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Subtle Adjustments

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

charmaynesu-pm-271Charmayne James says subtle adjustments to your riding are key to improving your horse's position at the turns, therefore improving your times. BHN file photoIt all starts when people tense up—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 feel 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.

For the horse not 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 horse's 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 the inside hand stays elevated straight up or even little out. Not only should the inside hand never cross the neck, but it should never pull straight down or straight back either.

Obviously when a rider learns to recognize and feel the correct way to guide, the horse can’t change his style overnight. It’s become 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 Correct Way
In any good run, the horse is tracking three to four 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 more ratey, you can ask that horse to get his hip in a little on the approach to the turn using your 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 and legs is key. Your legs 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.

Going to the first barrel, point the horse’s nose to the six steps—this is a point to visualize your pocket that is six steps, or about six feet, to the left of the first barrel in the case of a right-turn first approach. Some horses will want to drift out a little. Horses that drift out 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 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 throw the reins up on the horse’s neck, this tends to throw the horse into a “front-endy” position, which is inevitably the setup for a slower turn involving more steps around the barrel.

Be Aware
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. 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 got to be 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 gait. 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, support with the outside rein and keep some pressure and contact on it. It holds support and balances the outside shoulder for the horse and allows you to keep the back end 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. charm m096865Charmayne James uses her inside rein to guide the horse and outside rein to support the outside shoulder, while using her inside leg to shape the horse and outside leg to keep him from drifting out. Always make sure your reins never cross the plane of the horse's neck to the other side. BHN file photo

It’s so important to keep the hind end of the horse up and forward. The rider needs to hold good posture in the saddle, with 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 keep in mind 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 the horse’s momentum dumping to the front end and they’ve lost drive from behind needed to power through a turn, I 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 the front end and hind end of your horse need to hit those points for 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 strides 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 strides after finishing 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 back pockets through the turn. On a ratey horse, stay up in a forward position and use your feet a little longer into the turn. For a free runner, sit and help prepare the 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. After turning the second, go to two hands on the reins 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—keep 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 also on the horse and knowing how it responds in different situations, what makes it unsure or more nervous than it should be.  Jackpots are a different environment than rodeos, and nerves come into play when riding in front of a big crowd at a rodeo. For people, focusing on the task at hand instead of who’s there, who might be watching and what everyone else thinks really affects their nerves. Focusing on your job as a rider is critical to dealing with the outside factors.

Quick Tip
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 it. You can be just as aggressive with good body language.


For more information on Charmayne James and her books, videos and clinics, visit charmaynejames.com. E-mail comments or questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tags: Charmayne James, Problem solving, Troubleshooting, Barrel racing basics, Riding correctly, Rider errors, body position, Subtle adjustments, Fixing problems, The barrel run, Rider body position, Horse body position, Correct riding, Fundamentals, Barrel racing fundamentals, Hand position, Leg position