Centered Barrel Racing
Friday, September 30, 2011
The primary objective in the training of a barrel racing horse or rider is, obviously, to negotiate the pattern accurately and in the shortest possible time. Many variable factors contribute to this goal. The age, condition, temperament and athleticism of the horse used is important, and there are many patterns and exercises to accomplish this.
All of the responsibility of the success of the barrel racing horse rests with the rider. Strengthening and suppling exercises are as important to the “gaming” horse as they are to a jumper or dressage horse. Indeed, as the required movements are done at top speed, which really is not that natural for a horse, they are perhaps more important.
In the natural state, horses only run at top speed when they are in danger, or in occasional moments of play. They are very afraid of losing their equilibrium and falling. Endurance is also important to horses as it is how they have survived through evolution. So in barrel racing we are already asking the horse to overcome two factors that are fairly unnatural to him-going at a fast rate of speed, and asking him to move his body in a way that causes the danger of losing his balance. This is why top barrel trainers make sure that they start their horses slowly, and build up gradually to speed and tight turns so that the horse is comfortable and confident about it.
There are, of course, different gymnkana patterns, but this article will focus on the three barrel pattern used in the Cloverleaf Barrel Race. It is truly a challenging pattern for both horse and rider, as it incorporates short, intense bursts of speed interrupted by very tight turns. A horse would find this difficult if he did it at liberty; with the added burden of a rider it definitely is a daunting task.One of the most important things a rider can do to help her horse and not interfere in a negative way is to go with the horse’s body-her position must mimic the position of the horse.
Centered Barrel Racing simply means riding from your center, incorporating the four basics of Centered Riding-breathing, centering, soft eyes and building blocks.. Building blocks are simply the straight line you can have on your horse when you are schooling him at slower gaits. From the side, an observer should be able to see a straight line from your ear through your shoulder, hip and heel. This obviously changes a bit as you are asking your horse for speed and negotiating a barrel, but your lower legs should remain near the girth for balance and to be able to use your leg properly as an aid.
If a rider leans too far forward when the horse is at speed, she will put more weight on his forehand and handicap his ability to use his haunches, which is where all of the pushing power originates. If she gets behind the motion, it will hollow the horse’s back, again making it harder for him to do his job. The same thing holds true for the turns around the barrel. You must turn with the horse’s body, but under or over turning results in the horse not being able to balance correctly and he will lose momentum.
“Soft eyes” enable you to use your peripheral vision when riding. Try the following exercise-really stare at an object. Put all of your effort on focusing on that one item. Notice what happens to your body. You will become more tense. Usually your breathing is shorter and many people hold their breath. This would definitely hinder your effectiveness during a barrel run. Now take a deep breath and let your eyes become “soft”. You will be able to see almost 180 degrees or more. I have seen a barrel run apparently lost when the rider used “hard” eyes and lost the track to the next barrel, causing a deviation which cost her precious seconds. You are also able to use your body much more effectively, thereby helping your horse.
Many riders hold their breath or breathe shallowly. You can practice this on or off your horse. Hold your breath or breathe in several short gasps. (be careful not to overdo…you could become dizzy). But again, note how your body reacts to this. Your horse is very sensitive and can feel these changes. Now take a deep breath. Often when I teach this exercise the rider’s horse takes a deep, relaxed breath when his rider does. My gaming students often decide to remember to breathe at each barrel, and have told me that it makes a positive difference in the quality of their run.
Centering would include what I call “swiveling”, turning your body with the horse’s body during turns, straight lines, or lateral work. When the horse goes around a barrel, his degree of bend is extreme. Horses are not really built to bend easily, their spines simply do not allow it, so it is important that the rider aids the horse and does not interfere.
The following exercise should first be done off the horse, so that the rider can have time to feel how it affects her body without the additional distraction of being on her horse. Stand flat-footed on the ground with your feet about 12” apart. Place one hand on your “center” about where a western belt buckle would be, and your other hand directly in back, near your sacrum. Now just take a deep breath and exhale, relaxing between your hands. You have located your center, where your aids to your horse should originate. We have all been told how important balance, seat and weight are. Now you will be able to use them correctly.
Now imagine that you are on your horse and you are coming around a barrel to the left.. You would want your inside leg near the girth of the horse for impulsion and bending. The outside leg needs to be slightly behind the girth to control the haunches of the horse. For optimum speed, it is important that the horse does not carry it’s haunches too far to the outside. This saves ground and also enables the horse to keep carrying more weight on it’s hindquarters, where all of the speed and balance originate. With your hands still around your center, simply imagine that western belt buckle and turn slightly to the left. Feel that your inside leg automatically would go against the girth of your horse. Now be aware of your outside (left) leg. Your outside hip joint has opened and this allows your left leg to come slightly behind the girth. This will help you keep your horse’s haunches underneath him as he negotiates the barrel turn. Now focus your attention to your arms and hands. By swiveling your center, your arms automatically go in the direction of movement and you are neck-reining your horse around the tight turn. The importance of this is that it makes everything easier for the rider, and that the horse understands the aids much more clearly. All of the aids originated from the rider’s center, and the rider’s entire body is telling the horse the same thing to do at the same time. It makes it much clearer to the horse and easier for the rider. The less effort either partner has to make, the better the run.
Now put this exercise into practice on your horse. After mounting and warming him up a bit so he is relaxed and attentive, find your center again. You may need to put a hand on your “belt buckle”, or just be able to find your center by a few deep breaths. Now with a soft rein, practice walking and turning your horse just by swiveling. How little can you do to turn him? Keep your “soft eyes” softly focused on where you want him to go, but have clear intent on the exact path. Riders usually find that they are turning their horse with almost invisible aids. When you are feeling comfortable with this, go into a trot, and then start incorporating circles and sharper turns. You will find your horse more responsive and seemingly reading your mind.
So on your next competitive barrel run, remember. Take in the whole pattern with your soft eyes. Take a few big relaxing breathes to help you and your horse concentrate. As you begin, you will be able to stay with the movements of your horse as your body is more receptive to changes of balance and weight. Remember your swivel around the barrels. Anything that makes what you want the horse to do clearer to him in a positive way is very rewarding for both of you.