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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 interrupted.

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. 


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Last modified: January 05, 2014
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