Stay Penalty Free

Learn how to avoid running in fear of five-second penalties.

By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley, originally published in the September 2012 issue of BHN

During our career together, Scamper and I didn’t hit very many barrels. I attribute that to the fact that, when I first started out going to rodeos, the importance of not hitting barrels was instilled in me by my parents. My mom wasn’t a barrel racer, but she hauled me and it was a big sacrifice. I had three sisters at home so for her to be gone was a big deal for our family. And financially it was important that I did well. My dad always said that if I was going to go, I needed to pay my way. When you hit barrels, you have no chance at all to win anything, so the notion of hitting barrels was always inexcusable to me from the time I was very young.

For this reason, early in my career I became very aware of my position as I was going around the barrels. I think that’s why I became conscious of using my legs to urge my horse forward, and of using my hands to guide my horse up and around through the turn, never totally turning my horse loose. Looking back, it was perfect to learn to ride that way at such a young age. So many of my championships were won by winning the average at the National Finals Rodeo, and to do that, we had to stay penalty free.

I think it’s important for riders to learn to get around the barrels clean every run, and then worry about speeding things up. Be as fast as you can while being smooth, confident and consistent, and then sharpen up and trim your times down—that’s my advice.

I’ve gotten on horses that other people had a hard time leaving the barrels up on, and I think the reason I didn’t have the same problem is because, before I even understood what I was doing, I was sitting on my outside hip for the turns. My eyesight was always set on the path around the barrel, and never looking directly at the barrel. My hands were not crossing over the neck. On the take off, I didn’t aim directly at the barrel. I used the right amount of inside rein, without letting my horse drop or fade into the turns too early.

Build good habits
Keep in mind that horses will move in under your weight if you lean. So, if you go into the barrel and lift your inside hand up across the horse’s neck toward your opposite shoulder, this makes the horse move in closer to the barrel. Lifting that inside hand too early, or too much, gets you too close to the barrel. Similarly, if you are inclined to use your outside rein to pull your horse’s head to the outside in order to keep him off the barrels, that makes the horse’s shoulder and ribcage drop into the turn, toward the barrel. For instance, if you’re leaving the first barrel (if the right barrel is your first) and you’re using the inside rein to direct the horse to the right of the second barrel, that will only make them get closer to the barrel.

First, you have to release that inside rein slightly, and use a little outside rein to direct the nose 4’ to the right of that barrel. Then, once you feel you have that horse aimed to the right, make sure you have equal pressure on the reins. Once you approach the turn, you will be using a little inside rein to help guide that horse 4’ to the right and 4’ past the barrel to make the third axis point.

When you leave the alley, start centered with the third barrel. In most arenas, you need to go a little more down the center of the arena, then make a gradual arc to a spot bout 8’ directly inside of the first barrel. From there, you need to go about 4’ to the left of the barrel and then 4’ past the barrel, or as I like to say when teaching location around the barrels, “axis point 3.” It’s very important to stay the same distance around the barrel at axis points 1 and 3. This helps the horse keep his hind end underneath him without experiencing a drop in the front end.

What most people don’t understand is that you don’t get your position when you’re at the barrel. I think the biggest misconception in barrel racing is that thought of, ‘I’ve got to get my horse off the barrels.’ To get your position for the first barrel, it has to be obtained when you’re in the alleyway, before you leave, and the move you make with your hands and where you guide is going to set you up for that turn. When you leave the first barrel, make sure that horse’s head is pointed to the right of the second barrel, because you can’t regain position three-quarters or halfway to the barrel –that’s too late. When you leave the second barrel, you have to make sure the horse’s head is pointed to the right of the third. Just remember, the turn is not at the barrel, the turn is 3-4’ past the barrel. Always make a mental note of that 3-4’ area past the barrel and it will help you adjust your depth perception and timing to approach the turn correctly. By preparing 3-4’ too early for a turn, you cost yourself time and you may hit barrels, because you slowed up too early.

