This Months Features....
A Good Look at...The First Barrel
Are You Ready!
Asking Questions
Look Like A Winner!
Take-Along Checklist
Ask Martha
Winners Thoughts
Calendar Notes


     A great first barrel....Martha Josey and Cebe Reed

 A Good Look at...The First Barrel

A lot of people ask me “to what do you attribute your good first barrels?”
My answer is timing. You can have the best horse and be the best rider, but if you’re off in your timing, you’re fighting each other. Work on your timing. Know the feel of your horse. Watch videos of yourself and try to get together with that horse. Spend a lot of time, just riding him, and getting used to him. In the beginning, I start a young horse on the first barrel. I always like to ride two-handed in training, so I can balance my horse to, around and leaving the barrel. By balancing, I mean, I don’t want him to give too much or bend too much, that’s almost as bad as not enough, so I’ll hold him steady by using my outside rein as well as the inside rein.  

I want the horse to move in a straight line to the pocket at the side of the barrel, then I’ll take a little with my inside rein while keeping a little pressure on the outside. When I leave the barrel I’ll adjust the pressure on the reins to make him leave straight. From the beginning, I want to teach the correct approach, position and rate. I will trot to the first barrel, a horse length before, I break down to a walk, dropping my weight into the saddle as I say “Slow”. When I want a horse to rate the barrel I used to say “Whoa”. Now when I say “Whoa” I want the horse to stop. When I want a horse to rate or check I say “Slow”. Another word you could use would be “Ho” and that’s when I start to gather his nose.  

It’s very important to give enough pocket so that the horse will not fade in or away. Even, in the very beginning, I want to keep his body straight, not shouldering in and not bowing away. This makes it less confusing to the horse and easier to train. Later, when he’s jogging and starting to know the pattern, I start loping, then break down to a trot around the barrel. This is where he really starts to get timing. I think the way to prevent a bad first barrel is to never let them have a bad first barrel. Later, I will add more speed, coasting to the first, then loping around. Finally, I will run to the first, then coast around. What we’re doing is instilling in him the knowledge that there is a place he needs to throttle down one notch in order to make a quick, snappy turn. In starting training, I lean forward to go the barrel, then sit down when I want him to set. This is body language and my cue for my horse to turn the barrel. Even in early training, I remember toes up, heels down. That keeps my feet under me and not behind. Another important factor in training, as I am in the back of the barrel, I look up at the next barrel so I can make a quick, snappy turn. So while I’m training the horse, I am also working on myself. It also helps the horse. Some barrel racers have a tendency in early training to drop their shoulder while they are training a horse. This makes the horse drop his shoulder. I want to sit in the middle of the horse. When the turn begins, I let the weight drop in my right hip instead, keeping my shoulders straight. This keeps the horse more balanced. All horses are a little different to train, but I feel the fundamentals are the same. One horse I trained that has a super first barrel was Miss Baby Dude (winner of Oklahoma Maturity that Jeanne Davis later went to the NFR on). When I stated her, she was so laid back and slow and lazy that we actually had a party the first time I got her to lope around the barrels. In trotting and loping, I had to carry a bat and when she got SO SLOW, I would pat her on the rear! She ended up having a lot of natural rate. She didn’t need a lot of check because she had that rate. Instead of slowing her, I would continue pushing, giving her a little more room in her turn to keep the forward motion. Also, she didn’t respond in early training to spurs, so I actually had to teach her how to move freely to and around the first barrel. Another horse I trained was Vandy’s Lot. He had been to the race track and needed a lot of “set” at the first barrel. He knew how to run, bit I had to reach him how to rate! I would lope and trot around, going down one notch in speed until he got his timing perfect. It took a lot of slow work but he ended up having a good first barrel. After I won the Oklahoma Futurity on him, South Dakotan, Sandy Garret, bought him and they won a lot on him. When I start taking a horse from the practice pen into competition, I get to as many places as I can to make exhibition runs on him. With an exhibition run, I don’t feel I have to go for the down, so I can coast through and see how he’s going to do. I’ve seen some great practice horses who couldn’t handle competition. In most cases, they haven’t had proper seasoning. One problem in seasoning a horse is you take them away from home and try to go faster than they are able. That works against you. When the horse starts making mistakes away form home, they are harder to correct. I like to exhibition about ten different timed events at first. Concentrate on barrel racing, or maybe barrel racing and roping. If it is a combination of events, make sure that the second event is the one that emphasizes something besides run! All of these things about starting a horse really have their purpose in preventing a first barrel problem from ever cropping up. Most of the time, when a horse starts having a problem, it shows up on the first barrel turn.  

“My horse never did this before, but last week at a jackpot he just ran past the first barrel and up the fence. What can I do?”

