Barrel Racing Drills with Paul Humphrey

Barrel Racing Drills with Paul Humphrey

Based on cow horse training principles, these barrel racing drills create good habits in barrel horses, conditioning both young and old horses.

barrel horse drill by Paul Humphrey (Credit: Kaitlin Anderson)

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By Lindsay Keller

Paul Humphrey knew at an early age that he wanted to train barrel racing horses for a living. But rather than follow typical barrel methods, he bases his foundation on working cow horse principles.

“I rode reining horses for a while, but the working cow horses really amazed me,” Paul says. “They can essentially do a reining pattern at a high rate of speed. They can run, collect up, turn around and take off in the opposite direction – exactly like a good barrel horse needs to do. So I studied under some of the best cow horse trainers in the country to learn how they teach their horses to move that way without having to pull and tug on them, and I applied that knowledge to the barrel pattern.

“I knew if I could teach my barrel horses to move like a working cow horse, they would be able to win – and do so consistently,” he says.

Nearly 20 years in the making, Paul’s “Breaking the Mold” training program includes a series of 10 horsemanship drills that he teaches at the 30 clinics he hosts annually.

Here he’ll introduce us to the first two drills in his series, which establish the basic skills that horses and riders need to maneuver around a barrel correctly.

diagram of Paul Humphrey's Breaking the Mold barrel racing drill

Paul Humphrey’s “Breaking the Mold” program consists of 10 horsemanship drills that teach a horse how to properly move its body around the barrel. This diagram shows how to set up the pattern to complete the drills.

Start With a Clean Slate

According to Paul, the advantage is being able to start with a clean slate – whether you’re working with a colt that has never been schooled on the pattern, or you’ve got an older horse with problems that need to be erased.

“When a colt is started on the pattern using the drills, the horse never learns those common bad habits we see so often at barrel races – dropping the shoulder, running past barrels, stepping in, stepping off, ducking, etc. With the drills, the only thing the horse will know how to do is stand up and move around the barrel correctly. The barrel never becomes a bad place for them,” Paul explains.

Before You Start the Drills

The term “broke” is in the eyes of the beholder, but Paul says before he starts his colts on the drills, he makes sure they can do the following:

Give in the face – The horse should not be pulling against your hands, but neither should he be hiding behind the bit.

Move all parts of his body in response to your cues

Lope collected circles – The inside hind foot should be driving forward beneath the horse’s body. You should have control of both hips and shoulders, so you can prevent dropping in or drifting out of the circles.

Lope diagonals and straight lines on the correct lead

Lope off from a stand-still

Transition from a lope to a trot

“If a colt is truly broke, the initial drills will be easy for him,” Paul says. “He will quickly progress and understand what you are asking of him. If the drills are difficult, you might not be doing them correctly, or the colt might not be ready to start on the pattern yet.”  

Drill 1

In Phase 1 of Paul’s program, the first drill he introduces begins at a collected trot. For this exercise, you’ll stay seated in your saddle, not post like you might if you were working in an extended trot.

“Drill No. 1 teaches the horse how to approach each barrel,” explains Paul. “The big circles allow the horse to maintain forward motion while keeping both of his shoulders up. The transition to a trot teaches the horse to collect, rate and use his body correctly through the turn,” Paul says.

Here’s the sequence:

1. Trot to and around the first barrel (red circle in Figure A). After trotting an even circle around the barrel,

2.Trot to the first pole (blue dot 1 in Figure A). At that point, pick up a lope in the right-hand lead.

3. Lope two big, even circles on the outside of the poles (black circle in Figure A), all the while keeping your horse collected. You want your horse to be driving his inside hind leg underneath his body, which he can only do if you maintain control of his shoulders and hips. His frame should be round and he should be traveling in an upright position, not leaning in or drifting out.

4. When you come to Pole 2 for the second time, transition the horse back down to that collected trot, and trot an even circle around your barrel (red circle in Figure A).

5. Repeat this exercise on barrels 2 and 3, loping your big circles in the left lead.

Paul Humphrey demonstrates barrel racing drill on palomino

The first drill should be easy for a horse with a solid foundation. Paul approaches the barrel at a collected trot with the horse traveling in an upright position and soft in the bridle.

