Any fan or competitor of barrel racing knows that speed is critical. They also know that a controlled ride is equally important. The fastest horse that goes wide around the barrels adds precious seconds to the run. The swift horse that comes in too tight and knocks over a barrel receives costly penalties. And the quick mount with sloppy form going around the barrel isn’t running efficiently.
Explains trainer/competitor Mary Burger, “Speed is usually not much of a problem, especially today where horses have speed bred right into them. Top-notch horses need speed and turn. A level or two down, good turns are even more of a primary factor. In fact, you see horses that may not have that much run, but they get into placings because they were smooth.”
Burger knows. She’s a five-time AQHA World Quarter Horse champion in junior and senior barrels and a five-time Quarter Horse Congress winner in barrels and poles. She’s also nabbed numerous Quarter Horse awards for superior barrels, and along the way, she’s grabbed a Futurity and Derby win in barrels at the richest barrel futurity in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and, not incidentally, captured a world title in junior pole bending also at the AQHA World shows.
For Burger, the secret to accomplishing the smoothest, fastest run with a horse begins not with refining fast barrel runs but by starting with the basics — around poles and barrels.
Building the barrel horse
Before beginning barrel training, a horse should know how to pick up leads and lope circles. Burger also makes sure the horse understands that “whoa” and a little check on the rein means the horse should slow down its pace a bit and relax its body in preparation for turns.
Burger starts her barrel horses on poles and barrels at the same time. “I use the pole bending patterns as one of the basics,” she says. “Poles teach them to move over, to sidepass, and things like that. It aids in control of the barrel horse and gives them something else to do.”
Marcia King is an award-winning writer specializing in equine, pet, and veterinary topics.