If a horse that has been working right suddenly begins messing up, I might first suspect that he’s hurting somewhere. I’d sure check that out. Maybe he has hurt himself; or maybe the equipment is pinching him somewhere. Another possibility is that the horse was rushed. He was asked to run full out before he was capable and confident. A horse will sometimes work all right for a while, but then the rushing in his training catches up with him. What happens is that there is too much run without control; too much speed without rate. He doesn’t give himself enough room and time to turn. A lot of times, the horse will anticipate the turn; and the rider will not hold him straight to make a pocket. The horse runs in too close to the barrel, boxes the turn, then he might give up on turning and run up the fence. If the horse needs checking; I like to check early enough so the horse is collected and in position to make the turn. If a horse starts running up the fence I would trot/walk around, lope/trot around, stressing the basics. I would make sure I has more control, by switching to a more control type bit or using a little more tie down. I would make sure I had something on him that I could keep him from going past the first barrel. I would coast to the first barrel, stop him, back him up and absolutely not let him go past the barrel. Then I would take him and do it again, coasting him to his pocket, then stopping him. I would do this five or ten times until he was glad to stop and turn. Then I would go ahead when he checked and started to set on his own and run the rest of the pattern. After that I would continue to emphasize the set and rate for this horse, to keep it in his mind.  

“Are some horses spoiled on the first barrel or do they just not know how?”

At our clinics, I have seen some horses that were definitely spoiled. They would start to make the first turn then take their heads away and go up the fence. These horses like this are very spoiled and hard to get out of the habit. Sometimes I think this is caused by the rider reining off (holding the horses head away from the barrel). We don’t ever hold our horse’s heads away from the barrel or turn them away from the barrel. Even if the horse runs past the barrel, I’ll always turn him TOWARDS the barrel when I bring him back, NEVER AWAY.

 “How do you check?”

I like a two-handed check, pulling the same amount with both hands. I usually check a horse about a horse length or so from the barrel (this depends on the horse). Always know where your pocket is and where you have to ride to. Then ride your horse there, check in time for him to have time to collect himself. When you check, say “Slow”, drop your weight. Depending on the horse, I may check him one time, or check, check, check, depending on how much I need. For some horses, checking one time doesn’t get them to rate enough. If I check, check, check, I will say “whoa”, “whoa”, “whoa” and drop my weight. Timing on this is really important. Have someone video you, then check your performance. Are your hands down? Are you sitting down with your horse when you ask him to set? Are your heels down? Are your shoulders straight? Are you riding him into the pocket straight before you let him begin the turn? Remember to be smooth and easy on your horse’s mouth. When you are driving a car and come to a stop, you don’t all at once stomp on the brakes with both feet. What you do is gradually apply the brakes, be as easy as possible to achieve the stop and be sure he’s setting straight.

 “Describe your approach to the first barrel.”

As I start increasing my speed to the first barrel, I am in a forward seat position. I’ve got most of my weight in the stirrups and when I get to my turning point, I drop my weight in the saddle. Also, I drop my outside hand to the saddle horn. I’ve got the horse’s head with my inside hand. When I get to my turning point, I speak to him “Slow”, take hold of my saddle horn, and drop my weight into the saddle. This is when he gathers and starts to turn. It is also where you need to keep your balance and not be leaning. Remember, if you lean going in, it will make the horse move into the barrel as the tries to get under your weight. Sometime he’ll go to the first barrel and you’ll think he’s getting too close, bit if you lean, you’ll only throw him off balance. Many barrel racers run past the first barrel in their competition runs because they are just not thinking. They will angle off the barrel or let the horse die or slow down too much in the turn because they are not ready for that turn as fast speed. Be thinking! RUN TO YOUR POINT, SAY “SLOW”, SIT DOWN IN THE SADDLE AND THEN MAKE THE TURN.

 “My horse sets too quick on the first barrel. What can I do?”

This is a horse that really wants to work. I’d stay up in a forward position; smooch him more; and really drive him up into the pocket. I’d give him more room. I might use a lighter hackamore (light Sleister with a looser curb), or go to a lighter bit, maybe even an O’Ring snaffle, if I have the “whoa” I need and a lot of set. I might carry a bat, so if he starts to set, I can tap him. A horse that sets too much is just harder to ride than one that wants to run past. Don’t set too soon on this horse type of horse. Stay up in the stirrups and over him and ride all the way into the pocket.

These drawing are from Martha's book, Running To Win, and they are a great reference guide for things that go wrong on the first barrel.

First Barrel Problems

Running Past First Barrel
Too wide on first barrel caused by
running too hard too fast.
Wrong lead at barrel
No control
No rate
No inside pull
Horse not being collected
Bad body position
Not using the same cur to check him every time.

If running too hard, rate him down with voice command or check with reins. Go back to slow work and get the horse to giving head bending body. Tighten tie-down strap for more control. Go to more control in your head gear. Use same cue to check horse every time. Go back to basics, mainly whoa.

Running off at First Barrel
Too fast to first barrel
No rate
Not enough inside rein
No control
Confusion (not trained correctly)

Same as above

running too wide to first barrel
Too straight up center too too long


Look at your spot and ride your horse to that point.

First Barrel Approaches


This may happen when you have to run from the left alley. You let your horse run across, get too close in his approach and he can't bend.


Even from a middle alley you sometimes have trouble with the first barrel, as you run straight to the side of it and the horse can't turn at that angle.



This shows running too straight to the side making it hard for the horse to bend, therefore, he will run past the barrel. If you are going to run from a right hand alley, you should give your horse enough room in the barrel approach to make a good turn. If your horse cannot turn from this angle, some arena rules permit you to go into the arena as shown.
This is the Correct Approach!




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