Perfecting the subtleties of great riding habits will get you and your horse the snappiest turns and fastest runs.
By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley
It all starts when people tense up and we’ve all seen it at every level of barrel racing. The barrel racer’s hand comes across the horse’s neck before the horse’s hind end is in position to make the turn, the horse’s ribs fall in and it makes the start of the turn two tenths slower. I really feel like I’ve made a breakthrough lately in communicating how to fix this to people. The inside rein coming across the neck combined with not making small adjustments in a run will slow everything down.
Small adjustments are everything. Everyone thinks of “picking a horse up” at the barrels, but that’s a misconception. What’s actually happens is a combination of things. When the person’s inside hand comes over the neck, they’ll say it’s necessary because the horse is dropping his shoulder. In reality, when the hand lifts across the neck toward the opposite shoulder, horses’ ribs get straight and then horses are dumping on their front ends. After that happens—and it’s especially bad if the rider’s weight is dropped to the inside and they’re looking straight at the barrel—the horse moves in.
In order for the horse not to have to in essence jump out of the turn to correct that bad start to the turn, you can do a few things to help. Have the nose tipped just slightly to the inside and DO NOT cross over the neck with your inside hand. Just be prepared to lift up in the turn, not over. Correct position is that the inside hand stays elevated straight up or even little out. Not only should the inside hand never cross the neck, but never pull straight down or straight back either.
Obviously when a rider learns to recognize and feel the right way to guide, the horse can’t change his style overnight. It’s been a learned cue that’s got him turning on top of the barrel. Most people ask, “how do I lift my horse off or away from the barrels?” But they need the mindset of guiding the horse around the barrels using their eyes, hands feet and seat.
The Right Way
In any good run the horse is tracking 3-4 feet away from the barrel all the way around the barrel with the front and the hind feet. Their feet, front and hind, should follow the same tracks. With a horse that’s a little bit more of a ratey horse you can ask that horse to get his hip in a little on the approach to the turn using a little outside leg. With a freer horse you can push that hip out a touch. This all involves very small, slight adjustments, subtle moves and light cues. You stay within a small area with your hands when you’re running barrels so it’s light rein pressure. Using your feet is key. Your feet aren’t used only for kicking to get speed or to keep a horse off the barrels. Pressure from your feet and legs keep the hind end collected and moving up under the horse too.
Going to the first barrel you point the horse’s nose to the six steps (which is a point to visualize that is six steps, or about six feet, to the left of the first barrel in the case of a right hand approach). Some horses will want to drift out a little. Horses that drift out a little from the six steps lose some power, so you can use your outside leg to help them hold the correct position. You use both feet to urge your horse on to axis point three. This applies to slow work and can apply at speed too if the horse is not getting up into the turn all the way where his hind end needs to be in order to power out of the turn.
I’ve found that the fastest turn results when you drive the horse’s hind end forward all the way up to axis point three. If your elbows get stiff and you lean forward when you’re close to the barrel and you throw the reins up on the horse’s neck this tends to speed the horse into a “front-endy” position, which is inevitably the setup for a slower turn involving more steps around the barrel.
Remember to keep slight pressure, your hands slightly up about waist level, sit deep on your pockets in the turn and keep your elbows bent. Your hands should be about waist high or you can shift slightly to the side but never across the neck. Sometimes at clinics I will ask a person holding the reins in one hand to just turn their rein hand over and look at their fingernails or even pull straight out to the side and I’ve found that people couldn’t do that because they were so in the habit of crossing over the horse’s neck that any other way felt completely foreign.
You’ve just got to be very aware. Watch your hands, watch your horse’s head and guide appropriately. It’s so important to be conscious and try to change bad muscle memory and get into riding with really good habits. Check your hands, keep your eyesight moving forward and adjust your depth perception. Look out toward the horse’s left ear or left shoulder while loping a circle to the right and this will help keep your weight balanced slightly onto your left hip. It keeps the ribs elevated, squares up the body and lets you drive that horse with your feet into the bridle, break him at the poll and push his back up into a collected gate. Be mindful to keep a horse reaching with the hind end. Their runs are going to be faster once they learn to travel like that. I work on it all the time and even set myself mental points to where I’m almost loping an octagonal circle (away from the pattern).
Balance and Support
When doing slow work, you support with the outside rein and keep some pressure with it. It holds support there for the horse and you can keep the backend driving forward at the same time. Young horses might stay two handed for a while when you begin running them, but eventually a more seasoned horse is working with light support on the inside rein.
It’s so important to keep the hind end of the horse up and forward. It’s important for good posture in the saddle that the rider have their legs forward instead of falling behind them, using spurs that are effective and maintaining good contact with the feet. Many barrel racers have learned “bend, bend, bend,” but just keep in mind that a horse balances with the neck and unless the hind end can keep driving then training for bend alone won’t give a horse the position necessary for a powerful turn.
It’s so important not to pull a horse’s head away from the barrels. When people are having trouble with all the horse’s momentum dumping to the front end and they’ve lost that drive from behind that the horse needs to power through a turn, I will ask them to look to the outside. This is one example of a slight adjustment that makes a world of difference.
The Competition Run
Make a Plan. In the alley look at the tracks you will take around the barrels on the axis points. Look over the arena and pay particular attention to the three main axis points around each barrel (1, 3 and 5). Adjust your depth perception remembering that the front end and hind end of your horse need to hit those points for good, quick turns around the barrels. This is crucial to your timing in the run.
First Barrel. I like to ride straight down the pen for a couple of jumps and gradually arc to the six steps to the left of my first barrel. Drive the hind end up into your turn. If you’re on a really free runner you’ll need to hunker down and sit deep for the turn. On a ratey horse keep him rolling with your feet. Guide the horse through the turn.
Second Barrel. About two jumps out of the first barrel I like to set my depth perception and try to really kick so we’re lined up correctly for the second. Using my legs sooner will keep me from having to fight for position when I’m at the second barrel. Look to the axis point about 4 feet to the right of the second barrel and be ready to guide your horse around the barrel hitting the third axis point and sitting on your pockets through the turn. On a ratey horse stay up in a forward position and use your feet a little longer into the turn and for a free runner sit and help prepare that horse to turn.
Third Barrel. Sometimes after leaving the second barrel there’s a tendency to drift out a little wide for the third barrel so after turning the second go to two hands and point the horse straight, not running too wide or too tight into the third barrel, but guiding the horse around the barrel hitting the axis points. When you have to fight for position that’s when the inside hand tends to come across the horse’s neck and set your horse up for a slow turn.
Running Home. Pick a spot past the timer to run to and point your horse’s head straight to it. Look, use your feet and stay in a forward position.
Good Habits = Good Reactions
It’s all the little reactions and adjustments that make a great run. Practice and riding during the week are so important—keeping in mind not to overdue it on your horse. Maybe you make two fast runs during the week at a jackpot to tune up for a major event or rodeo. It depends too on the horse and knowing how he responds in different situations, what makes him unsure or more nervous than he should be. The jackpots are a different environment than the rodeos and nerves come into play. For people, focusing on the task at hand instead of who’s there, who might be watching and what everyone else thinks really effects their nerves. Focusing on your job as a rider is critical to dealing with the outside factors.
Sometimes just getting in the “Go Position” with your body is much more effective at attaining speed than wild kicking between the barrels. Smooth is fast so take care not to over ride your horse or kick the air out of him. You can be just as aggressive with good body English.
For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit charmaynejames.com. E-mail comments or questions to