From one day to the next, from one horse to the next, it’s important to remember that all riders and horses are a work in progress. Riders who keep the big picture at the forefront of their minds are committed to bettering their skills for the good of their horses. They are able to be realistic about the investment of time it takes to work and improve, and they maintain balanced expectations of their horses. It’s very important that riders are able to align their expectations with the time it takes to accomplish goals. Without devoting a significant amount of time and work to improving, it’s very hard to take your barrel racing to the next level. It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you are working to be better. None of us are perfect riders, so it’s important to learn and analyze from one horse to the next because no two are the same and each horse has something to teach us.
The importance of fundamentals
When starting a barrel prospect, there are certain steps that need to be taken before you consider adding speed.
I want a horse to be able to pick up their leads in both directions easily and be able to hold their leads loping in small circles. I’ll start working through the pattern at a walk and trot before eventually loping bigger circles around the barrels. Once they know the pattern, I will teach them to speed up going to a barrel, not around it. How quickly a horse advances through these steps depends upon the amount of time you put in and it depends on your attitude, as well. Keep a good productive attitude toward your horse and the process. Have some patience. It sets you back when you go out and have something go a little wrong and you get mad.
The thing to remember when training barrel horses, particularly young horses, is that if things fall apart when you speed up, the horse is not ready and it’s time to reinforce the fundamentals.
Say you have a 4-year-old that’s loping the barrel pattern. You’re able to pick up the correct lead, lope to the first barrel and hold the correct lead all the way around the turn without the horse speeding up or panicking in the turn. The goal is for the horse to perform those maneuvers, holding his leads and staying balanced through the turns, without much help from the rider. The rider’s hands are there as a guide. You might use your feet to cue the horse and help him, but ideally he has the right foundation to confidently do things on his own. My advice is that before you speed up, have that accomplished.
I’ve met a lot of people who think they are doing flying lead changes between the barrels, but unless you are a master at lead changes, it’s a good idea to break the horse down to a trot, catch the correct lead to the second barrel and make sure you hold that lead all the way through the turn around the second barrel. Rushing a horse into a lead change often throws the horse off balance and they tend to panic. You don’t want them to be scared or speed up in anticipation of the lead change or turn. It’s worth it with young, green horses to break them to a trot, pick up the correct lead and ask the horse to lope, not faster, but collected, driving from behind. Collected is the key word here. Once you can do that consistently and easily, the horse becomes comfortable with these expectations. Then, you are ready to speed up.
Consider the background and skill level of the horse you are working with through this process, as well. For instance, a horse that is really broke with an excellent foundation on him might be capable of doing all this within a week’s time. A horse without all the tools, it might be three or four months before he’s able to get around the barrels holding his leads, collecting and loping around the barrels correctly. Keep in mind that a horse without the tools is going to need time and need to be ridden five days a week. Going around the barrels three or four times in one day is plenty. Remember not to overdo it because training doesn’t happen all in one day. The reward comes in steady, consistent riding each day. Learning to chart your horse’s progress moment-by-moment and day-to-day pays off in the long run.
A good example of how to pay attention to what your horse needs is my 3-year-old Clayton filly. I rode her all fall and had her loping through the pattern pretty nicely but she was getting a little flat going into the barrels, not collecting quite as much as she should. What I did at that point is pull away from the barrels for a week to work on collection in smaller circles. I went back to the groundwork I like to do in order to get her collected without that slight pull, or flatness, she was giving me. That quality time away from the barrels will pay off when I take her back to the pattern.
The feel I have and how I like a horse to respond is something that’s been ingrained in me from a very young age and comes from riding broke horses as a kid. I was fortunate as a child to ride horses that helped teach me good habits. For people who need to improve their feel or work on developing good horsemanship, my advice is to get out and get some lessons from a reputable reiner or a good cowboy who can help you recognize and develop feel for a horse. We are all constantly learning and there are qualified people out there who are happy to help.