Drill 2

Paul’s second drill teaches his colt to remain upright and in control of its body from nose to tail – even while increasing its approach speed to the barrel.

1. Start the horse at a lope and lope two big circles around the outside of poles 1 and 2 (black circle in Figure A).

2. After you pass Pole 2 for the second time, transition down to a collected trot. Come to the inside of the poles and trot the barrel completely (red circle in Figure A).

3. After trotting a complete circle around the barrel, stop your horse.

4. Ask your horse to move his shoulders over so he is pointed in a diagonal line to Pole 1 at the second barrel.

5. Once your horse is lined up with the pole, ask him to lope off in the left lead.

6. Repeat this exercise at barrels 2 and 3.

“This drill really helps avoid anticipation of the turn,” Paul explains. “It keeps your horse free and moving across the arena with his shoulders up and his inside hind leg up underneath himself as he goes through each turn. It also teaches the horse the correct spot to switch to the left lead. The horse should change leads as he is driving out of the first barrel.”

Drill No. 2 is essentially Drill No. 1, but reversed. Paul says he typically works his colts on the two drills together for two to four weeks before he introduces the other drills in his program.

“Not only do they teach your horse how to correctly move around a barrel, but they also build up the muscles he will need to make that barrel turn when he is ready. The drills are designed to be a workout for the horse that will make him stronger in his hind-end, core and shoulders,” says Paul. 

Paul Humphrey demonstrates barrel racing drill on palomino

Paul takes Flit Ta Be Famous (Dash Ta Fame-Leavem Firewater by Fire Water Flit), through Drill No. 2. When Paul asks for a transition from a lope to a trot, the horse readily collects and rates without pulling against Paul’s hands.

Use the Correct Bit 

Paul starts all of his colts in snaffle bits and then moves them into a draw bit. The gag-type action of the bit, he says, helps him get his young horses moving laterally before he starts teaching them the drills.

“I use split reins,” Paul says. “There are two sides to the horse and I want to be able to effectively communicate to each side.” 

Once the horse learns lateral movement, Paul moves the colt into a working bridle. His choice is a “soft correction” type of bit that he designed with short shanks and a curb strap.

“I want quality bits that address the right pressure points. I work my horses in bridles you would be more likely to see on a cow horse than a barrel horse,” Paul says. “I want the curb strap down on the horse’s chin, not up by his jaw where you see them on so many barrel racing bits. A properly placed curb strap gets a horse soft in the face and yielding to pressure.”

Paul Humphrey's barrel racing bit

Paul Humphrey's barrel racing bit

Paul uses what he defines as a “soft correction” bit to advance his barrel horses. A curb strap positioned at the chin, not higher up on the jaw, encourages the horse to give to pressure.

Be Able to Correctly Do the Drills Before You Run a Pattern

“Whether I am teaching a young horse the pattern or trying to fix an older horse that is struggling, I use 10 different horsemanship drills to teach them how to properly move their bodies around the barrel, not just turn it,” Paul says.

Simple drills create confidence, he notes, and Paul makes sure his horses can correctly complete at least five of his 10 drills before he makes exhibition runs with them.

“An exhibition should be a test to see what the colt needs from you,” Paul says. “Colts will let you know where their struggles and weaknesses are. Then it is your job to come home and use the drills to address those trouble spots. “The drills really empower horses and make barrel racing fun for them, so it doesn’t take much encouragement from me to step them up to the next level. They have the confidence to get faster on their own and still maintain correct turns.”

About the Source: Paul Humphrey

Paul Humphrey of Decatur, Texas is a veteran barrel horse trainer and a 10-time European barrel racing champion. Before turning his focus to barrel horses, Paul rode with reining and cow horse trainers Gerald Cosby, Tom McCutcheon, Todd Richardson and Jack Brainard  and adapted what he learned to create his “Breaking the Mold” program. Paul is known for creating consistent, easy-to-ride horses. His money earners include Born Ta Fame, now owned by professional barrel racer Tiany Schuster and his home-raised-and-trained gelding, PHfirewaterspayday (Firem Jet-JustAnutherDun by JustAnuther Wonder), who is being ridden by Paul’s sister, professional barrel racer Stacey Gates.