Rate, speed control, whoa, go, set backs, burst outs. All names associated with barrel racing or any discipline where the rider is seeking one thing. Basically what the rider is after is control. Control of the speed, balance, rhythm, timing, impulsion, and the obedience the horse displays towards the rider’s hands and the leg cues. To be able to set a horse back and slow the speed without uncoiling the loins of the horse is no easy task. In fact, you need that bounce and quick shot feel to leave a barrel with energy. It is as if you have become a slingshot. Upon circling a barrel, you will decide how much to fade into a barrel or fade out and away from the barrel. This is all part of the lateral or side to side balance of the horse. A barrel a horse will knock the rate of speed down one notch when entering the turn so they can propel the hind legs under the body in order to turn and burst out of the barrel with incredible speed and power, all while remaining soft through the muscles and straight on the direct lines. We are talking about two of the hardest things in riding. One being making a horse soft and keeping the horse soft, and the other is going from or lateral bending to a straight line. Two of the hardest words to associate together are suppleness and straightness. This is complicated because when a horse is straight from nose to tail they are at full power. Running a straight line like a race horse does allow the horse to gain momentum and speed, and build that speed up. A barrel horse must run at high octane and then gather the body up and turn one of the smallest turns possible, followed by a straight line. Any bending when leaving a barrel through the body is the kiss of death for a barrel racer. The moments when the horse is not straight are precious seconds shaved off the time. When you are fighting for one hundredth of a second everything counts. That means that a horse must be straight through the body the entire time while remaining soft and bendable through the muscles to keep the horse soft during a run. Sounds like two opposite requests, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is the top barrel racers do this almost every run. That is how they win. They can coil the body, then use that coiling to jump forward and leave from the hind, not pull with the front end. This is how we gain control of speed and rate on entry and departure to and from the barrels. It’s hard enough to gain control at a walk and trot, now up the ante to the canter that is flat out with desperate determination to build power and speed and also keep the emotions and the mental focus on the rider. The rider must just set the tone and aid when the horse needs help. It is all happening so quickly that the rider must be still and stabilize the hands and the body so the horse can keep the run steady and carry the rider. Picture the horse running the pattern without you. Would your hands and body get in the way of the balance and movement of the horse? With rhythm and timing remaining consistent, the horse will begin to build a barrel pattern that begins to look the same each time it is run. You can then begin to add speed to the pattern and gain precious seconds. Always remember though each horse will have a max speed and cruising run. All the kicking in the world will not make them faster. How you run the horse, set them up on each barrel, affect their balance, and teach them to coil and spring from behind is what wins. Always keep in mind as well; every single horse has its own distinctive running style. The way they approach a barrel, the way they leave it, how they choose to turn. Do not interfere with what the horse likes to do naturally. I have found that my barrel horses have all been different. When I have tried to interfere, or fix some distinctive style that was natural for the horse, the horse began to sour on the runs a bit. When I worked with the horse and incorporated their own style, the runs began to build and get better. To build up speed and teach the horse to explode in the gallop and come back to the lope without much hesitation and obedience to the rider’s hands and legs, the rider must teach the horse in a distinctive way to be able to work through these issues on the day when you are ready to run. I work with my horses on a three part click cue that increases speed every three steps. Once the horse is up to the speed I desire, I then begin to bring the speed back down and slowly get back to the controlled lope. I keep working on this exercise until I can get my horse to increase speed by using my click, seat, hands, and legs. I continue to work on this until my horse can do the same within one canter stride to bring the horse back to the desired speed I wish, all with the horse completely relaxed and obeying the cues. This means no pull through the bridle, and no ignorance to leg cues. It is instant because that’s what I will need when I am running full out. I always practice this with no barrels in front of me, but this can be used for all aspects of riding including jumping and hunter, along with reining horses for a run down, or even on trail. The biggest reason that horses do not obey the rate of speed is because the rider has not worked the gas and brake pedal enough. This is one of the most important parts of the training that must be fully under control in order for me to even think of entering an arena. How can you expect to slow down from a dead run if you have not practiced slowing down from a dead run? How can you expect to rate your speed if you have not practiced 4 different speeds at the canter? You must make this part of your training. Each time you practice it, you are gaining more and more control of your horse. You fast forward your horse, and then rewind. You work the mental focus of your horse and the emotional sections of the horse’s brain. It is only then that you are beginning to gain control. This will help the rider in every single aspect of riding. Not only in the alley way before a barrel race, but also for every rider who desires control. Once I have the horse running forward in a straight line, it becomes time to teach the horse to begin to circle on a circle that is what is comfortable for them at that specific time of training. That means my horses may never even see a barrel until I can canter a half circle in the arena, then a half circle of that, and then a half circle of that… all until I can get at least a 10 meter circle which in dressage terms is almost a canter pirouette circle. The horse must never swing the hindquarters or shoulders out of the circle or lose the beat of the 3 beat canter. If they lose that beat, they have maxed out with how small the circle can be because they have lost balance and must be put back on a circle that is larger until I can spiral in to a circle that is comfortable for my horse. It is then that the barrel becomes no big deal when placed in front of the horse. The rider can control the speed and can control the turn. A barrel is just an obstacle in the way of three perfect circles, and three straight lines while the rider decides the speed. Practice makes this perfect! Sometimes I will work on this for a full year before my horse is ever ready for the pattern, but the flat work is what makes the horse good. Not the barrels.
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