Riders: Are you in harmony with your horse?
By Joyce Loomis-Kernek
Barrel racing is a team sport that involves a horse and
rider working together in harmony. Harmony happens when the center of gravity of
the rider is centered over the gravity of the horse at various speeds during
every maneuver. It requires a feel within the hands and seat of the rider to
stay in harmony with the horse. When that feel is not there, the harmony is
One situation where harmony is interrupted is when the horse is going full speed
to the first barrel and the rider has not felt if the horse has prepared himself
to turn the barrel. Often I will see a horse go by the barrel when there was no
help from the rider, or a mixed signal was sent. An example of a mixed signal is
a rider still in the jockey position (see America's Barrel Racer
September/October 1999 issue) going into the turn pulling straight back on the
horse's head. This rider is telling the horse to keep going forward by his body
and telling the horse to prepare to turn with his hands. So, the signal that the
horse receives is GO STOP. It is so important that the body position and the
hand position of the rider are correctly cueing the horse for the maneuver.
Clear, concise and consistent cues will help your horse to become confident and
consistent. Mixed signals and "no body/hand feel" will cause your
horse to become confused and inconsistent.
Seat-of-the-pants "feel" comes from practicing a series of exercises
with your horse and becoming aware of when he is preparing himself for the turn,
and when he is not. Remember that each maneuver is a series of basic exercises
that prepare the horse for the success of that maneuver. To prepare a horse to
go from a full-strided run into a turn requires that he elevate the forehand and
increase his hindquarter action. Teaching him this maneuver starts first with
the simple half halt. Half halt means that he slows his rhythm, engages his
hindquarters, yields to the bit, checks momentarily, but does not actually stop.
He prepares himself and re-balances. When riders practices the half-halt, they
become more aware of the feel of the horse gathering from a full stride into a
preparation to turn. You do not want the horse to push out into the bit, but to
yield his head in the half-halt.
Practice this exercise to get the "feel" of a horse preparing, and
rearranging, himself for a turn. Trot a distance posting. Then, sit the trot for
a distance. Thirdly, sit down even deeper, say whoa and gather your horse in to
a stop. Do this two or three times until you feel the horse yielding into the
stop, not from pulling with your hands, but from using your body aids. Now, trot
a distance posting, sit and check the horse instead of stopping him, then go
back into the trot. You should feel him go from a long stride into a shortened
stride and back to the long stride. At the time when he shortened his stride and
yielded to the bit, he did a half-halt. This exercise allows the rider to feel
when the stride is shortened and secondly, shows the rider where his body should
be when the stride is shortened. The rider will begin to feel how important it
is to remain over the center of gravity of the horse when it moves back as the
hind feet of the horse come further under himself. This exercise is the
beginning of understanding and feeling when a horse has re-arranged his hind
legs in preparation for the turn.
When a horse is taught to prepare to turn with only the hands pulling him back,
it causes the head to come up. Often, only the horse's eyes come up and the
stride never shortens.
As you speed up to turn the first barrel, become aware of the stride of your
horse and your balancing over his gravity point. Learn to "feel" by
the seat of your pants what is happening under you. You are creating harmony
between yourself and your horse.