The Science of Barrel Racing
Dena Kirkpatrick discusses three basic ingredients needed to develop better feel, correct position and faster times.
By Dena Kirkpatrick
I always start a clinic by saying that there are many ways to train a barrel horse. Obviously, it is a timed event, and the fastest time wins. Horses learn by repetition, so consistency in practice is very important. I believe some horses are so naturally talented that they would be great, no matter who rode them. However, these horses are very rare. We, as trainers, have a responsibility to help each horse reach its full potential, and one way we do this is by working with its body instead of working against it.
The topic I would like to cover in this issue is the "science" of barrel racing. I will try not to get too technical, but we must understand the horse's body, the way it moves and simple mathematics and physics to comprehend the best way to execute a proper barrel pattern. A "proper" barrel pattern is not the same for each horse. Conformation, speed, stride length and athleticism all play a very important role in the way each horse turns a barrel.
I talk a lot about "efficiency" in a turn, but what does this really mean? In most cases, there is what I like to refer to as a "happy place" where the horse is in the correct position to turn a barrel in two strides, much the same way an athlete may three-step the high hurdles. Much practice and repetition are required, as is correct body position. The horse should be balanced on his hindquarters, which is made possible when the rider is centered and sitting deep. The body of the horse should be slightly and evenly arced with his shoulder lifted, and the circle around the barrel is executed at the proper radius. The barrel should remain just behind the rider's leg, ensuring the horse is using his hindquarters to turn rather than bouncing on his front end.
While some riders seem to be born with the ability to feel this "happy" turn, most who finally acquire it do so through repetition and trial and error, only to find that it changes with each horse. However, through an understanding of the science, mathematics and physics behind this turn, a rider can develop this feel. There are three basic things we must pay attention to:
First and foremost is the placement of the horse's feet as it travels through the pattern and especially around the barrel. As the horse runs straight, the rider has limited control of where the horse places its feet. It makes sense that the fewer times a horse's feet hit the ground in a run, the faster it will clock. Many old racehorse trainers never clocked their young racehorses; they simply measured the length of their stride. The longer the horse's stride, the fewer strides it took, the faster it could cover ground. In mathematics, the fastest distance between two points is a straight line. In barrel racing, the fastest time is a straight line between barrels and three smooth, two-stride turns. Most horses can run a straight line, but around the turn it becomes very important to know exactly what the horse's feet are doing at each point. Where the horse's feet go, the body will obviously follow. When we ask a horse to swing too wide coming into a barrel, we add steps in the turn and time on the clock. We must accommodate the entry into a turn according to the natural stride and movement of the horse, and help them find that perfect circle that will make the turn most efficient. Then, consistently go to that horse's "happy place."
No. 2-Body Position
Body position applies to both horse and rider. The horse will instinctively pick up the cues given by the position of the rider's body down to the turning of the head. Think about putting a toddler in a backpack and walking down the toy aisle. When that child sees something he wants, you will instantly know it as you feel his head turn and his body shift in that backpack. This simple scenario applies to the horse and rider as well. The horse feels each move the rider makes, whether intentional or unintentional, and will mirror the rider's body position. This is why it is so very important to remain centered and balanced. Asking a horse to turn when its body is positioned incorrectly can cause soreness and injury.
Just as the technique of the hurdler we talked about before is important, a trainer should teach the horse proper body position. If the hurdler leans back while jumping, he could sustain severe injury and certainly would be less efficient. As with human athletes, horses should be coached in a way that makes their sport easier. Many riders will ride the front end of a horse, which in fact locks up the shoulders and shortens the stride. This, naturally, causes the horse to take extra steps to complete the turn. Instead, it is important to ride the hindquarters of a horse, allowing it to move its front end freely and lengthen the stride, clocking a faster time and reducing the chance for soreness.
No. 3-Barrel Placement
Along with body position is the placement of the barrel as you turn. Positioning the barrel correctly, behind the rider's leg, will keep the horse on its hindquarters through the turn and will prevent it from starting the turn too early. More importantly, the rider is not asking the horse to run around an object that is blocking the forward momentum. Most hit barrels are a result of riders who lean forward and turn the barrel too early, causing the horse to shorten its stride or add a stride and turn into the barrel. Instead, ride the horse deeper into the turn until the barrel is behind the leg, allowing the horse to stride out and make that two-stride turn around the barrel.
All these points, when applied together, can be summed up in a phrase I have heard from both Ian Francis and Clinton Anderson. "Form to function" means simply working with the anatomy of the horse and putting it in the best form. Once we put the horse in the most comfortable form to turn, the function we ask it to do becomes easier and more efficient.
I believe that as riders, we can learn to develop the "feel" that comes naturally to some. I also believe having a better understanding of the fundamental science that applies to the movement of a horse can greatly improve a rider's feel. We should use this knowledge to help our horses perform their jobs as naturally and efficiently as possible. This will help our horses avoid unnecessary strain and shave time off the clock.