This is the barrel pattern that every single horse that I ride, learns. It's a tiny pattern. The barrels are only set 45 feet apart. So you won't be running this pattern at any time, but it is a pattern that I use for every phase of my barrel horse's life. From green broke colts to re-training burned out runaways.
The nice thing about it is that no arena is needed and you don't have to worry about good ground-a level, grassy area works fine. Three barrels and 10 tires or large cones and you have a pattern that gives both you and your horse the visual aids to to help put you in the same spot time after time while practicing.
Setting up the pattern-place your barrels 45 feet apart. Forty-five from 1st to 2nd and forty-five from 1st to 3rd and forty-five from 2nd to 3rd. At the top of the pocket, measure 8' away from the barrel and place a tire or cone(The edge, so you have the full 8' in the pocket). At the back of the barrel, measure 6' and place a tire or cone. At the exit, measure 4' and place a tire or cone. You have effectively created a tiny(and yes, it does look tiny) path around the barrel for your horse to follow. At the starting point you can place another tire or cone if you want to give yourself and the horse another visual reference for where to head after you come out of 3rd. I line it up with 3rd and it can be another 45' away from 1st and 2nd if you want or farther, that one is really your choice.
How it works-this is a trot/walk or a lope/trot pattern. The green zigzag lines before the barrels represent your "rate" spot(this spot is adjustable, depending on your horse-some horses need to rate farther back from the barrel, some closer, but I start everything with a rate spot of just before the pocket and adjust as they progress).
To start, trot your horse in a straight line to the rate spot. For this pattern, I do like my horses to travel with their bodies straight-I practice riding square in the saddle too. This is ideal to help both you and your horse to learn to keep both of your shoulders up(something I have to continually reinforce in myself). Visually, you will want to look directly at YOUR POCKET, not the barrel.
At the rate spot-stop. You will want a nice, square stop, with the horse rocking back on his hindquarters. If your horse does not stop nice and square-either doesn't want to stop smoothly or shifts his hindquarters, immediately back him a few lengths and ride forward again and stop again. Continue to do that and adjust your hands or legs to accomplish a nice, square stop. Once you have that straight stop with the horse rocking back on his hindquarters, relax for a minute. Give a few pets and give your horse a second to digest what you just asked of him.
Around the barrel-when you are ready to proceed from the stop to going around the barrel. Lift your hands and position your legs so that when you ask your horse to move forward, they move their bodies forward, without stepping sideways or away from the barrel. The only bend you want to feel is in the ribcage. Only slightly bend your horse's face-just so you can see his eye. Squeeze him forward and let him find his way around the barrel. The goal is to feel him bend around the barrel in a uniform manner. Meaning his body should be in a nice arc from head to shoulders to tail. You do not want the head and neck bent more than the rest of the body. You do not want the shoulder's drifting outside the bend and you do not want the hindquarters flipping out. At first you may find that your horse has a hard time maintaining this continuous bend and will have to make constant adjustments to help them. The end result will be a horse that bends softly around the barrel, reaches with his front feet and drives up underneath himself with his inside hind leg. Remember to look between the horse's ears as you bend around the barrel, not AT the barrel and NOT at the next barrel(yet).
Coming out of the barrel-hold the horse's body position until his hip is past the last cone. That little extra will help him learn to come out of the barrel in a straight line when you start running. This will put him in a direct line to head to second-at the same time, this is when you will want to look at second with your eyes.
Trot to second and repeat.
Second is different than 1st and 3rd in a couple of respects. Completing the turn on second takes an extra stride when running. A lot of times when you see barrel racers "bow out" coming out of second. It is because they and their horses are not holding the turn for that one extra stride. This pattern helps both horse and rider learn to hold the turning position until they have completed the turn. If you or your horse have problems holding the position, you can add another cone about 5 feet away from the barrel to help you and the horse have another visual reference point-the spot is not exact, just wherever you feel you need another point of reference. The other difference is that horses typically have more bend when turning the 2nd barrel. Be sure to practice lifting with the inside rein to keep the shoulder up all the way around the turn.
Third barrel-repeat the entire exercise. Coming straight out of second will eliminate one of the major problems you see at third-the loop. When a horse comes wide out of second and cannot get back into position before they get to 3rd-usually what you see is them looping around 3rd, not turning it. Either they go wide all the way around the turn or the horse tries to get back into his pocket and can hit 3rd. It is very important to get to 3rd in a straight line and it is also very important to teach both yourself and your horse to complete the turn on the 3rd barrel. A lot of times when 3rd is inadvertently tipped is because the rider asks the horse to leave before he has completed the turn. Both horse and rider get to thinking about the run home and forget to finish the pattern. Practicing completing the turn at these slow paces helps to condition both of you to finish the turn.
I may practice this pattern only 5 times or I may trot around it 20 times...it depends on your horse. A lazy horse, who is stopping and bending nicely may only have to practice it 5 times. A hot or fractious horse-I'll keep going until they calm down and focus, whether that is 10 times or 100. The whole point is calm and focused. A green colt-5 to 10 times. Again, it is all about being calm and focused and feeling like the horse is "with" you. Once a problematic or green horse does a nice pattern, I will do ONE more time, just to make sure they are tuned in and it wasn't an accident they made it around the pattern nicely, and then I quit for that session. You can practice this pattern every single time you ride, irregardless of what else you are training a horse on that day.
You can bore a horse with this pattern, but you will never "blow" them up. It is all about teaching the horse to go to the same exact spot, collect himself in preparation for the turn, how to move his feet around the turn and leaving correctly...over and over again. I use it as a warm-up and a cool-down, sometimes both. I can jump on a horse bareback with a halter and practice it. It's excellent for green colts, as it teaches them to travel in a straight line, stop straight and correctly and bend. It's good for fixing horses who have trouble too. For horses who start to have the bad habit of not collecting for the rate correctly or flipping their hindquarters out-the stop and back reinforces the habit of correct collections and helps to strengthen their loins and stifles. Flipped out barrel horses learn to focus on the parts of the pattern, not the run. For horses who are too wide or lack consistency turning the barrel, it helps them memorize the exact path they need to be following.
Any level of rider can do it. The slow, consistency helps new barrel racers learn and practice correct body position and how to position their horses. And experienced barrel racers can catch and stop themselves from continuing bad habits(dropped shoulders, where you look or pulling the horse out of position).
I would say a good 80% of my "barrel racing" training is done on this pattern. Slow and consistent patterning makes for sound-bodied and sound-minded horses that last for many years.
***Adventures Of A Horse Crazed Mind emailed me a practice barrel pattern awhile back...that I just found when I was cleaning out my maxed out mailbox(sorry about that)...sorry if anyone sent mail lately and have been wondering why I never responded. I didn't know either until Chris tried to send me some stuff and it wouldn't go through. It's all fixed now!