Any fan or competitor of barrel racing knows that speed is critical. They also know that a controlled ride is equally important. The fastest horse that goes wide around the barrels adds precious seconds to the run. The swift horse that comes in too tight and knocks over a barrel receives costly penalties. And the quick mount with sloppy form going around the barrel isn’t running efficiently.
Explains trainer/competitor Mary Burger, “Speed is usually not much of a problem, especially today where horses have speed bred right into them. Top-notch horses need speed and turn. A level or two down, good turns are even more of a primary factor. In fact, you see horses that may not have that much run, but they get into placings because they were smooth.”
Burger knows. She’s a five-time AQHA World Quarter Horse champion in junior and senior barrels and a five-time Quarter Horse Congress winner in barrels and poles. She’s also nabbed numerous Quarter Horse awards for superior barrels, and along the way, she’s grabbed a Futurity and Derby win in barrels at the richest barrel futurity in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and, not incidentally, captured a world title in junior pole bending also at the AQHA World shows.
For Burger, the secret to accomplishing the smoothest, fastest run with a horse begins not with refining fast barrel runs but by starting with the basics — around poles and barrels.
Building the barrel horse
Before beginning barrel training, a horse should know how to pick up leads and lope circles. Burger also makes sure the horse understands that “whoa” and a little check on the rein means the horse should slow down its pace a bit and relax its body in preparation for turns.
Burger starts her barrel horses on poles and barrels at the same time. “I use the pole bending patterns as one of the basics,” she says. “Poles teach them to move over, to sidepass, and things like that. It aids in control of the barrel horse and gives them something else to do.”
Training sessions begin with a warm-up on the barrels. Burger says, “I go around barrels to work on the sidepass. I may go to the left and pick out the second barrel, circle it, go on around and then go around the third barrel. As I go around the barrel, I may start trotting to the right and then pick out the right barrel and go around it. We go through these kind of exercises until I get some response from the horse in learning to pick up the shoulder and upper body. I do that along with the poles at the same time.”
After warming up the horse, Burger works on the poles. She trots her horse down the right side of the pole pattern, using the same basics she will on the barrels. “I pick the horse’s inside or left shoulder up, maybe giving them a little bump if they need it, so they have a pocket or some room to make the turn. When we get around that turn, we want to come off of the first pole tight. Then, as soon as we get by that first turn, I pick up the opposite rein and move the horse's shoulder up and over to the right so when we get to the next pole I can just switch hands, pick him up, and move that shoulder off to the left.”
Burger stresses the importance of picking up the rein on the inside shoulder immediately after each pole. “You need to make them leave room so that you set yourself up for the next shot,” she explains. “You have to make sure you’ve got your pocket coming into a turn because you need to have room for the horse to drop his shoulder for a smooth turn. When you do that, you can come off of that pole or barrel tight so you can set yourself up for the next pole or barrel in the same manner.”
Pole work is never done faster than a trot. “There are a lot of lead changes between the poles, and frequent lead changes will shorten the stride a little bit when you run the poles,” Burger explains. “Horses use their stride a bit more aggressively in the barrel pattern than in the poles because of the lead changes, so I don’t season them on the poles.”
Next, Burger moves to the barrels. At first, she may use two hands to steady the horse as it comes to the barrel pattern. “I keep their nose tipped in the direction they’re going when we take off,” she says, “so if your horse is headed straight through the alleyway, you like to have their nose slightly tipped to the right (because they’re going to turn right) and have their inside or right shoulder up.”
As Burger approaches the barrel she cues the horse to get ready to turn. "I say ‘whoa’, check them with my inside rein by pulling back slightly, give them a little bump with that rein to cue them to drop their speed and get ready to turn.
For horses that have a lot of speed, if they run really hard, when I come in I sometimes may give them a two-handed set and a backwards pull on the rein to slow the hind end down a little bit.
“When I get behind each barrel, I take an inside rein so when I pull the rein I've got the horse's nose still tucked when we’re coming around the barrel.
“Likewise when you’re going to the second barrel, you switch hands from right to left. At that time you should have your hand to the left of the inside rein so you can give that same arc coming around the barrel. You'll have that nose tucked to the left so that you’ll have a little pull on the inside with your rein.”
Keeping your hand on the inside or your rein when coming in around the barrels is important. Warns Burger, “If your hand is in the middle or the outside, your horse will have a tendency to pull more on the outside rein, have his head tipped the other way, not watching where he's going, and won't have his shoulder up.”
When working poles and barrels, the rider should be balanced a little bit forward. “You want to keep up over the shoulders so you can control your body along with the horse,” Burger states. “If your body is up too straight or behind, when you go around a barrel your body weight will be to the outside or the back. When that happens, your hands are not free to control the horse, you’ll be into their mouth, and the horse can’t get coordinated. He may get confused.”
Your seat position depends on your horse. Explains Burger, “Some horses rim a barrel so tight that if you don’t keep your weight a little more into the center of the horse, they’ll get too close. Then there are horses that if you don’t get down to the inside, they’ll bow out.”
Leg cues are used only in training, with the goal of transferring those cues to your hands. “When I want the horse to bend in the middle, I’ll use my inside leg and bump him with my heel in the middle,” says Burger. “It does take some time for a horse to learn this, which comes from the basics of pole bending and trotting barrels. I want to transfer those leg cues to my hands, when I have the horse in the middle of training. I will also use my inside rein to cue him for the turn. Eventually I want to eliminate all the leg pressures and simplify it down to just a hand cue or a bump or a whoa. That cue will vary from horse to horse, and when you get in sync with your horse, you’ll know which cue is the best. Some horses don’t want to be touched, other horses have to be touched.
While running barrels in good form is part of the winning equation, running them at the right speed is the other part.
“When I train a young horse, I go with what the horse tells me he can handle,” says Burger. “If the horse has got a lot of speed and he’s a little too anxious, I work slower until they relax and then gradually pick up speed. On a quieter horse, I stretch them out.”
Her cues for slowing or increasing speed are just the basics, she says: Heels for urging a horse on, hands and a “whoa” for asking them to slow down. “I just keep progressively working with them until I get them where I want them.”
Once the horse understands its cues and is running pretty well, Burger prefers to season the horse at a gallop or fast lope at different arenas. “I really like to pick up my speed away from home. It seems to cause less problems,” she states. “Each time you take them away from home, do slow work, maybe a trot and a canter, and increase your speed.”
Unless the horse is making constant mistakes, getting sloppy, or is out of sync with the rider, Burger doesn’t do hard runs at home, instead confining practice runs to reinforcing the basics.
“I do some hard runs at home, but very little when I get the horse to the point where I want him. If they’re working good away from home, I usually don’t work them hard at home. I ride them every day, putting them through the basics. But if a horse makes a mistake away from home two or three times in a row, then I may go to the barrel pattern and make that practice hard run and see if we can’t work it out and figure out where the problem is.”
Marcia King is an award-winning writer specializing in equine, pet, and veterinary topics.