Barrel racing 101: Practice drills

Barrel racing, like other equine disciplines, requires proper preparation and practice to succeed.

Barrel racing can be fun, rewarding and exciting for riders and their horses! Running a perfect pattern, with a fast time takes patience, practice, a lot of preparation and skill. According to Michigan State University Extension, laying the foundation for your horse to learn the barrel pattern takes a lot of time and practice. Slow work is an essential key to introducing your horse to the barrel and speed patterns and also maintaining them.  A horse must be willing to perform various maneuvers at various speeds, including slower ones such as the walk or trot. Remember that a “hot” horse is not the best choice for a barrel racing horse; however a mild tempered, willing horse that has natural athletic ability is a good choice.  This article will highlight drills that you can do during practice to help perfect turns, straight lines and cues.

The circle drill
The circle drill is a simple drill to do at home. The supplies that you will need are simply at least six items that the horse can turn around, like tires, barrels or pole bending poles. Six should be the minimum because you can set up at least six items in the shape of a circle, but you can use as many as you have room in your working space for.

In this drill, riders will maneuver their horses in a circle pattern while turning around each barrel. Riders will complete this drill in one direction at a time. For example, if you start with right handed turns, complete this drill to the right in walk and trot, or lope (but only if you are more advanced). Then intentionally stop, remove your horse from the pattern and begin again with left handed turns.

Some tips for success in this drill are to start slow and make perfect circles. Perfect this drill at a walk and trot before it is loped. Keep the small circles nice and round and away from the barrels 2-3 feet. Remember to keep your horse’s shoulders lifted and his hindquarters engaged. This is also a great drill for pleasure horses!

Triangle pattern drill
In this drill, riders will set up the barrel pattern, using three barrels placed as you would if you were working the pattern. Start at the end of the arena and approach and turn your first barrel as you would if you were working the pattern. From the first barrel, instead of going all the way across to second barrel, start looking for your approach to the next first barrel and repeat the first turn. For example, if you turn the right barrel first, you would move on to the third barrel to make another right hand turn and from the third barrel to the second and then back to the first. In this drill once you have turned all three barrels, you do not have to stop. You can continue to work this pattern until the rider is satisfied with the horse’s turns. Begin walking this drill and work your way up to trotting and loping, once horse and rider are both comfortable with the drill. As with all drills, once you have completed it in one direction, remove your horse from the pattern and then begin in the other direction.

This drill in particular focuses on turns and straight lines. It is okay to circle the horse around the barrel until the rider is satisfied with the turn. When leaving one barrel, focus on making a nice, straight line to the next barrel.

Drill tips for success
When you are drilling your horse, if you are unhappy with your turn, repeat the turn at that same barrel and only leave to the next one when you are satisfied with the turn. Remember that the horse learns through release, so by moving on you are saying “good job”. Since horses also learn through repetition, make sure you are teaching your horse good moves you want him to remember. In the next article of the Barrel Racing 101 series, proper use of tie-downs will be discussed.

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