#1 Drill You Need to Stop Knocking the Barrel
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You see it all the time - barrel horses that shoulder in and bring forth a cringe from observers as they make the costly blunder of knocking the barrel. It’s the bane of every barrel racer’s existence as far as horse training goes.
It also has the potential to cost you a lot of money - often in donated entry fees and repeat tune-ups with a trainer.
Barrel racers seem to be always chasing ways to solve this common misstep. New bits, attending costly clinics, tires next to the barrels…the list goes on. While these all have their place, they are all just band-aids to cover up the much deeper problem that is really behind this setback.
I am going to walk you through the cause, effect, and solution to horses shouldering the barrel and get to the bottom of this issue once and for all!
So buckle up, cupcake. This one alteration to your training, prevent your horse from EVER knocking the barrel, and will change the way you run barrels FOREVER.
Knocking the Barrel: THE PROBLEM
If you watch videos of amateur barrel runs, you will notice a lot of riders pulling on the outside rein to move their horse over and create a pocket. Do you do this? Don’t be afraid to admit it if you do, it seems intuitive. And the intention is definitely good! The method, not so good.
What this actually does is put both horse AND rider out of good position to set up the turn.
Think about it for a second. Visualize the run with me. While the rider should be preparing to sit deep in the saddle and shift their weight to the outside stirrup, pulling the outside rein causes them instead to brace their upper body in an effort to pull to the outside.
Thereby unintentionally shifting weight to the INSIDE leg.
A snowball effect happens as the rider is then unable to sit down in time and gets rocked forward through the turn and popped in the butt by the saddle coming out of the turn. Recognize the feeling? Me too - I’m cringing just thinking about it.
My chiropractor used to love me - and my checkbook.
All of these things puts the horse off balance and draws him into the barrel to compensate the rider’s weight shift to the inside.
“A horse can feel a fly - imagine what every shift in your ENTIRE body tells him?”
Pulling the outside rein also draws the horse’s nose to the outside, forcing him out of that desirable “C” shape we desperately want their bodies in for quick, clean turns.
Knowing he must make the turn, the horse compensates (with his nose to the outside) by drifting inward and making a sharp dive towards the barrel. What this creates is one of three things:
1) a horse that shoulders the barrel going into the turn
2) an “L” shaped turn that will often knock the barrel leaving the turn
3) wide turn coming off the barrel, adding precious time to the clock
If this sounds like something you’ve encountered with your barrel horse, then know you are not alone! It is natural to want to control your horse’s movement with your reins, especially at high speeds, however, it is not effective.
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Knocking the Barrel: THE SOLUTION
I have an easy and severely underestimated tactic for combating this problem. It has worked across the board, with every style and type of horse that has ever beheld a cloverleaf pattern.
Some people call it counter-arching. It is a well known and necessary move for team roping horses but it is MUCH less taught in the barrel racing world. However, it is equally important!
Counter-flexing refers to the horse’s head flexed or turned one way, while moving laterally (still with forward momentum) the opposite way.
For example, a short right rein should bring a properly flexing horse’s head to the right. You should be able to see their right eye at LEAST. With right leg pressure, the horse should move left while keeping his head to the right. And vice versa.
Think of it like a side pass, except with forward momentum.
What this imperative move will do is allow you to set your horse up for the turn with a short inside rein AND move him over with your leg to create a pocket, all while still keeping a “C” shape in the body. WIN-WIN!!!
This will also allow you to maintain your own body position and shift your weight properly to the outside stirrup. This method is all about controlling the horse’s feet with your feet, rather than your hands.
Think of the reins as a guide ONLY- a tool used to point him in the correct direction while your feet and legs communicate to the horse where to put his feet. Teaching your horse this method will get him broke in the body, softer to your cues, and allow you to put all four feet exactly where you want them.
All while maintaining proper body position.
So the suggestion I always have for my clients who have this problem is this - take some time away from barrels until you have this method mastered in a straight line. Practice a serpentine pattern straight down the arena counter-flexing one way, then the other, first at a walk and then a trot.
These tools are essential for performance horse training. With performance horses, you are asking for far more advanced cues and a level of softness/collection than the average rider out on the trail. Spurs allow for quick, concise communication between you and your horse.
You can then incorporate this newfound skill into a figure eight pattern between two barrels at a trot and eventually a lope. Practice moving your horse over to create a pocket with only your legs and short inside rein (resist the temptation to pick up your horse's shoulders by lifting on the inside rein. Keep your hands low).
Make sure this horse is extremely broke and very advanced with this groundbreaking maneuver before you add speed. One of the common mistakes people make is working on counter-flexing for a few days and thinking their horse is ready for a peddle to the metal.
Adding speed makes a horse less responsive to ALL cues due to the momentum of forward movement. Before accelerating, spend the time making response to this maneuver second nature to your horse. I warm all my barrel horses up with this drill and flexing every day.
I think you’ll be pleased with how much cleaner, snappier, and ultimately faster your turns will be! Your horse will thank you, as will your bank account 😉
If you have questions about drills, training, or anything I mentioned in this blog, drop a comment below and let’s chat!