Barrel Racing: Control Your Horse’s Speed

Pro barrel racer Michele McLeod teaches you how to shave time off your runs with correct body position and control of your horse?s speed around barrels.

Like many barrel racers, your main focus may be on speed. It’s the name of the game, right? Not necessarily. While speed is a significant component of your run, it’s just a small part of the overall equation. To really shave time off your runs, you must master your own body position around barrels and also be able to control your horse’s movement.

Your position around barrels is crucial to your run.

Here I’ll explain how to position your body as you turn around a barrel. Plus, I’ll provide you with four exercises that’ll help you perfect your position while also teaching your horse how to maneuver around a barrel.

To Get the Most From This Lesson

  • Use the bit in which your horse is most comfortable and responsive.
  • Choose a quality headstall and leather reins. (Note: I don’t recommend using snap-end reins, because they can break away easily, and also eliminate some of the feel between a rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth.)
  • Use both splint and bell boots to protect your horse’s legs.
  • Work in an arena with soft, even footing.
  • Before you begin, warm up your horse to get him supple and responsive.

Position, First
As you maneuver around a barrel, keep your hips and seat directly in the middle of your saddle?not too far forward or too far back. If you’re too far forward and your horse stops or trips, you could end up in front of the saddle over his neck or hit the ground. If you’re too far back, the force of the turn will throw you backward. In the effort to regain balance, you’ll likely slow your horse down by pulling on your reins.

Any barrel racer needs a measure of fitness to maintain correct position. You’ll use a lot of inside-thigh pressure to help keep yourself grounded in your saddle, and your core, or midsection, must be strong enough that you don’t get jolted forward or back. Your upper body may move slightly, but with a tight core, you’ll stay right in the middle of your saddle.

You also must maintain a significant amount of pressure in your stirrups, so your body is straight up and down. This way, if you get bounced forward or backward, your body will go with the motion. For ideal balance, push down equally in your stirrups. Don’t lean in any direction, as it can hinder your horse’s movement, even with the correct amount of pressure in your stirrups.

Don’t lean on your inside stirrup, especially as you turn. Think about riding a bicycle. If you lean one way, the bike follows your movement. It’s the same with your horse. If you lean on your inside stirrup, your horse will lean too far toward the barrel, and knock it over.

Exercise 1: Tire Circles
This circling exercise helps both you and your horse learn to execute complete, correct circles. It helps you with your head/eye position, because you’re forced to look where your horse is going; if you shift your eyes to the outside of the circle as you’re turning, your horse will veer outward as well.

Create a circle out of tires placed 8 to 10 feet apart. Make correct circles at an energetic walk, and circle several times without moving your hand on the reins.

In your practice area, create a barrier circle?40 or 50 feet across?out of tires, cones, or other markers. Place them 8 to 10 feet apart (see above photos). Set a barrel in the center of your circle. You’ll go around the barrel from within the barrier; in the photos here, I’m demonstrating about a 10-foot-diameter circle.

You’ll probably need to work your way down to that size, depending on your riding ability and how broke your horse is. The size of your circle isn’t as imporant as the quality of the work you do in it, so if you’re not ready to work a tight circle, don’t do it.

Your goal is to control your horse more through your body than with your reins. Begin by circling the barrel at a forward-moving walk (it doesn’t matter which direction; you’ll eventually work both ways). Circle several times without constantly moving your hand on the reins; learn what it takes to get your horse to respond to other body signals, such as changes in leg seat pressure. And, especially, at this slower pace, hone in on perfecting your body position. Next, pick up a trot and continue circling the barrel, still maintaining that nice position and guiding more with body than with reins. Eventually progress to a collected lope as you circle the barrel.

Once you’re in complete control and your horse is paying attention, add a or little speed. If things go wrong at the faster pace, go back to a collected lope, circling a few times until you regain control, and then speed up again. (Caution: If you’re working a smaller circle, don’t repeat this process over and over. The smaller your circle is, the more difficult it is for your horse to maintain that circle at speed. So once your horse has performed at the walk, trot, lope, and gallop correctly, give him a break. Walk him on a loose rein, and repeat the same exercises in the opposite direction.)

