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Working the Pattern Consistently

By Joyce Loomis Kernek

We parted in our last issue stating that a horse will never reach his potential if he does not solidly understand each of the steps up to the competition level. It can also be said that a horse will never reach consistency in his performance without this understanding.

Young, green horses will sometimes come along so fast that you will think they are naturals, or understanding everything. Then they are taken faster. Many times, they are speeded up beyond their understanding, but will perform successfully for a time and even win. You may never know what step was skipped in your program until the horse begins to blow that step. We are seeing this more and more in horses reaching 5-6 years of age that were campaigned as futurity horses in their fourth year.

When a barrel horse is sent to me for training or comes to me for lessons, the first thing I do is go back to basic steps to see what is missing, misunderstood or undone. It is much easier to get the steps solid before the horse has made lots of competitive runs. I say this because a horse is easier to teach and correct in a slow stage than he is once he has learned to do something wrong going fast.

To troubleshoot on the barrels, sometimes we have to analyze the problem until we identify exactly what is costing us time. The second step is then re-doing or correcting that step. If the problem is coming from a missing step, we must teach that step. If it is coming from a step that is misunderstood at speed, then we teach that step at speed. (Sometimes your horse may understand a step at one speed, but not at the next level.) If it is coming from a step that is undone, we have to re-do that step.

We can talk for a long time about the possibilities I just mentioned. They can involve health problems, (teeth, soreness, etc.), tack problems, rider problems or any number of other possibilities. The focus of this article, however, is to point out some signs that your horse gives to say that he is ready to speed up.

 When you are working your horse at home and taking him through the pattern consistently, here are some of the signs that you can look for when approaching the first barrel.

1. Look at his ears. Are they working or pinning back, telling you that he is interested in the barrel in front of him?

2. Is your horse gathering? When you go to the spot where you have taught him to gather, there will come a time when he will gather for you on his own. This is a sign that he has thoroughly understood that he must gather to turn. I never speed a horse up until he has begun gathering on his own and I always go back a step when I see them run by their gathering spot.

3. Is your horse positioning his shoulder correctly? When training is consistent, he will begin to position his shoulder from the straight (coming to the barrel) to the round (turning the barrel). When the horse begins to position his body and hold it around the turn without throwing his head in and out, or up and down, he is getting the correct position down. A key sign to look for is when he will get his shoulder out of the way at the barrel and hold it out of the way until he completes his turn. If he does not understand that, you will always be adjusting the shoulder in your turns when you speed him up. He will become shifty shouldered and you will have a hard time being consistent in your performance.

If your horse is not interested, not looking for the first barrel, or if he is running through his gather, or shouldering coming into his turn (or in the turn,) you can sometimes trace these problems back to your basic training. I find an interesting thing at clinics and lessons. Ninety-nine percent of the horses I see are doing exactly what the rider is asking. Put that same rider on some other horses, and they will be doing the same thing. The sad thing is that sometimes the horse gets punished for doing exactly what the rider has asked.

When having problems in your run, it is so important to troubleshoot and then be honest with yourself about what is causing the problem. Make sure that you have not speeded up your horse before he was ready.  


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Copyright 2004 - 2011 Joyce Loomis-Kernek
Last modified: January 05, 2014
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