Barrel Horse Training Exercises: Nellie Miller’s Perfect Circle Drill

Barrel Horse Training Exercises: Nellie Miller’s Perfect Circle Drill

This one simple barrel racing exercise from world champion Nellie Miller and her father, Sam Williams, will help your horse develop tight turns and perfect your run.

Nellie Williams Miller and Rafter W Minnie Reba (

text size

The American Quarter Horse Journal

By Annie Lambert

Multiple National Finals Rodeo-finalist barrel racer Nellie Williams-Miller is well known for her partner Rafter W Minnie Reba (KS Cash N Fame-Espuela Roan by Blue Light Ike), aka “Sister,” who earned the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world championship, Wrangler National Finals Rodeo aggregate championship and AQHA-Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Barrel Racing Horse of the Year title, among other accomplishments.

Nellie Miller's horse Sister pedigree: Rafter W Minnie Reba is sired by KS Cash N Fame, a son of Dash Ta Fame, and out of Espuela Roan, who was sired by Blue Light Ike (Credit: AQHA database)

Nellie and her father, Sam Williams, believe a perfect barrel racing run starts with the ability to perform a perfect circle, starting at a walk before moving up to a trot and lope. The perfect circle is round with the horse soft and correctly arced. 

The idea is that the horse gets to where it can do this barrel horse drill on his own with no help. 

“They get relief when you are able to leave them alone,” Sam says. “Then you get out of the circle and go do something else.” 

barrel racer Nellie Miller rides Sister while her father Sam Williams rides Cowboy, a full brother to Sister (Credit: Annie Lambert)

Nellie Miller works closely with her father, Sam Williams, when training barrel horses. Here, Nellie rides "Sister" while Sam rides "Cowboy" (Rebas Cash), a full brother to Sister. (Credit: Annie Lambert)


Use these additional tips as you perfect the Perfect Circle Drill, a perfect training exercise for beginning barrel racers, starting a barrel horse or drilling finished barrel horses for tight turns.

Nellie Miller’s Perfect Circle Drill

Step 1: Start With Two Hands

“It is pretty basic horsemanship to start out using two hands, just pick up your inside rein and put your inside leg into them a little bit,” explains Sam, Nellie’s father, trainer and coach. “I want them to turn and scoot around those barrels. Eventually I want to be able to ride them with one hand. If they drift out, you pick them up and bring them back in with your leg.”

Sam Williams, father to barrel racer Nellie Miller, drills Cowboy (Rebas Cash) through the perfect circle drill for barrel turns (Credit: Annie Lambert)

Riding two-handed, Sam uses his legs to guide Cowboy closer to or further from the barrel in a perfect circle with a properly framed body.

Step 2: Stay Balanced

When horses are moving independently and properly in a turn around the barrel, Sam explains, the horse has all four feet moving consistently around the barrel, under the body. That a-leg-in-each-corner approach to the turn assures the horse is balanced and in a position to handle nearly any type of ground without slipping and sliding.

“You make the horses responsible for where their feet are; that’s what you try to teach them,” Sam says. “So I get a perfect circle, then I want to be able to ride a horse around the arena at a high lope and put it on a barrel at any point in time and have them turn it correctly. When they can do that they are ready to go to the pattern.”

Nellie Miller rides Sister around a barrel turn in a perfect circle drill

Horses traveling naturally around the barrel have all four feet moving consistently under their body; with a leg-in-each-corner, horses have better stability on bad ground. (Credit: Annie Lambert)

Sam Williams and Cowboy lope a perfect circle around a barrel

Step 3: Keep Forward

Sam cautions against losing forward motion when circling. Losing forward motion allows horses to begin rocking back, turning over their hocks, which is fine for most performance horses, but barrel horses need to keep level with plenty of forward propulsion.

Step 4: Stay Straight

Sam believes barrel horses are more effective with no more than a slight bend in their body. He only wants the horse looking the direction he is traveling just enough for him to see the inside eye. He also likes the nose collected only enough to bring the face perpendicular to the ground.

“When you over bend the horse, they lose their power from the hind end,” Sam says. “When they are too bent, the shoulder pushes to the outside and the rear end gets scattered out, no power. When I let him turn on his own, like I’ve taught him, he stays straighter with his feet underneath, balanced with full power. It just takes a lot of time to teach them to do that on their own.”

Cross-Training Barrel Racing Horses

Williams Ranch horses multitask throughout their lives, as Sam believes they need to work and not dwell on a sole occupation.

“Whether you are branding or roping or working cattle or just riding, the barrel race is just another job they do,” Sam says of his horses. “I log them all, drag a railroad tie, use them for everything, then the barrel racing is just another task they need to learn how to do. It’s a building process.”

Sam and Nellie both rely on quiet works at home to reinforce those basics and they will go back to it should any issues arise on the road.

Perfect Circle Drill for Barrel Horses: Key Takeaways

Nellie uses the circle drill at home to keep Sister fresh, yet sharp. Seldom, if ever, is speed involved. 

“I try to mix it up at home, just at a trot or lope, and keep her honest at every point so whenever I ask her to go into a turn she does it honest and correct,” Nellie says. “I come at that barrel from multiple angles and I’ll go to a different barrel, just moving around the arena. That way, we are not dwelling on the pattern so much. I hardly ever work horses on a pattern; I just make a lot of turns and keep her honest.”

Nellie Miller and Sister trot to a barrel as they work the perfect circle drill for turns (Credit: Annie Lambert)

When working the perfect circle drill, Nellie and Sister approach barrels from any angle at a walk, trot or lope for a good turn. (Credit: Annie Lambert) Shown below, 

Nellie is quick to reward Sister for a perfect circle of the barrel by moving her out of the turn – she avoids overtraining.

Nellie Miller and Sister trot away from the barrel after Sister has completed a perfect circle

Perfect Apparel for Barrel Racers

Wrangler® – the iconic American denim brand – takes great pride in its roots, offering the finest apparel in the western and equine industries since 1947. 

A core belief at Wrangler is to support horsemen and -women and organizations that preserve the western lifestyle for generations to come. That’s why Nellie Miller, the 2017 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing world champion, is a member of Wrangler’s team and why Wrangler has partnered with AQHA for more than 30 years. 

Shop Wrangler at