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By Craig Brooks

   Over the years I have tried a lot of different ways to train barrel horses. One thing I see people doing at a lot of barrel races and some clinics I have put on, is shaping a horse the entire approach to a barrel. I tell people that, to me, that only gives a horse a crutch to lean on. What I have found is it is easy to shape a horse the whole approach at a trot or slow lope, but as you add speed it becomes more difficult for a horse to run with his face shaped up the whole way. I feel if you shape a horse the entire approach to any barrel, by the time you near the barrel the horse is trying to flatten out and start their turn. Also when you shape the whole way to the barrel and around it as well, then there is no different feel to the horse so they basically pick when they want to turn. What happens when you’re trying to shape the horse in the approach, the horse has turn on his mind and then it becomes a tug of war match to hold the horse up shaped. So when you do quit shaping (or pull out the clutch) the horse drops into the turn instead of staying upright, honest and waiting for the cue to turn.

     The method I prefer is to approach all three barrels straight to the pocket with my horse square between my reins. By square between my reins I mean that the horse’s head, neck, shoulders and hip are all up under themselves and not drifting or leaning in any direction. Once I get my horse to the pocket, on the first barrel it’s where your path coming and leaving intersect, and on second and third it’s once their shoulders meet the barrel. Then I will pick my horse up and start to shape.

     When you shape a horse the whole way to a barrel, they start to decide where to start to turn so it ends up a battle of holding them off the barrel. For me I would rather hold my horse in straight, going into a turn and have them anticipate the shape I have put in around the barrel, to where they almost would rather move away from the barrel to give them the room to shape. My cue for a horse to turn is once I get to my pocket, I will shape them just a touch with my inside rein and to start their turn. If I would have shaped the whole way I basically “cried wolf” to where there isn’t a different feel or cue to turn, so they take it upon themselves to turn.

“Every time you get on a horse, you are teaching him something whether you mean to or not. So try to make sure it is what you want the horse to know.”

     Now there will be times where you will need to shape a horse in an approach. If a horse wants to be flat or drop their shoulder long before the pocket, I will shape or pick the horse up. Once I get the horse stood back up I will then throw them back away, to basically say “hold yourself up, I’m not going to do it,” or you will develop that crutch that they will rely on. Once that crutch is developed it is very difficult to take it away, because they will start leaning further and further back from a barrel.

     For me training is nothing more than thinking ahead of what a horse may do, and a lot of times doing the opposite of what they want to do. Every time you get on a horse, you are teaching him something whether you mean to or not. So try to make sure it is what you want the horse to know.

Courtesy Brooks Barrel Horses

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