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When I'm running barrels, my horse always swings her butt way out. Can you help?

- S. N.


Although the horse is the one exhibiting the fault, my guess is that the bulk of the problem is caused by the rider/trainer.

To begin, let's go back to the basics:

To make the turn around a barrel, your horse needs to stay close to the barrel (keeping the distance traveled during the race as short as possible) and also maintain a steady forward motion with both fore and hind legs (keeping the average speed as high as possible). [See below for some numbers to illustrate these two factors.]

In order to stay close to the barrel, your mount needs to flex its body in an arc that keeps the shoulders pulling and the hindquarters driving around the turn. If the horse swivels on the forelegs and swings wide at the back, you lose forward travel and increase the distance of the run.

The key to sucess is for the rider to work in harmony with the horse - helping the horse by your balance and the cues you give her. The biggest mistakes I see barrel racers make are in thinking that speed is determined by how many swats the rider gives with the bat and that turns are controlled by the reins. Neither is true.

So, what's the solution?

1. First of all, your horse has to have the physical ability - suppleness - to arc its body around the barrels.

It almost goes without saying that having your horse in good condition is essential for a good performance in the ring. A good routine may be to exercise for a half-hour every other day - with 15-minute warm-up and cool-down periods. Flexing exercises on the rail will go a long way toward improving your horse's suppleness and your own leg strength. (If you don't know what flexing exercises are, ask a friendly riding instructor - or send me an e-mail.)

2. Forget about using the reins to guide your horse around the turn. Instead, use your balance and leg cues.

It may help if you pretend you are riding a giant-size rubber tube that is anchored at the rear. If you want to bend the tube around a barrel on your right, keep your inside (right) leg in the normal position, move your outside (left) leg forward and press in. Can you picture how the tube would bend? Your horse will do the same thing.

My students often get frustrated with me for making them do exercises at a walk when they want to gallop. After a while, however, they usually see the method in my madness. When things are happening too fast, neither horse nor rider can properly absorb the lesson. Therefore, I'm going to ask you to run the barrels in slow motion at first. This will help your horse learn the correct amount of flexing as she arcs around the barrel. Periodically smooth the arena sand so you can see how her hind legs follow the forelegs. If she's flexing too much, her rear will tend to swing out. If she's trying to swivel on the forelegs, the rear will also swing out.

As you WALK your horse around the barrels, use your legs and balance - not the reins - to cue her around the turn. If her hindquarters swing wide, use more pressure from your outside leg to cue her back into the correct arc. As you master the turns at the walk, gradually pick up the speed.

3. You also need to think about your own balance and body position. As you run the course, your eyes should be on the route you want to take - not on the barrels. You also want to shift your weight to the inside stirrup. This should put your body in the right balance and position to help your mount move around the turn. Eventually, you should be able to run the barrels without using the reins at all - only your legs and balance. Willy and I are both too tall to ever be barrel racers, but I sometimes use this exercise to get both of us working in harmony. (And yes, it is possible to canter the barrels with the reins draped around the saddle horn.)

4. Another thing to watch that may affect your horse's motion is the lead changes. If she is on the correct lead going into the turn, it will be much easier for her to make a good turn. Here's where you need an experienced rider - possibly with a video camera - on the ground. Mastering the flying lead change may well be the most difficult thing to master.

5. Finally, if you must carry a crop or bat during your run, carry it only for decoration. It's amazing to watch a barrel race - and see how often a horse that is willing to run will actually slow down when it's whipped. A horse has a very small brain, and it's hard for the critter to think about two things at once. If something stings the animal's rear end, that's where its attention will be - not on running around the barrels. You should be able to cue your horse for maximum speed by moving your legs back slightly and giving more pressure with your legs. If this doesn't work, you need to spend more time practicing cues with your horse!

I hope these suggestions help. Maybe some visitors with more experience in the gaming ring can offer additional suggestions.

Ashley shows how to round a turnHere's Ashley Lemen from Georgia showing a textbook example of the right way to make a turn. Notice that her inside leg is acting as the pivot around which her horse will turn. She has her full weight balanced on the inside stirrup and is looking in the direction she wants her horse to go. Meanwhile, Ashley's outside leg has moved slightly forward and is pressing in just behind the horse's shoulder. With form like this, it's no wonder that Ashley consistently scores high -- even though she's one of the younger riders in her class.

The Mathematics of Barrel Racing:

There is no single standard for the layout of a barrel racing course, so we'll have to imagine our own arena. For ease of calculation, let's say that the ideal run of this course is 400 feet and that your horse has the ability to run such a course at an average speed of 25 MPH. If I figure right, that means you could make the run in 16.01 seconds.

Now, let's imagine that your horse travels just one foot farther out from the barrels than she should. That adds about 9.5 feet to the total distance you need to cover. Your time is now 16.39 seconds - more than one-third of a second slower than you could have run it.

Next, let's look at what happens when a horse loses forward motion while turning around the barrels. If her average speed only drops to 24.5 MPH, the 400 foot run will take 16.33 seconds while the 409.5 ft. run will take 16.72 seconds - almost three-quarters of a second longer than the ideal.

Happy Riding!

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