I grew up riding under a Grand Prix dressage rider/trainer who competed in the Olympic Trials while I was one of her students. I have felt fortunate for the years of experience I had riding under her as I have continued to ride and train in other disciplines. However, in recent years, I started working with young barrel horses and was told by a well-respected local trainer that the fundamentals of dressage and collection have no place in the training of barrel horses. He was very clear on this point – no place at all – and, in fact, he stated dressage fundamentals are counter-productive to the barrel horse, even in warm-up exercises. What is your perspective on this?
Thank you for your question.
I am very much in support of following classical training in the creation of a performance athlete. I utilized the Classical Training Pyramid to first identify that the event of barrel racing requires all of the skills that are at the top of the training scale. I believe that the problems found in the barrel horse are most often related to steps omitted in their personal training scale.
I find the following things to be true. Barrel racing is a sport, not a style of riding. The event requires that a horse be able to run in straight lines, lengthen and shorten his stride fluidly, be supple enough to turn, and strong enough to maintain the body position in a variety of conditions. In order to keep them mentally and physically sound, I believe they need to be worked gymnastically.
The horse needs to be able to be ridden with an elastic, alive contact in the run. I believe that dressage-based education creates the foundation for the horse to respond to almost telepathic requests during the run. This sensitivity is not created by strictly “patterning” a horse.
This is not to say that there are not exceptional horses that have not had this type of training. My goal, however, is to make each horse I ride the best it can be and provide the opportunity for the horse to have an alternate career if his natural speed does not take him to the level I want.
My personal opinion is that a benefit of the gymnastic training for the horse is the creation of a stronger frame and increased flexibility. Many of the saddle fit issues found in barrel horses can be related to an underdeveloped top line.
Regarding the warm-up. It is my thought that a horse needs to have his muscles and tendons warmed up, not unlike any other athlete. I use a variety of dressage exercises to warm my horse up. I like leg yields, shoulder fores and shoulder ins, transitions within a gait and between gaits. I use half turns and reverse. I create specific warm-ups for the individual horses I ride. What I want at the end of the warm up is a horse that is mentally and physically ready to run. I follow the thought that they can’t shorten until they can stretch and lengthen.
My advice to you is to not abandon your training. True, it will take longer to create the horse, but as you know from your experience, the training will create longevity. Even if you are in the futurity business, the attention to the training scale will benefit the horse in the short amount of time these youngsters have to get ready.
Stay true to your beliefs,