It’s well established that barrel racing is a timed event. With the step up in breeding, equipment, and the ability we have to network with each other almost instantly to source information or new contacts, the game just keeps getting tougher. So you have your go to bloodlines, your favourite clinicians, that magic bit and your new saddle that is going to free that sucker’s shoulders up that much more. That’s great. But before we even get there, I think understanding anatomically what’s happening in our horses’ bodies as we strive to get the maximum amount of speed and agility from them puts us miles ahead when it comes time to problem solve or step them up to speed.
Personally, I am a fan of European dressage and find their understanding of how our bodies can affect our horses’, even with smallest weight differences to be fascinating. I recommend the book When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics by Beth Baumert. It’s a great, uncomplicated read and she does an outstanding job of breaking down the mechanics. This post I derived from a part of her book as it is easy to understand and apply more than just in theory to our barrel horses.
Reach is what gives a horse their forwardness. Horses reach with their hind and front legs, and they reach with their neck for the bit. With his hind legs, the horse should ideally reach forward and downward, stepping to a point directly under his centre of gravity. This helps him carry you and himself at his greatest ease. When the horse can bend equally left and right, he’s supple and straight. Remember though, horses are born challenged in the straightness department. Your goal is to straighten him out so that each hind leg carries an equal amount of weight and sends an equal amount of energy straight through the body. That sounds easy, but the plot thickens for two reasons:
-The horse’s hips are wider than his shoulders. As a result of these wide hips when left to his own devices, the horse will go down the track with his haunches “in”, and his shoulders “out”.
-Horses are one sided like people. The one sided horse is physically crooked, which prevents the energy from flowing equally from the hind legs to the bit. Most horses have a left that carries more weight than than the right. The right hind leg tends to step slightly to the right instead of narrowing to step underneath his weight – the place where your spines meet. As a result, the thrust of that right hind foot sends the horse’s left shoulder out, causing him to lean on the left rein and take too little contact with the right rein. (Sound familiar to anyone who deals with a shouldering issue?). Some horses are one sided in the other direction, but either way, a crooked horse cant step straight forward from the back to the bit longitudinally without guidance from the rider.
The problem is solved when the hind leg that is thrusting in the wrong direction can be narrowed to step under the centre of gravity and bear weight. The rider narrows the inside hind leg (with her inside leg) so it steps in the track between the two front feet, and the outside hind aligns with and steps in the same track as the outside fore. The primary diagonal aids are inside leg to outside rein. The opposite diagonal aids are active only when needed: the inside rein asks for a little inside flexion and the guarding outside leg prevents the outside hind from going out. When the bridge of muscle is strengthened equally to the left and the right, it is straight and strong. That’s the ideal situation for developing true collection.
-Some riders ask the horse to go sideways, remember this is a strengthening exercise without lateral tendencies.
-Some riders (barrel racers are the worst offenders!!) “bend” the horse’s neck. There should be slight “flexion to the inside” at the poll so the horse is “bendable”, but the neck should almost be straight.
The horse’s roundness is a result of the reach of his hindquarters combined with his reach in front. If you visualize the front of your horse’s spine (his neck) reaching forward and downward, and the tail end of his spine also reaching forward and downward, it’s easy to see how and why the middle of his spine comes up. It’s also easy to see that the front legs can reach more freely when the torso and back are up. In this round shape, the horse builds a “bridge” of muscle that carries him and relieves his hind legs of unreasonable strain.
His ability to carry you and himself this way is going to save both of your lives if and when you hit bad ground, send him into a barrel at an awkward angle, when he drives up under himself to power out of a turn, and when you’re trying to hit his maximum amount of speed around a barrel.
I would also like to point out that relieving your horse of the strain of making hard runs by having an understanding of this creates longevity in his barrel racing career, less prone to injuries and soreness, which in turns keeps him happy and wanting to do his job!
Happy can chasing.