In barrel racing, seconds matter. A one-second difference can mean the difference between taking home a ribbon and going home empty handed. Before entering the show ring, it is important that your horse have the opportunity to learn the skills he will need. It is also important that the rider be properly prepared and begin training slowly. This helps to prevent training problems and builds the foundation for a great barrel run.
What Your Horse Needs to Know
Prior to beginning barrel training, your horse should have command of all of the basic gaits (walk, trot, and lope). His transitions between gaits and lead changes should also be solid, as these skills help a horse to slow down and turn around a barrel. Your horse should also be able to back up well, which requires a horse to engage his hind quarters smoothly. It is important that a barrel horse be flexible and able to turn, bend, and flex in order to move around the barrels. One of the most important commands that a great barrel horse must learn is the verbal “Whoa” command. Anyone who has watched a barrel horse crow-hop, buck, or rear before a run knows that they can anticipate a run as much as the rider. A horse charging at the first barrel is much more likely to miss or hit the barrel, costing the rider precious seconds. Responding to “Whoa” is critical to ensuring a great barrel run. By working with your horse until he has mastered these basic skills will set him up for success.
Beginning Barrel Racing Gear
There is some basic gear that you will need when you start training on barrels. You can likely stick with the bit and bridle you have already been working with; make sure that your bit is as gentle as possible. A snaffle bit is a good bet for most horses beginning in barrel racing. You will also need a saddle and girth in good condition; damaged or weak latigo is a safety issue. Also, if you haven’t been wearing a helmet, it is a good idea to get one. Sixty percent of all equestrian-related deaths come from head injuries. A properly fitting helmet can reduce the severity of many injuries and prevent death. You will also need a place to run. If you are fortunate, you can set up barrels in an arena. If you don’t have an arena, try to find an area to practice without grass. Grass is slippery and can lead to slips and injuries. If you don’t have regular barrels, you can order collapsible barrels to begin. Eventually, you will want to practice with regulation barrels, which will help you learn how much impact they can take without tipping.
Learning the Pattern
Prior to teaching your horse the pattern, it is important that you learn the pattern you are trying to teach! Most barrel racers begin by learning the cloverleaf pattern. It may help you to run the barrel pattern on foot several times before trying it with your horse. Because your horse learns from repetition, any mistakes that you make while beginning training may confuse your horse and delay training. When you begin with your horse, begin by walking the pattern. As you approach the first barrel, slow and stop your horse approximately 8-10 feet before the barrel. This will help your horse to learn to slow before reaching the barrel, which is important when racing at top speed. Approach the barrel wide while looking “in the pocket”, which means the area where you will bring your horse around the barrel. Still walking, turn your horse tightly around the barrel and look ahead to the next barrel. Continue to practice the pattern at a walk until your horse masters it. Then, move on to the trot! Before long, you and your horse will be ready to “run” your first pattern.
Leona Valley Gymkhana, Patterns, lvgymkhana.org
Equestrian Medical Safety Association, Helmet Safety, emsaonline.net
McNamara, B., Barrel Racing Tack and Equipment, www.allabouthorses.com
McNamara, B., Starting Barrel Racing, www.ultimatehorsesite.com