Blazing fast times don’t come by simply running the pattern at full speed. Fast times require attention to every step the horse takes. Control is extremely important, as the difference between first and second place come down to fractions of a second. Here are a few exercises to help improve your control during a run and overall improve your times.
The Five Body Parts
Having control of each of the five body parts of the horse is essential. Moving the hindquarters, shoulders, ribs, head and neck, and poll on cue will benefit all areas of riding. Being able to move each part of the horse where you want it while running barrels will make you run more effectively.
The Head and Neck
Start by moving the neck, as this will be the easiest body part. At a standstill, slide one hand down the rein about a third of the way down. Then gently bring the rein up and back toward the saddle horn. This movement will ask the horse to bend laterally through the neck and at the poll. When he brings his nose slightly in the direction you ask release the rein by dropping it out of your hand. Ask for a slight bend at first and move on to eventually asking the horse to bend his head all the way around to where it is about even with his shoulder. Do this exercise equally on both sides.
Moving the poll of a barrel horse may not seem as important as the other four parts, but yet having the horse yield to pressure at the poll directly relates to him giving to the bit and softening to you when you go to turn or slow down. Once you have practiced the first lesson and the horse softly bends his neck to each side when you ask this exercise will be much easier. Begin by reviewing the previous exercise, by this time your horse should tuck his nose in when he bends his neck to either side. This is a sign that he is giving to the bit pressure. If he is not yet doing so and sticks his nose up in the air between bending give him some more time to learn the exercise.
Ask the horse to give at the poll by starting at a halt. Slide both hands down the reins until you make contact with his mouth. Take only a gentle contact, if you are pulling hard on the reins he may still give to your pressure, but he will never be light. Horses can only be as light as the first amount of pressure you use in a cue.
Set your hands on either side of your saddle horn or on your thighs and wait for him to lower his head or tuck his chin in toward his chest. When he does this, release the pressure right away by dropping the reins. Give him a moment to think about it, then ask him again. Do this lesson until he gives to your pressure two or three times in a row. For some horses this lesson my take longer to learn than others and that’s ok just be patient.
Some horses will drop their head down but won’t tuck their nose in. In that case just wait for him to figure out what your asking and release immediately once he brings his nose in. Another common problem is a horse that tosses his head and sticks his nose out, pushing against the pressure. If your horse does this, continue to hold the pressure until he moves his head in the right direction then release. Be careful not to let him pull the reins out of your hands or move your body at all as this will give him a unintended release for pulling. When you can get the horse to flex at the poll at a standstill progress to asking him to flex at a walk. The only difference in breaking at the poll while the horse is moving is that you must add leg pressure to drive him forward into the bridle. From the walk practice at a trot and eventually a canter.
The ability to move the horse’s shoulders during a run could determine if you knock down a barrel or place in the money. Gaining control over this important body part starts on the ground. Ask the horse to move his shoulders away from you by pressing gently behind his front leg on the girth area. Gradually increase the pressure until he steps to the side. When he moves his shoulders over release the pressure and rub him. You can practice this every day while grooming and tacking up. Teaching the horse how to move his shoulders away from pressure on the ground will translate into the same cue when you’re on his back.
Start this lesson at a halt. Ask the horse to move his shoulders to the left by first looking in the direction you want to go, apply right leg pressure in front of the girth with your heel and your toe pointed slightly away from the horse, bring both reins to the left. If the horse still has not responded to your aids, continue asking by gently bumping his side with your right leg until he takes a step to the left. As soon as he takes only one step release all of you cues as a reward.
Begin with the softest cue possible as you want to progress your aids by asking first with right leg pressure by the girth, then adding the rein aid, and then bumping him with your right leg. As your horse gets more comfortable with this exercise increasingly ask for more steps until he can turn all the way around in both directions.
Teaching the horse to move the rib cage can also be started on the ground in much the same way as you asked him to move his shoulders over. Apply pressure with your hand about a hand’s width behind the girth, hold it until he takes a step sideways then release and rub him. Once you can move him over both sides on the ground it’s time to ask him under saddle.
Start this exercise by facing a fence or a wall to help block forward movement and encourage the horse to travel sideways instead. To move the rib cage to the right, look in the direction you want to go, apply pressure with your left leg just behind the girth with your heel against the horse’s side and your toes pointed away from the horse. Block forward movement by keeping a gentle contact on the reins. Apply your aids until the horse moves to the right. This could be as subtle as a shift in his weight, or he could take a few steps; each horse is different. Once he moves in the correct direction reward his effort by releasing your aids. Give him a moment to think about the lesson then start again. Over time ask for one more step then another until the horse can side pass all the way down the fence. Once you can do that, move off of the fence and practice side passing in an open area.
As with the previous two exercises, teaching your horse to move his hindquarters on the ground first will set you up for success under saddle. Apply pressure by pressing your hand against your horse’s flank, about another hand’s width back from where you cued him to move side ways. Hold the pressure until he yields and takes a step away from you, then release.
Once you can easily move the horse’s hindquarters on the ground, start practicing the same maneuver while in the saddle. Ask him to move his hindquarters over to the right by weighting the left seat bone and applying left leg pressure behind the girth. Again, keep your toes pointed away from the horse and your heel on his side. The horse should pivot on his front legs. If he walks a small circle instead use a both reins aid to ask him not to go forward. Once he takes a step in the correct direction release the pressure to reward him. Work on this exercise in both directions and keep building on this until you can take multiple steps without using your rein aid.
Taking control of each of the horse’s five body parts will allow you manipulate the horse’s body into the correct shape around the barrel resulting in better runs and faster times.