As the Hotwalker Turns: So that’s what saddle horns are for

Katy Groesbeck, our in-house award-winning two-star event rider, decides to take her friend’s barrel horse for a spin… and nearly gets spun in the process.

From Katy:

Hello Horse Nation!!

So while Wylie was out getting hitched and riding on the beach and engaging in other such merriments, I decided to make some life changes of my own.  Yup, that’s right, eventing is SO last season–I’ve decided that barrel racing is more of my thing. OK, just kidding… but I AM logging more hours in a barrel saddle than a jump saddle these days.

A friend of mine is a barrel racer, and not long ago she sent me a message detailing her frustration with one of her horses. Now I am not a barrel racer nor do I play one on TV, but she thought that perhaps I, with my dressage background, could help this mare travel better around her first turn. I grew up around my dad’s cowhorses and I’m not a total greenhorn, but I did warn my friend that I don’t know anything in particular about the intricacies of barrel racing.  She said not to worry; the mare’s issue in fact has thing to do with the barrels and everything to do with her rideability at faster speeds.  So for a week I’ve been going back to some basics to make sure there aren’t any holes in her foundation that would cause problems at higher degrees of difficulty, and as it turns out she is a pretty stellar mare. I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve been having stopping, turning, sliding, doing rollbacks and rundowns on this catty little mare.

And even better, some change of scenery from the dressage court has made me really aware of how I use my body when I ride and how it impacts a horse who’s been trained in a different discipline. It’s fascinating to experiment–if you will–with the way a horse goes.  This mare has probably never half-passed in her life before, but because she was trained to willingly yield to pressure from the leg, seat, and hand, she does it happily–simply because I’ve asked her to! And furthermore, should a barrel racer get on my horse and ask him to run a pattern, I’m confident he could do it (maybe not FAST) as long as he was guided through the process a couple times. In an admittedly horse-nerd sort of way, it thrills me to have affirmation that at the foundation of any type of riding and training is this idea that a horse will yield to pressure and respond with their feet and body in a way that balances both the horse’s and rider’s weight and carries them through the path of least resistance (away from the pressure). It doesn’t particularly matter what a horse has been trained to “do” or if you’re asking them do something way out of their realm of experience; if the horse knows to respond to your leg or your seat or your hand, it’s only a matter of how you use all those things to get the desired outcome. I’m not saying all horses are suited to all disciplines or that you could ask a horse to just cross over and perform in a new discipline with any degree of quality, I’m just saying that (dare I say it? oh boy, more emails….) with quality training, there appear to be some universal basics that transcend breed and discipline. I’m so excited just talking and theorizing about it, it’s kind of embarrassing. I was definitely that kid at school who cantered to my classes :/.

But back to Barrel Racing for Dummies: While I was riding with my friend the other night, I asked her to explain to me how her mare SHOULD be turning the barrel, in a perfect world. So she says, “Why don’t you lope Willie [the older, seasoned gelding] through a pattern; you’ll see how it should feel.”  She tells me to lope two-handed to the first turn, go one-handed through the turn, and just let him take me through the pattern.

OK. Sounds simple.


First of all, there was no “loping” to the first turn. Well, maybe there was, but in that case Willie’s idea of a lope is a dead-a$$ run. And you think event horses are fast. (OK, in reality I was probably going a fraction of the pace that you would in a race, but still.)

Then, feeling like a hotshot, I go into the first turn at a breakneck speed and put my hand on the horn. From the far end of the arena: “OTHER HAND!!” Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

Anway, to put a long story short, I nearly peed my pants but Willie certainly knows his job. With a few merry bucks away from the third turn, we at least made it back to the start in once piece. I might bring my Hit-Air vest next time, just in case.

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