I think it’s easy for people to get caught up in watching and comparing themselves to others. You go to a race and see someone blow their colt through and you find yourself thinking, ‘Wow, that horse has been on the barrels for two or three months and look how it’s working.’ When you start comparing your horse to others, you also have to ask yourself a few key questions in fairness to your horse. Look at the rider’s skill level. Is this someone who is training horses everyday for a living? Is their horse getting ridden more? Was he started professionally? Take into consideration the age, background and skill set of the horses you admire. Then, ask yourself if it’s really fair to compare your horse and think about the things you can do on your schedule and within your resources to help your horse improve. Every horse advances at its own pace so you have to have the mindset to work and think through the training process being realistic about your expectations.
When a horse isn’t working the way you would like, go back and analyze it and think about what you’re asking the horse to do, and if they’ve been prepared well enough to do what it is you expect of them. Their mentality might call for you to back off at times, too.
I like my young horses to get some reining training early on so they understand pressure and release, and that the release is their reward. I like them broke at the poll and driving their hind end up underneath them to learn the early stages of collection. They will stop much better later with that kind of foundation.
I don’t claim to be an expert colt starter but I do know how to advance them to pattern work following that initial 60-90 days they’ve had under saddle. I focus on keeping them soft and using their hind end. Remember, a 3-year-old is just a baby and you don’t want to do anything to panic or scare them. Horses come with all kinds of different attitudes, so I want to do whatever I need to do to build their confidence and keep them liking their job.
You also want to adapt to the horse’s style as they advance on the pattern. Some horses are inclined to have more of a bendy style, some work better when they’re straighter through their body. Some horses are ratey, while others are free runners. Some horses are even a little cold-backed, or more reactive than others, so you might need to saddle a horse like that first thing and let him be saddled for a little while you’re doing other things around the barn. Or, you might lunge that horse in a few circles and get his attention on you before you get on him. You don’t want to set yourself or the horse up for a bad experience. I want to work them in a positive way in order to build on their unique strengths and help them get through the things that are harder by nature for them.
Time in the saddle
The key thing is that you and your horse both need a lot of riding time in order to advance through the various stages of training. If you consistently make the same mistake, it’s time to look at your riding. If you hit a lot of barrels you need to ask some important questions: Are you riding the horse’s back end past the barrel enough? Is your weight all shifted to the inside in the turns? Does your horse need to be more broke? Are you crossing your hand up across the neck over the plane of your horse’s mane? Are you looking at the barrels instead of at the points on the ground where all four of your horse’s feet need to track? Are you sitting for the turns? Are you balanced in the saddle? Do you use your feet? The list of ways in which a person can improve not only their riding but their general horsemanship is endless, so never quit learning.
With 3, 4 and 5-year-old horses, I’ve found that they take to the barrel pattern fairly easily and they’ll try to find their way. The good basics can’t be bypassed, however, because if you want to make a smooth, confident transition to the rodeo environment later, you will need to call on those basics that you instilled in the early stages. I see lots of futurity people who are great riders with great timing but sometimes those horses have a harder time at the rodeos later. A horse that knows how to position his body in a balanced way is equipped to handle rodeo conditions later.
Taking the kind of time necessary to teach instill solid fundamentals is creating value in your horse. Plus, learning from each horse makes you ride the next one better. Some people get one nice horse and think that every horse is supposed to work just like that one, but if you do this for very long you are going to cross paths with a lot of horses during your lifetime. They all need a little something different from you.
Make a commitment to work on yourself and your horsemanship. If you are able to ride one or two days a week, don’t look for identical results from your horses as a professional trainer who is riding from two to 10 horses every day. That’s their lifestyle. If you have other commitments, don’t blame it on your horse when he’s not advancing at the same pace. If you can ride everyday, that’s ideal. You’ve got to be driven to put in the time that is necessary in order to improve, but don’t become obsessed with barrel racing to the point that you put excessive pressure on yourself or your horses to win. You need balance in your lifestyle so you’re not trying too hard to win at all costs.
For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit www.charmaynejames11.com. Charmayne loves to hear your feedback so please feel free to e-mail comments or questions to