Barrel-horse training starts with the basics and builds from there.
By Mary Burger with Larri Jo Starkey in The American Quarter Horse Journal | February 28, 2017
Editor’s Note: Mary E. Burger won the 2007 and 2016 world titles at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. She has multiple AQHA world championships on Rare Fred and has won a world championship at least once per decade since the AQHA World Championship Show began in 1974.
Mary Burger wants her horses to know the barrel pattern so well that when she goes into the arena for a money run, she can almost be a passenger. That switch to autopilot doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of training and time. Here’s how Mary does it – every time.
The usual warm-up for my barrel horse is a long trot, to get his legs and body and mind loose as he goes. I don’t have a set amount of time to warm up. When you’ve worked with a horse long enough, you’ll be able to know when he is warm enough.
Some horses need a little more warming up and some need less. It depends on the disposition of the horse. If a horse has a nervous attitude, you’ll want to take that rough edge off with more long trotting.
I like for a horse to ride with a free rein, but that doesn’t work on every horse. I want the horse to save his energy for his run. Sometimes, I’ll trot or lope a single barrel to get the horse giving his head and using his shoulders.
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One warm-up exercise I do is to trot through the poles. It teaches a horse shoulder control and helps you put his body where you want it.
What I want and expect is that when I lift up on one rein, he picks up his shoulder and moves over, tipping his nose. Trotting poles is good for his mind, too, because it’s something different to do while he’s learning barrels.
I follow all these steps at each barrel in training to teach him to be consistent in what he does. It’s natural for a horse to do what he is trained to do at a slow pace. I can do all these steps at a walk. I’m not even wearing spurs.
These steps are what I call the basics, and when you get the basics down, you can go back and correct your problems more easily by going back to the basics.
When I approach the first barrel, I want to start off in line with the third barrel. To help teach my horse to rate, I teach him to stop and then move over, picking up his shoulder and nose. When I come around the barrel, I like to pick up the other rein to help the horse straighten.
Running the barrels is a little bit like playing pool: When you get off a barrel, you set yourself up for the next one.
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When I cross over to the second barrel, I want my horse to keep his hind end underneath him and to keep his shoulder from running into the barrel. To get that across, I’ll put a heel in him and get that hip over and stop where I want him to rate and pick the shoulder up. Keep it up until the horse gets on the back side to set him up for the third barrel.
It’s the same thing at the third barrel. Show him where he needs to rate, pick up the shoulder and straighten him out.
I want the end product to be an automatic barrel run. I want a horse to run freely, rating on his own from his basic training. The idea is to get into and out of a barrel as quickly and fluidly as you can.
For that consistency, I ride my horses every day that I can. I don’t run them, but I go through the basics at a walk or a trot – sometimes a lope – so that when we’re running, they know where they’re supposed to be and where their body is supposed to be.
When I come into an arena to run, I come to win. I know I’ve taught my horse the techniques and the way he should do it, and that’s the way I expect him to do it.
Want to see what a well-trained barrel horse looks like? Watch this video of Mary's daughter-in-law, Pamela "P.J." Burger, riding the 2011 Senior Barrel Racing World Champion, Rockette Ta Fame.