5 Basic Exercises for Barrel Horses

5 Basic Exercises for Barrel Horses

These fundamental exercises for barrel racing and pole bending horses establish and maintain control.

barrel racing turn (Credit: Becky Schainost)

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To the untrained eye, barrel racing and pole bending might look pretty easy. You just go out there and have your horse run around the obstacles as fast as he can, right?

Well, not really.

As seasoned exhibitors know, a good barrel or pole run is based on more than just bursts of speed. It’s a combination of speed and control.

AQHA world champion barrel and pole trainer Brad Wagner of West Harrison, Indiana, outlines five fundamental exercises for barrel racing and pole bending horses that are actually based on dressage principles. These exercises help establish and maintain control.

1. Establish Collection

In any event that you compete in, it’s important to be able to softly gather your reins and develop a light, collected feel of the horse’s mouth. Your ultimate goal is to elicit a response from your horse with the very lightest touch – almost like power steering.

When your horse breaks at the poll, he can better engage his hindquarters underneath himself, giving you more control through the turn, even as your horse speeds up.

2. Backing

Backing is an exercise that teaches your horse to get his hindquarters up under himself. I like to see a horse willing to back up as fast or slow as I ask. To back up correctly, he should lightly give to the bit then step backward for as many steps as you ask him to. Your horse should not throw his head up in the air or set his jaw; the motion should be smooth and fluid.

3. Arcing the Body

To best bend around a barrel or pole, your horse should be able to arc his body at the walk, trot, lope or run. To teach your horse to arc, ask him to give his head and neck, then start walking in a circle with his body arced to the inside. The arc should be very slight and should be felt in the horse’s rib cage.

While walking in a circle to the left, pick up your left rein and pull gently until your horse tips his head to the inside, then use your left (inside) foot to push into his ribcage to help maintain the arc. Apply as little pressure as possible with the `inside rein and leg in order to keep the body arced. As soon as he gives his head to the inside, release the majority of the pressure, but still hold.

When you master the movement at the walk and in each direction, you can advance to the trot and later the lope.

4. Moving Straight

Although teaching your horse to arc his body is important, it’s also necessary for him to know how to move in straight lines. This is a fairly simple idea, but it’s amazing how many horses don’t know how to travel straight, mostly because we spend so much time working them in circles. When you ride, focus on an object across the field or on the horizon, then ride your horse straight to it – no turning, no wiggling.

The old law of physics rings true in barrels and poles: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Teach your horse to bend well but also teach him to travel in straight lines between barrels; it will shave tenths of seconds off your time.

5. Sidepassing

Sidepassing is one more step to add to your arsenal of exercises. Sidepassing come in handy when you need your horse to move laterally, say from left to right, but with his body remaining in a straight line.

For example, you’ve just made a tight turn around the first barrel and you’re on your way to the second barrel. But, unfortunately, your horse seems to be dropping his body a little too much to the left, and it looks like you might be cutting into the second barrel – and you might hit the barrel if you’re not careful.

What to do? Move him laterally to the right. Like all suppling exercises, you should teach your horse to move laterally at the walk, then progress to the trot and lope. To move from left to right, pick up your left rein and move your horse from left to right as you push the horse’s ribcage with your left leg. He should move away from the pressure of your left leg and move laterally to the right. His body should remain perfectly straight from head to tail.

By reversing these cues, you can move him from right to left. For example, press with your right leg and pick up the right rein to move the horse from right to left.

When you first start to train your horse to sidepass, reward him even if he only moves slightly from one side to the other.

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