You run at a barrel and whip around it, point to the next one and circle the other direction, whip around the third barrel, and hand on for dear life as you fly back where you started - how hard can it be, right? Turns out there is a lot more to barrel racing, and clinician Tracy Maurer did an excellent job laying that foundation! Step 1, tie the horse at the trailer for a quick overview of the sport and running through the pattern on foot!
Apparently there are a whole lot of different organizations/associations that run barrel races and their rules vary slightly. For example, under some rules knocking down a barrel is a time penalty but in others it means you get no time. But there aren't too many ways to get disqualified - going off course; falling; missing your order of go. Some orgs will disqualify you for any backwards motion, like the horse spooking. But for this intro-level clinic we were just focusing on the basics, with a primary focus on good horsemanship.
Tracy explained that usually there isn't much space behind the start timer. Some of the associations allow you to circle behind the timer (though the highest levels don't); we practiced with the circle to help set us up for our first barrel. Especially if you're cantering, to make sure you have the correct lead and to establish your bend. For our practice we started with the barrel on the right side (right lead / circle to right), but the rider can choose either direction. Tracy placed a cone several feet from the barrel, and she said to start we would think about leg yielding just before the cone (to help establish the bend we want to go around the barrel) and halt with the horse's nose on that cone. This is so your horse learns to not rush or get too excited. Then we covered 3 circles, from biggest to smallest the large fast (just to the outside of the cone); half round (mid-way between the cone and barrel); and regular turn (tight around the barrel). Tracy impressed upon us that if we lose the horse's shoulder through any of these turns then we need to either go the next size up, or drop to a slower gait. Even just walking it she reminded us to keep our shoulders even; she said if we walk with a dropped or raised shoulder we will probably ride it that way too! We practiced the entire course around all three barrels and back through the timer line.
Then we got on our horses and started with the circle behind the start line - I tried to do mine in the middle but Tracy corrected me to do it on the right side so I have a short path to the first barrel. Then approaching the cone think a slight leg yield and halt at the cone. Not surprisingly Cupid was good at that part. =) Then we started on our large fast circle, and when Tracy was satisfied our circle was even, with the correct bend and not falling through the shoulders we went to the half round circle, then the regular turn. The regular turn started out really good but got egg-shaped on the other side, I think maybe a bit of a magnetic pull towards the gait! So we worked on fixing that. And then Tracy said as soon as I got a good circle move on, don't keep drilling it because then it will quickly not be fun for the horse.
Some of the technique is a bit different then I'm used to - a slight raise of the inside hand, and moving both hands towards the barrel. But there was also a lot that was familiar, such as using the inside leg effectively - timing the cue before the horse picks up that foot, with enough intensity to get a response then leave the horse alone.
After completing the pattern at a walk, we trotted in, stopped at the cone, trotted the large fast (if you could do it correctly), and walked the half round and regular turn, then trotted off. Tracy said our halts were quite good, of course we've had plenty of practice halting at X in the dressage court! Eventually instead of halting at the cone it was more just a half halt. We didn't get past cantering a large fast, then trotting a half round and walking the regular turn.
Then we did a little work away from the barrels, practicing spiraling in and out at the trot and canter, then at the walk we spiraled in eventually to a turn on haunches - which Cupid and I struggled with a bit as he moves his haunches a bit too much. I told Tracy I will try to work on it in hand and she agreed that is a good approach.
We ended with a few last runs around the course. Cupid was getting a bit tired at this point so we only cantered up to the first barrel and transitioned to the trot at the cone, did the regular turn at the walk, and trotted to the next cone.
At no point during the clinic did Cupid get lit up, which I was super relieved about! The slow and methodical approach really just allowed us to have fun practicing the same things we usually practice (smooth transitions, responsiveness to rein and legs, proper bend without losing the shoulder, balance, etc) just in a different way. I don't aspire to actually barrel race because speed isn't really my thing, but it was super fun learning more about it!