When loping a larger circle, it’s more difficult to tell if you’re leaning, so consciously sit in the middle of your saddle, without leaning, and push down in both stirrups. If you constantly get too close to the barrel, not maintaining the same diameter around it, you’re most likely leaning on your inside stirrup. Even the pressure in your stirrups so you can maintain a consistent diameter around the barrel.

When you get in position to begin a turn, slightly shift your eyes down to look where the horse’s front feet are going on that stride and the following one. In this tire drill, you can focus on learning how to do that because you’re turning in a small radius.

Exercise 2: Straight-Line Lead Changes
This exercise involves three or four simple lead changes on a straight line. It’ll tell you if your horse is leaning one direction or the other. This is important because to maneuver well around a barrel, your horse must be balanced and straight. Many horses lean to the inside of the lead they’re picking up?mostly because in barrel racing we’re often asking them to take off onto a circle. Doing simple changes in a straight line will also tell you how well your horse is paying attention; plus, it’ll allow you to assess the quality of your position.

Execute simple lead changes on a straight line to quickly identify if your horse is leaning. This exercise will also allow you to assess the quality of your position.

Select an area of your arena where you can perform several lead changes on a straight line. Lope five strides or so on one lead, trot a few steps, and pick up the other lead. You can also practice lengthening and shortening your horse’s stride. This is important because when you’re approaching a barrel, you don’t want your horse to think you want him to stop; you’re simply asking him to shorten his stride.

Exercise 3: Changing Pace on a Circle
This exercise teaches slow-down and speed-up cues using changes in your body position?sitting down in your hips and dropping your rib cage to slow him, for instance, then sitting more forward and squeezing with your inner thighs to extend his stride? so you can control his pace without relying on the reins.

After beginning your circle at a steady, cadenced lope, add speed. This prepares your horse to readily add speed on a circle and then come back to a nice, collected lope.

Work on a medium-sized circle, 20 to 50 feet in diameter. Begin at a sitting trot, then transition to a walk using body cues, and back up again to a sitting trot. Circle several times doing this transition. Then change it up by doing an extended trot to a sitting trot to a walk. Any variation of gait change will help you and your horse find and develop that slow-down cue. Lope when your horse responds well at the slower gaits, going from a collected to a sped-up lope and back.

It takes time to teach your horse that these position changes are cues to shorten or lengthen his stride. Eventually, these cues will click with your horse and you’ll get that big effect where your horse shortens his stride, drops in toward the barrel, and executes a nice turn.

Exercise 4: Rollbacks on the Fence
Rollbacks on a fence teach your horse the same cues you’ll use to go around a barrel. These include sitting down in your saddle, going to the horn, and asking your horse to really use his hindquarters to turn. A lot of barrel horses turn on their front ends. This may work for some people, but if you run on bad ground, a horse that turns on his front end is more likely to trip or fall because his weight is too forward.

Rollbacks along a fence will help you and your horse master the same cues you

Use rollbacks to teach your horse to engage his hind end first, so he can maneuver around the barrel more efficiently?plus, you’re going to save time, and you’ll be more in control of your horse’s body. As you practice your rollbacks, use the body-position pointers I’ve given you, so your horse can get up underneath himself and come back through without swinging his hind end around.

Rollbacks will also help you stay upright and centered as you come through the turn and depart in the opposite direction. If you get rocked forward or back when your horse comes around, continue working on your body position and core strength.

Start your rollbacks at a trot, so you can really emphasize that hard set, or rate. To begin your rollback, sit down in your saddle to engage your horse’s hind end. When you feel your horse get back on his hocks, steer him toward the fence. At first, you may need to use your reins to guide him, but eventually you should be able to steer him with your hips and torso. Always look where you’re going to help guide him. After you’ve practiced this at the trot, progress to doing rollbacks at the lope.

Michele McLeod moved from Temecula, California, to Whitesboro, Texas, in 2005 to train barrel horses full time. She owns and operates Michele McLeod Barrel Horses with her husband, John, and daughters Katelyn, Lindsey, and Jenna.

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