Be objective 
If you are hitting a lot of barrels, it’s important to reassess what you are doing with your hands. Are you lifting up on the inside too soon? This starts the turn too early, and you get too close going in, and then you don’t reach the third axis point. This slows your time because your horse can’t utilize his hindquarters properly. Are you too quick with your hands on the backside of the turn? This can pull your horse into the barrels on the backside.

Your cues may need to vary from horse to horse as well. Some horses that really want to rate and turn need very little contact from the rider. Keeping your hands positioned where they are not too high and not too low helps you guide your position more effectively, and helps you be there for what the horse needs from you, when he needs it. Never drop your hands too low going into the turns, always keep your elbows bent.

What I see a lot of at my schools, and just in barrel racing in general, is that many riders don’t use their lower legs as well as they should in order to urge a horse forward when necessary. People kick, but what is often overlooked is sitting for the turn, which helps the horse rate and prepare. If a rider is standing up in the saddle and getting forward with their upper body, this causes the horse to drop his weight to the front end. It also tells the horse to accelerate. As you’re approaching the turn, remember to sit, and then if you feel like your horse isn’t going to make it to the third axis point, remember to urge the horse with your lower legs while you are sitting.

I’ve found that working or running a horse wide is not always the best answer to avoiding hit barrels. Keep your horse in your hands, stay in control, sit for the turns and urge forward with your feet.

If you are doing the same thing run after run after run and hitting barrels, I attribute that to bad position, looking in and down, more of your weight sitting on the inside, and more pressure on the inside rein than necessary. Doing the same thing over and over and getting the same undesirable results is unproductive. Blaming your horse is certainly not the best answer either, because then you never learn what you might have done as a rider to improve, either for that horse, or for the next horse that crosses your path.

Sound check
To me, one of the least likely causes of hit barrels is soundness issues. (That said, horses will get sore for other related reasons, like dumping all their weight on the front end, slips and strains from working out of position, etc.) I have seen horses with sore suspensories, hocks, stifles, and other issues, that start shutting down early for the turns. They get short and tight because they are hurting. It’s a real challenge to get those horses driven far enough up and around the turn. They just can’t physically do it, so you must pay attention to your horse’s soundness, particularly when a really good horse quits clocking or quits making clean runs.

From one run to the next
I believe that horses follow the run they made before, so small mistakes tend to escalate into bigger ones if you don’t ride to fix errors. For instance, if I see a rider whose hand is coming across the horse’s neck or with too much pressure on the inside rein, that tells the horse to get their nose in there toward the barrel a little tighter, so the next run it builds to where they might hit that barrel, rather than just getting too close. Some horses stay honest regardless of the mistakes people make, and then there are other horses that won’t tolerate pilot error. Horses don’t want to hit barrels, but you’ll see horses develop the habit of just crashing into barrels without caring. Pretty soon, those more unforgiving types—if they’ve been habitually ridden in too tight and held off and have hit barrels time and time again—the horse is out of options and might even start running up the fence.

I think as a rider, every run you can be aware of something you could do just a little better or a little different, in order to improve your position and improve the experience for your horse. It takes looking objectively at each performance (and getting qualified assistance if you are unsure). Getting better and winning takes that mindset of seeking constant improvement. When you think you are riding perfectly, that’s when you stop progressing. No one does it all perfect every run. 

You and your horse will both gain confidence when you know you can get around the barrels penalty free when the pressure’s on, like in the short go when you have to make a clean run to win the average. You can’t ride scared and win because when your riding becomes tentative, or defensive, rather than offensive, that is when you pull down barrels. I believe that many hit barrels could be avoided by focusing on getting around those barrels clean, no matter what, every single run. With the right mindset, the right training and honest self-assessment, penalties don’t have to be a problem. Watch videos, be conscientious about improving your hands, feet and position, and you don’t have to deal with penalties taking you out of the game.


For more information on Charmayne James and her books, videos and clinics, visit charmaynejames11.com. Email comments or questions to bhneditorial@ cowboypublishing.com.

Tags: Charmayne James, barrel racing, , how-to, barrel racer advice, avoid penalties