping or shouldering into a barrel. In general, a barrel racer’s first reaction is to lift the inside rein to make the horse move over. It’s a simple cue that easily can be achieved by a horse that has been properly educated, but it could prove to be difficult and frustrating to a horse that wasn’t taught the basic skills of how to handle his body and communicate with his rider.
To prevent or correct shouldering, the horse would need to be able to frame his body and balance his weight onto his hindquarters on the rider’s cue. This would in turn free up his front end and allow his shoulder to move easily. He would then need to be able to move his hip in, and pick up his shoulder when asked. This is just one example that comes to my mind where the horse’s basic fundamental skill set could be relied on to simply and easily correct a small problem before it becomes a major one that negatively affects his career.
Each small exercise (there are too many to list here) that I do with my horses is a building block that works with other building blocks to give them the fundamentals necessary for successful careers as barrel horses. I believe one essential maneuver that should be taught is the “perfect circle.”
Perfect circles prepare a horse for turning a barrel by building proper muscles and muscle memory. By “perfect,” I mean perfectly round with the horse’s nose, front feet and back feet all on the same path for a full, complete circle.
In other words, the horse must maintain the same bend around your inside leg as the circumference of the circle as many times around as asked. These perfect circles will force the horse to step his inside hind leg up underneath himself while he is moving forward. Perfect circles strengthen the muscles in the horse’s hindquarters and teach the horse how to place his feet in order to maintain forward motion.
Strengthening the horse’s hindquarters and effective use of the inside hind leg will give him better balance and power. The balance and strength the horse gets from perfect circles will help aid in the horse’s ability to handle adverse ground conditions, which will in turn help prevent injuries.
There are a few skills that should be taught to the horse prior to asking him to execute the perfect circle. The horse needs to have learned how to flex laterally in both directions, give to leg pressure and carry himself with balance. He should also be light in the bridle.
Another benefit of teaching fundamentals to a young horse is that it helps the rider know when and what the horse is ready for. One question I’m often asked is how I know when to advance the horse. I answer by saying, “The horse tells me when he is ready and what he is ready for.” By working daily on the horse’s fundamentals, footwork and his body control, I am constantly assessing his progress and gauging his maturity level.
Practicing these skills regularly will also increase obedience in the horse. As he gets steadily more proficient at doing the tasks I ask of him, I increase the level of difficulty. Just like learning to read, it is indeed a building process. Fundamentally sound horsemanship is designed to help a young horse learn how to handle his body in an efficient manner. It will also help him to better understand the cues and commands he is given by his rider and future riders in the horse’s career.
Michael Jordan once said that kids who want to play basketball “should play young and learn late.” He was talking about the pressure that parents and coaches are putting on young kids, hoping to make them superstar basketball players. He said that basketball should be fun first, and the pressure can come later.
In our business, the athletes are our horses and we are their coaches. I think many of the same rules apply to them. We are all hoping to make superstars out of each young horse we ride, and it’s easy to put so much pressure on them that they will eventually come to dread it.
I feel strongly that in order for a colt to reach his full potential, he must be happy doing it. That doesn’t mean I will not demand his respect. I will, however, try to keep the learning process rewarding so that the youngster looks forward to his time with me and eventually his time in competition.
Teaching a horse the basics will give him the tools he needs to easily learn the barrel pattern just as phonics gives a child the tools he needs to sound out words. As with children, every little detail I do with my horses in the beginning is a small step building on others towards a successful future.
Remember, in a horse’s life there are no little things. The end goal is that they will be able to follow their rider’s cues and handle themselves in all situations and at any level of competition.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. E-mail comments on this article to